How To Improve Or Own Your Assertiveness Without Being Aggressive

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines assertiveness as “an adaptive style of communication in which individuals express their feelings and needs directly while maintaining respect for others.”

Though assertiveness is often confused with aggression, rudeness, or selfishness, this definition emphasizes that it’s actually a balanced approach to interpersonal interactions that can be healthy and safe for all parties involved.

Read on to learn more about what it means to own your assertiveness, how assertiveness relates to mental health and steps you can take to increase or polish your own skills in this area without it turning into aggressiveness.

Assertiveness can help you communicate your needs

What healthy assertiveness is and is not

There are many misconceptions out there about what assertiveness is and in what situations it’s appropriate. In reality, everyone should feel empowered to practice healthy assertiveness in virtually any setting, because each person has a right to express their needs directly. However, this quality is not always well-received by others. 

For example, as a result of societal conditioning, some judge women who practice assertiveness as being aggressive, bossy, or domineering, even while they praise or reward men for engaging in the same behaviors. Similarly, some judge people of color who practice assertiveness as being angry, demanding, or threatening even while supporting white individuals in speaking up in the same ways or situations. 

Being assertive is about self-respect, self-care, and authenticity. It can be practiced at work or at school, in friendships, family relationships, romantic relationships, and in virtually any other interpersonal setting. Assertiveness can include things like:

  • Expressing your opinion
  • Expressing your feelings
  • Asking for accommodations
  • Setting boundaries
  • Saying no
  • Telling someone that they made you uncomfortable
  • Taking time and space for yourself
  • Respectfully disagreeing

Why assertiveness can be difficult

Societal and cultural factors like those touched on above can make it difficult for some people—especially women and individuals of color—to practice assertiveness or for it to be well-received and respected. There are a number of other factors that may also make speaking up for oneself a challenge, like those listed below.

Low self-esteem

If you have trouble feeling confident in your own opinions or even your own worth, speaking up for yourself can be extra challenging. You might not even be in touch with what you want or need in a given situation if you’re used to believing that others know best, or that your needs or opinions don’t matter. 

A fear of rejection or conflict

Speaking up for what you need is often only half the battle. Enforcing your boundaries is often required as well, which could include restating them often, defending them, or stepping away from a person or situation if crucial ones can’t be met. Many people avoid this process due to fear of social rejection or a tendency to avoid conflict.

Having been raised with an authoritarian style

The way a person was raised can have a significant effect on their comfort level with assertiveness. They may have learned from a young age that voicing their opinions or needs was seen as equivalent to questioning authority, arguing, or showing disrespect, which can make these things even more difficult to do as adults.

Disorders that affect social functioning

Some mental health conditions may also make it difficult to speak up for your needs. For example, social anxiety disorder—“an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others”—can make it virtually impossible to speak up for one’s needs in front of others without the proper treatment and support for the condition. In addition, those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may find mainstream social cues or practices to be illogical or difficult to pick up on, potentially leading them to not understand how to speak up in certain situations, or to do so in ways that others find unusual or abrasive.

Assertiveness and mental health

Practicing assertiveness has been linked to various positive mental health outcomes, and various studies have examined this connection. For example, one conducted in 2021 suggests that a lack of assertiveness is a predictor of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression in college students. Similarly, a study published in 2023 reports that after undergoing just six sessions of assertiveness training, female high school students showed significantly increased scores for both self-esteem and overall mental health

It’s not difficult to imagine the mechanisms by which assertiveness could lead to improved mental health. First, speaking up for yourself can simply help you get your needs met, whether those are related to basic comfort, physical safety, or emotional support. Doing so successfully can also help you build confidence and self-esteem by proving to yourself that you have agency in your own life. It can also increase your problem-solving and decision-making skills as well as your sense of empathy towards others.

Plus, honestly vocalizing what you want and need is a form of authenticity. Doing so can help you get more in touch with who you are, it can help others get to know the real you, and it can empower those around you to speak up for their own needs as well. As a result, you can build relationships with others based on honesty and trust. Finally, assertiveness can help you reduce frustration, stress, and anger that may result from living in situations where your needs are ignored or not otherwise met. 

Simple tips for practicing and owning your assertiveness

Assertiveness can be built and improved like any other skill. If you’re looking for practical tips to help you start advocating for yourself in an honest, respectful way—whether at work, with friends and family, with a partner, or even with strangers you may interact with—the tips below may be useful. 

Start small

Becoming more assertive in your daily life can take practice, so starting in small ways can help you build your skills and confidence. Assertiveness isn’t always an intense conversation about serious threats; it can also be applied in small ways in your daily life. Over time, these smaller practices can help you be better prepared to advocate for yourself when larger issues do arise.

Consider timing

While you should generally feel empowered to speak up for important needs whenever they’re not being met, timing your request appropriately can often increase your chances of success. Calling someone out for a minor offense in the middle of a big meeting, for example, may lead to conflict in the workplace and even consequences for your own career. Instead, taking that person aside for a calm, respectful chat afterward to address the issue together could be more effective and well-received. 

Use confident body language

It can help you both feel and appear more confident in what you’re saying. Examples of confident body language can include avoiding rushed speech, avoiding fidgeting, standing or sitting up straight, making friendly eye contact, and mirroring the other person’s body language.

Keep it simple

As the saying goes, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” While explaining what you need in a bit more detail can help the other person understand what you’re asking for, you don’t necessarily need to defend why you’re asking for it in every situation. Expressing your boundaries in simple, direct terms can help you get your point across without opening your needs up for debate, and it can also help normalize such conversations by showing how easily they can be incorporated into daily interactions.

Don’t fear silence

Sometimes, it can be tempting to take back your assertive words when they’re met with silence, which you may interpret as intimidation or pressure to let go. Getting comfortable with pauses in conversations about needs and boundaries can allow other people to process them in real time and can help you stand your ground.

Assertiveness can help you communicate your needs

Finding the balance: Assertiveness vs. aggressiveness

Another potentially tricky element of learning to be more assertive is striking the right balance. While some people equate assertiveness with aggressiveness, the two have important differences. Aggressiveness is “a tendency toward social dominance, threatening behavior, and hostility”—separate from the direct but respectful style of assertiveness. Making sure you’re engaging with others in a way that’s direct and honest without being unnecessarily harsh or threatening can be important in maintaining relationships and successfully having your voice heard. Tips for being more assertive than aggressive when speaking up can include:

Request rather than demand

Assertiveness isn’t about demanding that things be exactly the way you like them in every single situation. Healthy interpersonal interactions are usually characterized by compromise. That’s why requesting what you need and then considering the other person’s point of view instead of seizing any opportunity to unilaterally make demands can be a more reasonable approach.

Pause before responding

Reacting to someone’s words or actions in anger or defensiveness can make getting your needs met even harder since many people are put off or even frightened by this type of aggression. Pausing and taking a breath before setting a boundary with someone, for example, can give you a bit more emotional control in your delivery.

Try to use “I” statements

This is important especially when disagreeing with others. This tactic can help communicate that you’re speaking up for your own needs rather than attacking the character or behaviors of another person.

Tune in to your body language

Sometimes, the body language you may be unconsciously using can come off as aggressive. Finger-pointing, making intense eye contact, getting too close to someone while speaking, or raising your voice can all make your delivery more threatening than it may need to be.


Role-playing to practice your communication style with a friend or therapist can offer you the chance to get constructive feedback on your delivery. They can let you know if it comes across as angry or demanding so you can workshop other approaches if so.

How therapy can help

Therapy can be a useful resource on your journey toward becoming more assertive in your life. A therapist can help you get to know yourself better so you’re more in touch with what you want and need in a given situation. They can assist you in honing your communication skills and give you a safe place to practice things like setting boundaries. They can also support you in building self-confidence and self-worth to empower you to advocate for yourself.

Some people find the idea of meeting with a therapist in person to work on assertiveness to be too intimidating. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a more comfortable. You can use a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp to get matched with a licensed therapist whom you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging, all from the comfort of home or anywhere else you have an internet connection. Research suggests that online and in-person therapy can offer similar benefits in many cases, so the online format may be worth considering if you’re looking to connect with a supportive mental health care provider.


Assertiveness is the practice of directly, honestly, and respectfully communicating your needs or boundaries to another person. It’s different from aggressiveness, which is doing so in an intense, angry, demanding, or threatening way. Starting small, practicing, and using positive body language can all help you on the journey toward becoming more assertive. Meeting with a supportive therapist may also help.
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