Developing the confidence to stand up for yourself and ask for what you want isn’t always easy. You may experience concerns or feelings of being perceived as rude, aggressive or selfish. However, you may find relief from learning how to assert yourself in a healthy, confident, and respectful way.
Like many social skills, assertiveness can be learned — though it takes practice for most to develop assertive and effective communication skills. Techniques such as confident body language, self-affirmation and making expressive statements can boost your self-confidence and help you become a more assertive person.
In this article, we explore possible reasons behind difficulty asserting yourself, as well as scientifically supported strategies to build this skill.
Assertiveness Versus Aggressiveness
Assertive people and aggressive people are not the same; however, people who have trouble being assertive may worry that by standing up for themselves, they will come off as aggressive or be met with aggressive responses from others. A recent study shows that this is especially true for women, who ask fewer questions in a public setting and often lead with apologies in those scenarios. However, you can be assertive without being aggressive or passive aggressive. Aggressive behavior may mean making hurtful comments or demands, even if they harm or undermine others, while assertive behavior is taking your own thoughts and feelings into consideration when speaking or making decisions in a firm but respectful way. Being assertive means being open about your needs, expressing thoughts you may have, considering your feelings, and making the decisions that are best for you.
Why Can It Feel Difficult To Assert Oneself?
Are you experiencing difficulty when you try to assert yourself? You may not be alone. There are a number of possible reasons why some may experience difficulty when practicing assertive communication, including:
Authoritarian Parenting Techniques
Some people might be raised by authoritarian-style parenting techniques that may not have allowed them to fully explore boundaries or independence. This can inhibit them from learning how to effectively advocate for and act on their needs.
Insecure Attachment In Childhood
Caregivers who are not authoritarian may still be inconsistent with their affection, which can create an “anxious attachment style” in which their children feel a constant need to work for the approval of others. This can influence them to have difficulty asserting themselves if they are concerned about driving others away.
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
It’s possible for some to develop a severe phobia of social interaction, which can be characterized by persistent worries about being rejected, humiliated, or disliked. This can lead to reluctance to assert oneself due to potential worry about criticism or how one may be perceived by others.
Having a positive self-image can be important for assertiveness. For example: If you don’t think highly of yourself, you may not feel that you’re able to express or ask for what you want, or you might feel on some level that you don’t deserve to get it.
Uncertainty About What You Want
Before one can assert their desires, it can be important to define them. Inability or refusal to take this step can lower one’s ability to assert themselves confidently.
Despite the range of possible causes behind a lack of assertiveness, it is possible to build this skill through deliberate practice using strategic techniques. We’ve compiled a list of scientifically supported methods below.
Tips For Assertiveness
#1: Changing Your Body Language
You may not be consciously aware of your nonverbal behaviors when interacting with others, but research suggests that it can change the way you think, feel and speak. You may find that asserting yourself is easier if you adopt an assertive pose.
- Eye contact. Meeting another person’s eyes can communicate confidence, both to them and to yourself.
- Open posture. It may be harder to assert yourself when your posture is closed and constricted. You might want to try spreading your shoulders, raising your chest and straightening your spine.
- Hand gestures. Instead of keeping your hands in your pockets, at your sides or clasped in front of you while you speak, you can use hand and arm movements to lend emphasis to what you’re saying.
- Lean in. Tilting your body away from your conversation partner might reinforce feelings of timidity. Leaning forward, however, can convey confidence.
You can practice these techniques by yourself before trying them out in social situations. It may be helpful to try talking to yourself in a mirror to observe and modify your nonverbal behavior. Many people discover that with enough repetition, using assertive body language becomes second nature.
#2: Rehearsing What You’re Going To Say
Part of what can trip many people up when they try to assert themselves is the fear that they’ll come across as pushy, domineering, angry or whiny. So, when you first start to work on speaking up for yourself, it may be a good idea to plan out your words beforehand. That way, you can craft a statement that you’re sure expresses what you want to say in a polite but firm manner.
You can begin by choosing a situation in which you haven’t effectively made your wishes known. When writing out what you’d like to say to the other people involved, you can revise it as many times as necessary until you’re satisfied that it’s assertive without displaying aggression. Then, you can rehearse it in your head or out loud so that you’re prepared to recite it exactly as you intend it to be said and you won’t lose sight of your intentions.
#3: Using The Terms “I” and “Me”
People who struggle with assertiveness may worry that stating what they want will come across as an attempt to control other people. To break out of this mindset, it may be helpful to think of assertiveness in terms of self-expression and self-advocacy. In other words, you could frame your goal as learning to communicate your own perspective and emotions clearly. You don’t have to try to dominate others — you can simply aim to make sure that your voice is heard. One simple way you can do this is to practice making “I” statements for different situations, as in “I think”, “I feel”, and “I would prefer.” As you’re coming up with your assertive statements, you may consider trying to word them in terms of yourself rather than others.
#4: Practicing Positive Self-Talk
Negative self-talk can reinforce unhelpful ideas of ourselves. You may find that it’s easier to ask for what you want if you change the way you talk to yourself, so you may start by making a point to talk to or about yourself with kindness and respect.
It’s not always easy to do this at first, and simply thinking “I am confident and assertive” may feel phony to you. A stronger approach may be to emphasize your ability to change and grow. For example: When your inner voice says “I’m not good at asserting myself”, you could mentally answer with “...but I’m practicing confidence and getting better at it.” By focusing on the process instead of the result, you can begin to think of your low self-confidence as something that’s under your control instead of a fixed part of your personality.
#5: Starting Small And Building Up
Assertiveness can be much like other types of skills: it can often be a good idea to practice on lesser challenges before building to greater ones. When you’re first practicing self-advocacy, you may not be ready to tackle the situations in your life that cause you the most stress and unhappiness. However, if you start asserting yourself in lower-stakes scenarios, you can gain the confidence to do so in more important ways.
For instance, if you find yourself stuck in a conversation with a chatty stranger, you could practice assertiveness by saying “I’m afraid I have to get going, but it’s been great talking with you!” Or, if you’re in a store with a pushy salesperson, you can state clearly that you’re not interested and resume browsing the shelves. Being firm and taking action may feel easier since you have little emotional investment in these scenarios.
#6: Affirming The Things You Value
Self-affirmation is considered by many to be an evidence-based technique for cultivating a more stable and positive self-image. This could be quite useful if your difficulties with assertiveness are rooted in personal insecurities.
Self-affirmation generally works by reminding you of the qualities that matter most to you about yourself and your life, reinforcing the reasons for viewing yourself as a good and competent person. This can reduce your fear of annoying another person with your assertiveness, as you’re less reliant on their good opinion for your sense of self-worth.
You can start the self-affirmation process by listing the things you value about yourself, and the things that are most important in your life. For example, “I value being loyal to my friends”, “I’m working hard to improve my artwork”, or “It’s important to me to give back to my community.” Once you have the list, you can make a daily habit of writing down ways in which you worked toward the things you value.
#7: Setting Boundaries, Then Sticking To Them
If you are not yet comfortable with assertiveness, you may find it difficult to set or protect certain boundaries. However, setting boundaries can promote a higher quality of life and more personal confidence as you continue to set them. Sticking to boundaries in our most personal relationships can help us to successfully “teach” others how we wish to be treated, potentially making the relationship experience more rewarding.
For example, let’s say your romantic partner consistently makes plans for both of you without consulting you. The next time this happens, you can tell them “I can go to this event, but in the future, I need you to ask me if I’m available first. Otherwise, I can’t guarantee I’ll be free.” Clearly stating this preference can make it feel easier to say “no” the next time they schedule something for you without asking.
#8: Working On Assertiveness With A Therapist
You may want to consider practicing self-confidence with the help of a mental health professional. A trained counselor can offer additional research-tested techniques to help you become a better advocate for yourself, potentially allowing you to practice with and receive honest feedback from another person.
How Can Online Therapy Support Confidence And Assertion Skills?
If you’re nervous about the prospect of seeking out a therapist, you might consider exploring online therapy. Many web-based therapy platforms can offer options such as text chat and voice calls, which may feel less intimidating than face-to-face sessions. You might also feel more comfortable engaging in therapy in the comfort of your own home.
Is Online Therapy Effective?
Clinical research generally supports the idea that online therapy can be effective. For example, a published trial in Internet Interventions showed that internet-based therapy has significantly reduced symptoms of social anxiety disorder in many patients while improving their overall quality of life. It also showed clinical efficacy as the best possible treatment, providing higher outcome measures (55%) than other supportive interventions or therapies.
How do you politely assert yourself?
Politely asserting yourself involves clear communication skills while maintaining mutual respect. Choose your words carefully, maintain eye contact, and use a firm but friendly tone.
What are the common lines when you assert yourself?
Common lines for assertiveness might include “I feel…”, “I would prefer...”, or “I would appreciate it if…”. The key is to state what you want or need clearly and respectfully.
How do you assert yourself in social situations?
In social situations, assertiveness can help you express your own behavior and desires without infringing on others. Maintain open body language, like leaning forward slightly, and be concise in your statements to get what you want.
How do you assert yourself in demanding situations?
In demanding situations, the importance of remaining calm and focused cannot be overstated. A balanced communication style, grounded in mutual respect, can help you navigate challenges without escalating tension.
Why is it important to assert yourself?
Asserting yourself is important for your mental and emotional well-being. It helps you avoid conflict, reduce stress, and prevents others from taking advantage of you.
How can we assert ourselves while also respecting others?
Asserting yourself while respecting others is the sweet spot in communication styles. This involves listening actively, validating the other person’s feelings, and then stating your own needs or opinions.
How do you assert your opinion?
To assert your opinion, use phrases like “In my view,” or “I believe that,” followed by a concise explanation of your viewpoint. This establishes that you are discussing an opinion, which invites a more balanced dialogue.
How can I be assertive without being aggressive?
Being assertive without being aggressive involves a particular communication skill that focuses on your own needs while respecting others. This balance can be achieved through assertiveness training and role-playing exercises.
Why is it so hard to assert myself?
Difficulty in asserting oneself often stems from passive behavior or fear of conflict. Learning new skills in assertiveness can help build confidence and make it easier to express what you need.
How do you deal with assertive behavior?
Dealing with naturally assertive people requires understanding their communication style and adapting accordingly. Mutual respect and a calm demeanor can help in managing interactions with assertive individuals.
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