Assertiveness Is More Than Learning Skills
© by Mary DuParri, MA, LPC

Many of us who label ourselves as lacking in assertiveness skills, tend to misunderstand what being assertive really means. Often when I bring up the idea of assertiveness, I am reminded how many of us confuse assertiveness with the bossy, demanding, sometimes angry behavior that is actually a hallmark of aggression. If we think such antagonistic behavior defines assertiveness, it is no wonder that so many of us prefer to remain silent. Rather than being perceived as selfish, overbearing or unreasonable, we keep our opinions to ourselves.

Some of us get uneasy if we have to name a schedule conflict. We might not voice our preference for a movie we want to see or a restaurant we want to visit. We fail to tell people when they delight us and we fail to tell them when they have overlooked or offended us. Our relationships, therefore, stay distant or lukewarm and we may feel not only overlooked or offended, but possibly resentful or angry. Although we feel frustrated and misunderstood, we blame ourselves for not being assertive and standing up for what we want. We think we want to be more assertive, but we fear being selfish bullies.

When I begin to discuss what genuine assertiveness looks like, people are sometimes surprised to learn that it is possible to be both quiet and assertive. That a soft-spoken “No, thanks” is as assertive and probably more effective than a screaming rant. They learn that assertive behavior does not require intimidating stances, strong language or angry looks. It simply requires speaking for ourselves and clearly and directly conveying what we feel or need. No bullying is required. No selfishness. Assertiveness is not a skirmish where one person has to win and another loses. We don’t have to overcome the enemy to be assertive; we just have to voice our needs.

Assertiveness, however, is more than learning skills. It is also a mindset. As a skill it involves speaking up for ourselves. It requires clear and direct communication. It teaches us to set limits and to say “No.” It gives us the ability to express both positive and negative feelings. It enhances our relationships as we learn to approach others and initiate conversation. However, just learning the skills won’t make us an assertive person. We have to believe that we are entitled to be assertive. For that, we have to change our mindset. To truly be assertive requires that we see ourselves as equal partners in relationships. We need to believe that we are as important as other people and honor ourselves in the same way as we honor them. We need to recognize that our schedules and our preferences deserve as much consideration as the next person's. Until we can see ourselves as equal and deserving, we are unlikely to implement assertiveness skills.

A final component necessary for changing from non-assertive to assertive behavior is practice. Even when we hold the deserving-and-equal mindset, and even when we have studied the skills, we need to start small to try out our new assertive language. At first, because we are nervous and not used to speaking up, we may speak up too quietly and remain unnoticed. Or, because we need to muster so much courage to speak, we may actually sound blunt and aggressive instead of reasonable and assertive. Practice helps. Sometimes practicing with strangers, "Excuse me, I believe I was next in line," allows us to try out the words, fumble with them if we must, and not worry about facing the person over breakfast in the morning. However, practicing with people we feel safe with helps even more. They can forgive our uneven attempts, bear with us as we try to express ourselves and continue to love and support us as we find our voices. Taking an assertiveness class or consulting a professional can also help us learn new assertive behaviors. A counselor can help us not only with the skills of assertiveness, but also with the self-confidence issues that sometimes keep us from living the life we want.
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