What So Many of Us Get Wrong About Assertiveness

Most of us are familiar with the term “assertive.” We have a general idea of what being assertive means. But that doesn’t mean we fully understand it. And, in our society, many myths still abound, which adds another layer of confusion. Which is a problem, because these misconceptions can lead us to stay silent about our needs, stew in our resentment and let others walk all over us.

According to psychotherapist Michele Kerulis, EdD, LCPC, “Assertiveness is when people clearly communicate their positions, wants, and needs in respectful ways to others. This includes standing up for yourself, honoring your values, and being firm about your boundaries.”

Below, you’ll learn the facts behind common misconceptions, along with helpful pointers for being assertive — because it is true that being assertive is not easy.

Myth: Being assertive is the same as being aggressive.

“Being aggressive tends to involve a hostile interaction, usually stemming from a state of defensiveness,” said Kerulis, also a professor of counseling at Counseling@Northwestern. People who are being aggressive “resort to criticism and attacks,” said Rebecca Nichols, a licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in relationship issues throughout the life cycle, including dating, marriage and divorce.

Being assertive is the opposite of that. Being assertive means you have respect for others and their thoughts and opinions, Nichols said.

Kerulis shared this example: You’re walking down the street and accidentally bump into someone. If they start yelling “Hey! Watch where you’re going, you jerk!” that’s an aggressive response. If they calmly say: “You were looking at your phone and bumped into me. Please watch where you are walking. That will be safer for you and everyone around you,” they’re being assertive. That’s because the person acknowledges the issue—you violated their boundary by bumping into them—states the facts and provides a rational solution, Kerulis said.

Myth: Being assertive means you’re difficult.

Nichols works with many young women who have a hard time saying no in their personal relationships because they fear they’ll come across as “difficult.” “So they end up saying yes to things that exhaust them and do not make them happy—which results in feeling overwhelmed and stretched thin in other life areas.”

Many of us worry that by being assertive, we’ll be seen as high-maintenance, demanding, bullheaded or bossy. However, being clear about your needs with others actually makes it easier to maintain a healthy, close relationship, Nichols said. This helps others know where you stand and get to know the real you, including your actual opinions and authentic feelings.

Myth: Being assertive is being rude.  

“People believe that they cannot be assertive because they don’t want to seem rude,” Kerulis said. Instead, many of us assume that the polite response is to agree with others—even when we don’t. We assume that it’s courteous and kind to say yes and stay quiet. However, you can be both these things to others (and to yourself!) by being assertive.

Kerulis shared this example: Whenever you’re working in a team at your job, you always get stuck with the tedious tasks. Instead of saying, “I refuse to do this boring part. Someone else do it,” (which would be rude), you say: “I have done this the last few projects and would enjoy doing something else. Let’s take turns because, honestly, nobody wants this task but it must get done. I would like to provide creativity on the color scheme of the project this time.”

According to Kerulis, “This communicates your concerns, your desire to work on a different task, and your willingness to be a team player.”

Myth: Being assertive is being selfish.

Similarly, people worry that by being assertive, they’ll be seen as self-absorbed. Recently, some of Nichols’s clients have even brought up the word “narcissistic.” (Which actually isn’t a synonym for selfishness; it’s much more complex than that.)

Unfortunately, our society has created this narrative, particularly for women. Assertiveness requires people to advocate for their needs, and in our society, just thinking about our needs supposedly makes us selfish.

“We go out of our way to teach little kids to think about others’ feelings (which we still should),” Nichols said. “But we never really work with them in the same way to make sure they know their own feelings.”

As she clarified, being assertive isn’t about lacking consideration for others’ feelings. Instead, people who are assertive “have a lot of empathy and care about others’ feelings; they just also care about their own. These two things are not mutually exclusive as often portrayed.” People who are assertive also don’t make demands, like selfish people do; they make respectful requests.

For instance, your friend asks you to help her shop for a wedding this weekend, but you’re absolutely exhausted. According to Nichols, you say: “I understand you need my help today and I would really like to be there for you. However, today I need to take care of myself, as I am overwhelmed from my week. I would love to help next weekend instead, would that work for you?” 

Tips for Being Assertive

  • Become self-aware. According to Nichols, the most important strategy is self-awareness. “You cannot communicate clearly with others about your preferences and boundaries until you know what those preferences and boundaries are.” Take the time to pause and reflect on your needs and wants.
  • Be calm. Naturally, people will be more receptive to what you say if you communicate calmly. Try not to get frustrated if someone doesn’t understand you, Kerulis said. 
  • Be selective and considerate. Be thoughtful about the words you say and the tone you use. Again, Kerulis stressed the importance of sharing your opinion, giving a rationale for your opinion and providing a solution.
  • Be clear and specific. For instance, you’re at a party. Someone keeps asking you if you want a cocktail. You don’t drink, and you’ve already said no several times. According to Kerulis, an assertive response would be: “You’ve asked me if I want a drink five times and I said no five times. Please respect my answer and do not ask again.”
  • Practice. Nichols suggested writing down what you’d like to say and rehearsing it. Like any skill, assertiveness improves with lots and lots of practice.  
  • Start small. “Start with low-impact, low-pressure situations to increase comfort,” Nichols said. When someone suggests a meal at dinner that you don’t want, mention what you do want. When someone asks you where you’d like to go for dinner, actually state your preference. It also might be easier to start with strangers and acquaintances, instead of family, friends and colleagues, she said.

Being assertive isn’t being aggressive, difficult, rude or selfish. Being assertive is a powerful way we can support ourselves and strengthen our relationships.

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