Own Your Assertiveness

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

We often think of "standing our ground" as a negative tactic, and something only mean or overly aggressive people do. Despite this characterization, it can sometimes be beneficial to learn a few tactics to assert yourself—and may, in some instances, even be necessary. Knowing how to assert yourself can give you a psychological edge in situations where others may be trying to control you. Unfortunately, assertiveness does not come easily to everyone; however, you can learn strategies to be more assertive in certain situations, such as through online therapy.

Assertiveness is all about being able to express yourself when dealing with people at work or in your private life. When you are assertive, you are able to be articulate about your desires, your needs, and your opinions and you will not allow yourself to be silenced. Being assertive does not mean being aggressive, nor does it mean being passive; instead, when you are assertive, you are able to express your opinion in a polite and professional (but firm) way. You can be assertive and still respect the opinions of those around you.

Learning About Being Assertive

Although being assertive is a strength, being assertive has a reputation (particularly in the United States) of being pushy, aggressive, or rude—especially when women are the ones exhibiting assertive behavior. Yet there is a way to have poise, self-assurance, and dignity without being rude. Consequently, it can be difficult to learn how to be assertive, or maintain an assertive attitude. After all, who wants to be known as aggressive, bossy, or domineering? Nevertheless, being assertive is an important part of engaging in positive psychology practices, as it allows you to set boundaries, demonstrate self-respect, and prioritize your own mental health and physical needs.

Learn To Own Your Assertiveness

Factors That Might Hold You Back

There are many factors contributing to people not being able to be assertive. These might include some points below:

  • Feeling stress and anxiety when dealing with others. Having a psychological edge often means having a thick skin, or not exerting a great deal of effort trying to get other people to like you. The psychological edge of assertiveness can be difficult to adopt when stress and anxiety influence or outright dominate your interactions with others.
  • Feeling inadequate and having low self-esteem in your heart. Low self-esteem often makes it difficult to set boundaries or express needs, making assertive behavior seem out of reach. Your thoughts and beliefs might be rooted in passivity and the benefits of not having to stick up for yourself. Yet using your voice to express your point of view, a specific belief, and world statements can help you have more balance.
  • Being brought up to believe that offering your opinion was arguing, which was frowned upon. This notion of assertiveness persists today, despite the positive psychology associated with setting personal boundaries and learning to be assertive.
  • Fear of conflict. A fear of conflict often results from an unstable childhood, or unhealthy familial relationships encountered in one’s youth. Assertive behavior can bring about conflict as a natural consequence, as many people do not like to see others assert themselves and express their needs, and can feel too alarming to actually pursue.
  • Fear of damaging relationships. Although a healthy relationship does not balk at appropriate boundaries, unhealthy relationships often have a dramatic and even violent reaction to any attempts at being assertive.
  • Fear of criticism. Parents, peers, teachers, and managers can all look down upon assertive behavior—and these individuals are often the very people we hope to impress. It is easy to avoid assertive behavior out of a fear of experiencing criticism.
  • Fear of rejection. Similarly, a fear of rejection can lead to the absence of assertiveness; after all, what is the point in expressing ourselves, if it makes everyone leave? 
  • Growing up in an environment that reinforced the stereotypical ideal of a woman needing to remain quiet, meek, and subservient. Although there has been enormous amounts of pushback against the stereotype of women needing to be seen and not heard, much like children, there are still many cultures and areas of the United States today in which women are seen as unfeminine if they speak their mind or stand up for themselves. Guys, however, are encouraged to have nerve, self-possession, make requests, set goals, express their views, and not worry about the responses, leading them to be more aplomb or chutzpah. There is even assertiveness training that helps work on communication styles with various exercises and research techniques shown to improve interest in assertiveness, number of times someone speaks up (and reasons), and increase in requests and wishes voiced.

How Can Being Assertive Benefit You?

Some people are naturally assertive, but for the majority, learning to be assertive is a skill that takes practice, just like any other communication skill. Assertiveness can improve your self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-reliance, reduce your stress, and control your anger. If you are too aggressive or too passive when delivering your opinion or message, it will be ignored by others who are too busy reacting to listen. It's not just what you say; it is how you say it that makes you heard. Being assertive can help you:

  • Improve your self-confidence and restore your self-esteem. Expressing your needs, creating boundaries, and reclaiming the rights reserved for carving out your own wants, needs, and desires can help you feel more self-sufficient, strong, and empowered. This can increase your pride, courage, and sense of self.
  • Understand your feelings. People who are unwilling to assert themselves are often unwilling to deeply investigate their own feelings, in part because they feel as though they have to deny themselves for the comfort of others. Learning how to assert yourself often means, as a natural consequence, learning how to investigate and understand your own feelings.
  • Be respected by others. Although you may experience some pushback when you first begin asserting yourself, those who recognize the importance of boundaries and self-respect will grow to respect your ability to recognize your needs, your limits, and your ideas.
  • Avoid conflicts or find solutions for conflicts. If you are too meek to speak up, chances are that you will not be able to find adequate solutions to problems at home or in the workplace. Learning how to speak up can ease a myriad of issues.
  • Deal with internal conflicts, such as feelings of stress, resentment, anger, jealousy, revenge, and victimization. Being assertive is a huge part of communicating effectively, in all areas of your life. Personal relationships, workplace relationships, and even romantic attachments can all benefit from more assertive communication.
  • Recognize and amend convictions that present problems at home or at work. Problems and difficulties cannot be worked through without honest, straightforward communication. Assertiveness helps maintain this type of communication.
  • Improve your communication with others at work, at home, and in social settings. Again, assertiveness improves communication as a whole.
  • Improve your ability to make decisions. Decision-making requires self-confidence and presence of mind, both of which are more thoroughly rooted in assertiveness than in timidity.
  • Create relationships built on honesty and trust. Many relationships mired in meek behavior and an unwillingness to communicate honestly and openly are riddled with resentment, fear, and feelings of inadequacy. Being assertive in your communication and behavior can help set a strong foundation for relationship communication.
  • Be more satisfied with your job or with your home life. Assertiveness is, at its core, a willingness to ask for or demand what you want and need. Although it may not initially feel comfortable or even acceptable, you cannot expect to have the job, life, or relationship you desire if you do not communicate what it is that you truly want.
  • Be more empathetic with others. Far from coming from a place of selfishness and egoism, being assertive, yourself, can help you recognize when others need a helping hand in being assertive, and can help you develop empathy for individuals who do not yet feel safe or comfortable speaking their mind.
  • Aggression can get you the results you want, but it comes at a cost. You lose respect and trust, you make others resent, avoid, or set themselves against you. Remember that assertiveness is not aggressiveness; one is an effective way of communicating openly and honestly, while the other is a way of bullying, commanding, and demeaning others.

Tactics To Change From Passive Or Aggressive To Assertive

Passiveness or passive-aggression may be one way of dealing with others who are aggressive, but over time, this behavior will damage your relationships and you will lose respect. Passive-aggression can also make a person sarcastic, negative, and resentful of others who always seem to get their way. If how you communicate and deal with conflict is not working for you and you feel you need to make some changes, consider the following ideas to change from being passive or aggressive to becoming assertive:

  • Assess your present style of communication. Do you tend to remain silent? Do you say yes when you want to say no? Do you blame others for how you feel? Do you project anger, jealousy, or resentment?
  • Take advantage of online personality assessments to determine your style and personality. Knowing this information about yourself can inform your communication and working styles, and can help you determine what your strengths and weaknesses are.
  • Practice saying no instead of always saying yes. Saying “no” may initially feel rude, but it is actually a way of exercising self-respect. Saying no to something simply means you recognize your own needs, boundaries, and limitations.
  • Try to use "I" when communicating or disagreeing with others. Don't say, "You are wrong", say, "I disagree", or "I would prefer this and not that."
  • Are you demanding? Do you tend to tell others what to do like a sergeant major? If so, try to work out how to communicate your needs and tailor your own behavior, rather than trying to make demands of others, or insist on having your own way.
  • Be willing to listen before you make decisions. Listening is far from passive. Active listening means actually sitting still and paying attention when someone speaks, instead of merely trying to formulate a response, or practice a rebuttal. Listen to others before you create a response or carry out a decision.
  • Do a rehearsal of what you want to say. Practice a script. Have a friend listen and give you honest feedback. Were you too loud? Were you not loud enough? Did you appear shy and unsure of yourself when talking?
  • Keep your emotions on an even keel. Don't respond in anger. This can be extremely difficult, and one of the simplest but most effective ways to avoid reactionary behavior is to take time to breathe. Taking five, ten, or fifteen seconds to breathe deeply before you respond to someone can take much of the initial sting out of hurt, anger, or unkindness.
  • Check your body language. Do you make eye contact with the person to whom you are speaking? Do you act like you don't know what to do with your hands? What expression do you have on your face and are your emotions hard to read?
  • Don't put yourself in a position to explain yourself if you are emotional. “I feel upset right now, and need some time to work through this” is a perfectly legitimate request.
  • Do you hide your true feelings and say nothing, or agree with everyone else's ideas? If so, slowly practice asserting yourself more. Speak up at a family event, or say you want to decide where the office should order take-out that day.

Still not sure how to work assertive behavior into your daily life? That’s okay! Learning a new skill takes time and a great deal of practice. The tips below can offer additional insight into how to become more assertive.

Be Confident

When someone is trying to manipulate you or take advantage of you, stay firm and confident. It's important to stand your ground, even if you feel anxious because of their behavior. Demonstrate that you know exactly what you want, and you know how events are going to unfold. Visualize the optimal outcome of the situation you want. You may not be an authority figure over the person you are dealing with, but you are the authority on you, and you can exude your confidence in your ability to make your own decisions. You are able to use your physical presence to look more confident with these strategies:

  • Adopt a relaxed pose by leaning back, taking up space, or putting your hands behind your head.
  • Talk and move slowly, showing that you are not rushed or bothered.
  • Stay still. Fidgeting or moving around a lot shows that your muscles are tense and you are nervous.

Be Kind

Being kind to people you want something from may seem counterintuitive, but actually, it's one of the most effective ways to maintain control. Exhibiting kindness while being assertive is not the same as being a doormat or being passive. It is also not about letting others have their way. When you continue to speak pleasantly to someone, despite what they are saying, you are showing them that you are unaffected by their threats and are able to hold your ground. Think about it: someone who is screaming uncontrollably may be intimidating, but it's more likely that they are acting this way because they feel they have lost control of the situation.

Become Friends With Silence

Learn To Own Your Assertiveness

A silent and steady gaze can be quite enlightening. It communicates to the other person that you are paying attention to them and hearing exactly what they are saying, yet you aren't being reactive. Many people are uncomfortable with silence, and if you are staying quiet, they will feel the need to fill the void. This can put you at an advantage, as they may start to lose their focus and say more than they intended. The key to maintaining silence and not giving into peer pressure or manipulation is to make eye contact rather than look like you're silent because you're giving up. You don't have to stare at them constantly or try to stare them down—that would be an aggressive stance to take—instead just stand your ground and don't cower in the face of their anger or aggression.

Help Is There With Online Therapy

Learning to be assertive doesn't happen overnight. It takes time, energy, and practice. Remember: it likely took years for you to develop your personality and making changes won't happen all at once. Take little steps and be happy with your accomplishments, even if they are small. Ignore anyone who ridicules you or tries to silence you. Be brave.

You may have trouble learning to assert yourself in situations where it's necessary. There's good news for you: a professional online counselor can help you gain confidence and avoid being manipulated by others.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

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