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Be Assertive, Not Pushy

Updated on June 22, 2015

What is Assertiveness?

Assertiveness is being able to express yourself truthfully while showing a genuine concern for others. It's about having confidence, and ability to speak up for yourself when needed.

Being assertive might give you a sense of control over your life, however, this in and of itself won't guarantee happiness or fair treatment. Nonetheless, by developing this ability you can reduce stress, build your confidence, feelings of self-worth, and improve your decision-making abilities.

When confronted with difficult situations, some respond passively (masochism), others aggressively. Passive people tend to be distrustful of their own thoughts and feelings and often feel inhibited, anxious, and allow others to depreciate their value. Other individuals may respond aggressively to difficult situations.

Aggressive individuals tend to express their rights but often at the expense of others. Therefore, aggressive people may get what they want, but lose the respect of others in the process. Assertiveness should fall in between these two mediums.

Many have found it difficult to develop assertiveness because they believe they lack the skills. Since assertiveness tends to require a sense of safety, individuals who feel they cannot be themselves, may be less likely to act aggressively. Ultimately, being assertive is about creating an open and accepting environment that welcomes a diversity of styles and perspectives.

There are several components that contribute to assertiveness involving not only what is said, but also how one says it. There are ways to express yourself in a way more conducive to being heard.

Express yourself by taking responsibility for what you say rather than blaming or labeling others. It's not necessary to put someone down to express yourself.

Assertiveness Versus Masochism

The opposite of assertiveness is masochism. It means “the tendency to set oneself up to be heard, victimized, exploited, pushed around or taken advantage of.” Masochism is self-defeating behavior a person may indulge in either consciously or unconsciously. It's the tendency to allow oneself to be used or abused by others, whether well intentioned or predatory. Why do so many people fall into this trap?


Many of today's experts were brought up believing to be a good Christian meant having to be passive and submissive. They mistakenly think it's their Christian duty to volunteer or say yes to everything anyone asks them to do without any thought to their own physical or emotional needs.

Another reason people fall into this trap is shame. People with masochistic tendencies have what some experts call “holes in their souls,” emotional deficits caused by abuse of one kind or another. If an individual is making masochistic decisions today, it may be owing at least in part to how they were brought up.

The abuse may not have been as radical as sexual abuse or physical violence; it might have been as subtle as occasional childhood incidences of being shamed, blamed, or being ignored by parents. Whatever the source, the individual emerges into adulthood with what is known as a shame base.

In every person's shame base are pockets of false guilt making them feel unworthy, without significant value. So, they don't feel entitled to enjoy the fundamental good things of life, such as happiness, career satisfaction, a healthy marriage, or the right to say yes or no.

Any traumatic experience can and usually does cause a tremendous sense of shame for these individuals, which leads to feelings of false guilt. In fact, most people who have been abused tend, to some extent or another, blame themselves for getting abused. They actually feel they deserved it.

Shame not only causes them to feel unworthy or incapable of asserting their own worth, needs, and convictions, shame also causes people to crave the acceptance and approval of others. Many allow themselves to be exploited, thinking by doing so they will be liked by those exploiting them. But all too often, the people they are trying to please end up losing respect for them. Thus, their self-esteem drops even lower.

How to Be Assertive

Unfortunately, human beings violate each other's rights in many ways. What do you do with your anger or hurt when one of your rights is violated? You could passively accept the abuse. Or you could aggressively explode and anger. But neither of these is a healthy option. The best option is to be assertive. In other words, you should verbalize your angry feelings.

The following are four keys to assertive communication:

  1. Major on the majors. The first rule of assertiveness is to major on the majors, not the minors. Reserve your emotional energy for issues that really matter. For example, it's trivial for spouses to argue over the color of socks the husband wears, but it's legitimate to address annoying social habits.

  2. Use “I” messages. Verbalize your message gently, respectfully, and tactfully using “I” messages rather than “you” messages. “You will” messages conveyed plane, and blame causes people to react defensively. You can send the same “you” messages as assertive “I” messages.

  3. Be careful of your tone of voice. Being aware of your tone of voice helps create an attitude of mutual respect. If the other person becomes hot, loud, and contentious, your natural tendency will be to match that person in volume. Instead, soften your voice, to bring down the level of confrontation. As you do, the other person is likely to respond and thelevel of the confrontation will likely subside to a manageable level.

  4. Forgive. Recognize you can't control the other person's response. Your assertiveness may not resolve the problem or win the other person over to your point of view.

  5. Forgive the person and move on. Don't nurse a grudge. Let go and get on with your life.

If you don't see improvement, consider going a step further and getting counseling for help and insight into how to conquer these tendencies.

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