Most people can remember times where there was a pressure to do something or go somewhere despite our true interests or preferences. Perhaps you can recall instances where you were feeling down and did not want to go anywhere, but did so anyway to accompany someone important to you. Perhaps you were in a good mood, but simply had no interest in the activity, and therefore in tagging along, but you did so anyway. Yes, it is important that we remain flexible for the sake of our relationships, but it is equally important that we recognize times when we should say “no.”
Similarly, most of us have experienced situations where we felt uncomfortable speaking up about something. This could be for a number of reasons, including the relationship with the person or entity (e.g., parents, in-laws, supervisors, acquaintances, etc.), limited knowledge or information on the topic at hand, general hesitancy about confrontational situations, concern about the possible outcomes of speaking out, or self-assigned responsibility for protecting others’ emotions. It goes without saying that it is important to have awareness and use judgment to determine what situations are worth speaking out on, as well as what could happen if you do speak up. For some people this leads to entirely shutting down and not speaking out, which can lead to being taken advantage of. That is why it is equally as important to speak up in regards to having your needs met or when something goes against your values. This is what we call assertiveness. As I often to describe to patients, assertiveness is a communication skill where one gets their needs met without harming others (verbal, emotional, or physical harm). Further, assertiveness is key to developing and maintaining boundaries and respect in relationships.
Some people are quite adept at saying “no” and speaking up when they dislike or don’t agree with something or someone. This is an important communication, and more so, life skill, that can lead to more life and relationship satisfaction, and a skill that should be fostered in those who struggle with it. However, assertiveness requires a particular balance in terms of how often you exercise the skill; it is possible to go too far and be perceived by others as argumentative, inflexible, rigid, and perhaps aggressive (which is the opposite of assertive). This can lead others to distance themselves from you, as well as reduce the quality of your relationships.
This post is primarily aimed at those who would benefit from utilizing assertiveness more often, particularly in relationships. As I mentioned earlier, being flexible here and there by going with the flow does not necessarily mean you need to practice more assertiveness but is rather a positive and likable attribute. As with any other problem area, it is important to self-assess (or let a professional help you assess) whether a lack of assertiveness is creating difficulties in your life. Some possible indications of low assertiveness include:
- Frequently feeling resentful towards others after repeatedly engaging in activities you don’t want to do
- Frequently engaging in activities that are pre-planned without your input or regard for your time or schedule
- Living your life according to someone else’s schedule
- Frequently engaging in activities you don’t really enjoy
- Having thoughts about your opinion not mattering
- Knowing what you want to say but fearing what may happen if you do
- Walking away hurt or angry for not speaking up when others speak down, in a condescending, or controlling manner to you
- Feeling stuck in a relationship (i.e., you don’t want to hurt your partner’s feelings, you don’t believe your partner will take you seriously if you speak up about wanting to take a break or end the relationship, etc.),
- Feeling discomfort, or anxiety, when thinking about speaking up
- Difficulty with formulating your thoughts in the “right” way so as not to offend or hurt someone
- Wondering why you can’t just say what you are thinking
- Frequently putting others needs and/or emotions before your own
- Recognizing that you are being taken advantage of (thoughts such as “it’s not up to me” “I have no say” or “I have no control”)
- Feeling powerless and vulnerable
Assertiveness training is the key to making changes that will allow you to feel more in control of your life. Sometimes it can just be incredibly important to walk away from a situation knowing you spoke out, and did not let someone verbally or emotionally take advantage of you. Self-esteem plays a tremendous role in one’s ability to be assertive, so typically assertiveness training begins with identifying esteem deficits and building self-confidence.
If you feel like you could benefit from assertiveness training, I encourage you to schedule an appointment with a trained professional.