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Assertiveness

To be assertive is to assert or express your rights, to stand up for yourself and your values and beliefs, and to be able to express your true feelings openly. It is to be able to declare yourself, who you are, what you think and feel. It is an active rather than a passive approach to others, and to life. Assertiveness in communication and social relationships involves openness, honesty, and firmness, all with appropriateness and flexibility. The assertive person is confident in a relaxed way, as well as free and spontaneous in social situations.

On the other hand, when assertiveness goes too far and takes advantage of others, it is aggression. Aggressive behavior cuts across the rights of others, attacks them and puts them down; it is destructive, hurts people and makes them feel badly. Aggressive individuals may feel on top of things, but they will be watching in case someone tries to better them. They are often defensive, and seldom have many friends. The following chart illustrates the consequences and feelings, for the actor and for the receiver, of non-assertive, assertive, and aggressive behavior.

The Assertiveness Continuum of Behavior*

Non-assertive Behavior

Assertive Behavior

Aggressive Behavior

As Actor

As Actor

As Actor

Self-denying

Self-enhancing

Self-enhancing at expense of others

Inhibited

Expressive

Over-expressive

Does not achieve desired goal(s)

May achieve desired goal(s)

Achieves desired goal(s) at expense of others

Others choose

Chooses for self

Chooses for other

Uncertain, anxious, depreciates self

Confident, feels good about self

Depreciates other

As Receiver

As Receiver

As Receiver

Impatient, guilty, or angry

Knows where one stands

Feels put down, depreciated

No respect for actor

Respects actor

Hurt, defensive, humiliated

Achieves desired goal(s) at actor's expense

May achieve desired goal(s)

Does not achieve desired goal(s)

* Adapted from R.E. Alberti and M.L. Emmons, Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Behavior, Second Edition. Copyright 1974, Impact Publishers, Inc., San Luis Obispo, CA.

One of the important rewards of developing assertiveness is that it tends to neutralize the anxieties that many people experience in various social situations. There will be some anxiety before individuals assert themselves, as they contemplate what they will say or do, but this is largely the same anxiety that is experienced when they try any new behavior that they have avoided previously. However, once they try an assertive response, and practice it, there is usually a marked reduction in social anxieties. In fact, learning appropriate assertive behavior is one of the main ways by which social anxiety is now being treated.

Being assertive can also lead to greater emotional freedom, as a person learns to safely express emotions. People who are non-assertive often cannot freely express positive emotions such as joy or affection because they have learned that they cannot express anger or frustration when justified. Having the freedom to express oneself can reduce anxiety and uncertainty in interpersonal situations, which in turn can help a person feel less defensive and more willing to risk greater openness and honesty in emotional expression.


Irrational Beliefs about Assertive Behavior

Listed below are several common irrational beliefs about being assertive and disputing statements for each:

  1. If I am assertive myself, others will become angry at me.
    • Effects may be positive, neutral, or negative. I have a legitimate right to be assertive.
    • You have a right to ask for what you want and need, just as the other person has a right to refuse. The best way to get your needs met is to be direct about what they are. Don’t expect people to read your mind.

  2. If I assert myself and people do become angry with me, I will be devastated. It will be awful.
    • Even if others do become angry and unpleasant, I can handle it without falling apart.
    • I don’t have to feel responsible for the person’s anger. It may be he/she who has a problem.
    • I don’t have to be vulnerable to other people’s moods.

  3. Although I prefer others to be straightforward with me, I’m afraid that if I am open with others and say “no” I will hurt them.
    • Other people may or may not feel hurt.
    • If I prefer to be dealt with directly, it is quite likely others will too.

  4. If my assertion hurts others, I am responsible for their feelings.
    • Even if others are hurt by my assertive behavior, I can let them know I care for them while also being direct about what I need or want. I am not responsible for anyone’s’ feelings but my own.

  5. It is wrong and selfish to turn down legitimate requests. Others will think I’m terrible and won’t like me.
    • Even legitimate requests can be refused assertively.
    • It is OK to consider my own needs, sometimes before those of others.
    • I can’t please all of the people all of the time.

  6. At all costs, I must avoid making statements and asking questions that might make me look ignorant or stupid.
    • It's okay to lack information or make a mistake, I’m human.

  7. Assertive women are cold, and people don’t like them.
    • Assertive women are not aggressive women – they are simply honest, direct, and open, not passive.

  8. Be modest and humble. Do not act superior to other people.
    • You have as much right as other people to show your abilities and to take pride in yourself.
    • It is healthy to own both your strengths and limitations in life.
    • Everyone’s opinion is just that - an opinion.

A Final Note

It is your right to stand up for yourself and to assert your individuality. On the other hand, you don't have to be assertive all the time, in all circumstances. The goal is to be able to assert yourself, and to be free to choose.


How to Get Help

For more information or assistance, please contact the Drexel University Counseling Center at (215) 895-1415, or e-mail counseling@drexel.edu.

The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. It is not intended for self-diagnosis or self-treatment, nor should it replace the consultation of a trained medical or mental health professional. Please note that outside links are not under our control, and we cannot guarantee the content contained on them.