Assertiveness: It's Easier than You Think

What is assertiveness?

Without realizing it, we ask for what they want all the time, but sometimes it's done in a roundabout way. Assertiveness is simply asking for what you want directly direct.

Some individuals mistake assertiveness for aggression. Aggression means not taking No for an answer. Therefore, being assertive is to ask for what you want but being willing to not have all of your desires granted by the individuals in your life.

When you want others to treat you differently by showing them how you feel, rather than telling them, you're being passive-aggressive. Passive-aggressiveness is asking others for what you want through your actions (such as the Silent Treatment), or letting them know how they made you feel by doing the same action that was done to you, rather than describing the impact their actions had on you.

Why it’s hard to be assertive

Asking directly for what you want may feel foreign. Quite often, as adolescents, we try hard to blend in, be invisible, or not draw attention to ourselves. Sometimes we just want to get along with others. The goal to not be noticed or to get along can be in direct conflict with asking for what you want; to ask for what you want would require you to be visible.

Another way many of us attempt to get along is by becoming what I refer to as Chameleons: Adapting our colors to whatever environment we happen to be in at the time. We can also easily turn out to be Pleasers, which includes putting others’ needs before our own. With this feeling of wanting to please, coupled with unworthiness, it’s hard to know what you want let alone ask for it.

When you ask for what you want, you’re also making waves in some way. What’s the risk involved with being assertive? At its most basic level, being told No is a form of rejection. You might be feeling hurt by this form of rejection.

Depending on what you’re asking for, the risks can increase. If you’re asking your roommate to ask his friends to stop calling after midnight because you’re woken up by it, you’re risking a minor conflict.

However, if you’re in a relationship and ask your partner not to do something during sex that he or she has been doing, now the stakes are higher. You not only risk getting No for an answer, you risk embarrassment, awkwardness, and hurting your partner. Also, what if bringing up this subject leads to more discussions, which could open up major problems in the relationship? In other words, fear is a big part of being unwilling to speak up.

How to be assertive

Considering that the stakes can be high, and you may be unfamiliar with knowing or asking for what you want, where do you begin to learn how to be assertive?

If you don’t know what you want, the first step is to clarify it, which is to say: Get to know yourself. Of course that’s easier said than done, and as both a provider and a consumer of therapy services, I cannot overstate the value of psychotherapy and self-help. Whichever tools you use, consider what’s available and take advantage of what your area and the Internet has to offer.

Assuming that you know who you are but are afraid to ask for what you want, and especially if it’s hard for you to be rejected, start out with something small. Instead of asking out that person you’ve been crushing on, consider asking a friend or family member for something that you’d like them to do – perhaps a small favor. If someone wants you to do something you don't want to do, simply say "That makes me uncomfortable." No need to go into a lengthy answer or to defend your point of view. In the beginning, keep it simple.

For example, let’s say that you have a friend who you call or text but who never contacts you to make plans. The next time you see him, mention how much you value the time you spend together. And then add something like, “By the way, could you initiate getting together next time?” You will either get a No response (he doesn’t call) or a Yes. But in either case, that’s being assertive. As an alternative, instead of making it into an issue to be discussed, you can be more casual. As you finish texting, say something like, "I'll look forward to hearing from you." Or, "hey – let's catch up next week. Shoot me a text."

You may think think that being assertive leads to becoming a nag or a bother. That’s where “picking your battles” comes in. Part of assertiveness is realizing that the individuals in your life have their own need that may conflict with yours. If you expect a No half the time, that should be about right: essentially, you should get your way about 50% of the time.

Also, when you have a problem with someone, stick to what the action is that’s bothering you (the what) and how it impacts you (your feelings) or just cut to the chase and ask for what you’d like them to do.

So, I’m not asking a lot of you to start being assertive: You’re already asking for what you want indirectly. Instead, try being more upfront. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.