Have you ever experienced this? Someone is entering a room, and everyone else goes quiet. The person doesn't even have to say anything. It is by how they carry themselves that they command respect. They seem to be moving effortlessly across the room. For a moment, time stands still, and it appears as if they are owning the space. This is the aspirational image I hold of calm assertiveness. It is something all of us can achieve. It does not require raising our voice or blowing ourselves up, metaphorically or even physically speaking, in the hope of being noticed. It is us noticing and valuing ourselves and being present to our very own experience, that makes the difference.
It is an image that I particularly like to share with my more introverted clients who may shudder at the thought of entering a room full of strangers. What could be worse than literally standing in the limelight? It is often these more introverted clients who may suffer from social anxiety and who prefer being seen for their work rather than their physical appearance. And yet, introverted or not, being able to assert ourselves is important. In this blog post, I write about what being assertive actually means and why it may be worth developing our assertiveness for the benefit of ourselves and our relationships. In a subsequent post, I will share some practical ideas on how to go about becoming more assertive whilst remaining true to ourselves.
Let's start by thinking about the meaning of assertiveness. Being assertive means being able to express and act on one's rights as a person while respecting the same rights in others. Different lists of assertive rights have been put forward, including the right to express one's thoughts and feelings; the right to say no; to be successful; to make mistakes; to change one's mind; to ask for what one wants; or to decide whether or not to be responsible for someone else's problems.
Assertiveness also includes the right to choose not to assert oneself. So if I am choosing not to assert myself, what other options do I have? This is a useful question to ask. Sometimes it is easier to grasp a concept by distinguishing it from what it is not. Being assertive can be understood as one of four behavioral styles, with the other three being passive, aggressive and manipulative. Let's briefly look at each of these in turn.
Being passive is often seen as the direct opposite of being assertive. When we are talking about passive behavior, it is all about choosing not to act. It may mean going with the flow rather than challenging someone else's point of view, even if we strongly object to it. However, it could also mean being harmed or disrespected by others without pushing back. One popular stereotypical image is that of a doormat that others step on or walk right over.
When we talk about aggressive behavior, it does not only relate to physical violence. Aggression is about intentionally hurting and dominating another person. It can also be expressed verbally in the form of shouting, threatening or blaming or relationally by deliberately harming someone's social relationships, for example through exclusion, bullying or rumors. A stereotype of aggression is that of a full blown rant filled with swearwords that is intended to intimidate.
When we are thinking about more covert forms of aggression we are entering the realm of manipulation. Manipulation is also sometimes called passive aggressive behavior, although one could argue whether these techniques are all that passive. They are often very clever and calculated and just hidden under a veil of passivity. Manipulation is also about dominating or at the very least heavily influencing another person. However, this time it is not through intimidation or physical force but by playing on someone's emotions, sympathies or conscientiousness. It is the stereotypical guilt trip that we may be sent on or are sending someone else on.
If we are finding ourselves quietly disagreeing, deliberately attacking or covertly influencing we are not assertive. There is no judgement in that. Everybody is unassertive some of the time, and we may have our very own reasons or circumstances for behaving in this way. It is just very helpful to notice when we are behaving non-assertively. For example, we may adopt a more passive stance on some issues because our mental and physical resources are limited and we feel the need to pick our battles. Or we may notice some aggression in our behavior, such as a raised voice or a harsh comment which indicates that our patience is wearing thin and that it is time for a change. Or we may become aware that when we cry in an argument, which may be a natural expression of our hurt, it does have the added benefit of making our partner want to comfort us.
As I said, we may have our very own reasons for behaving in non-assertive ways. However, these behaviors can come at a cost. They may achieve something in the short term but may cost us in the long run. If we come to rely on intimidation, deception or submission in order to achieve our goals, we will struggle to create and maintain healthy and balanced relationships.
Yet for many people simply stating their wants and desires seems utterly daunting and unachievable. Over the years, I have worked with many clients exploring and rehearsing situations as different as asking for a pay rise, setting boundaries in a social or family context, coming out or revealing their sexual preferences to their partner. Frequently, clients worry that showing their authentic self in these situations will lead to rejection, conflict or ridicule. However, more often than not, what these clients experience when they actually find the courage to express and act on their assertive rights is that they are being treated with more respect and not less.
This is because boundaries give us shape and definition. In the same way that it helps us to know where we are at with someone, others need to know who we are in order to be able to truly relate to us. How often do we take pleasure from giving to those we care about, for example in the form of gifts, humor, cooking or being affectionate. And how delightful it can feel when we sense their genuine happiness. We are able to achieve this because of the knowledge we have of the other person, including their likes and dislikes, their preferences and their insecurities. And it equally works the other way round. Others want to give to us, knowing that what they offer will be well received.
Boundaries and assertive behavior more generally also demonstrate self-care. If I am taking care of myself I am showing to others that I am worth being taken care of. This has huge implications for all of our social and professional relationships. We may sometimes feel that we need to be accommodating in order to liked, that we need to go along with others in order to create harmonious relationships. And sure enough, such behavior does reduce conflict, at least in the short term. However, it does not necessarily create respect.
What creates most respect from others is self-respect. If I am respectful to my needs, others will take note and follow suit. If I am looking for solutions that maintain my dignity, others are more likely to do the same. If I am letting others know what affects me and how, others will take that into consideration when planning their own actions. All of this can be done very calmly, and I will discuss more specific practical ideas of how to develop our assertiveness in my next post.
Take some time for this reflective exercise. Think about the role assertiveness plays in your life - where it is easy for you to assert yourself and where it is more challenging. Think about the situations where you find yourself adopting a non-assertive behavioral style. Which behavioral style do you choose? What are the short and long term consequences of this behavior?
How do you decide whether or not to assert yourself? How do you shift from a non-assertive behavioral style back into an assertive one?