By Marta Oko-Riebau

This post is about your right to communicate your thoughts, wishes and intentions in a clear manner. It is about assertiveness. Most of us occasionally forget about this important right and then have to suffer the consequences of compromising our own needs. However, lack of assertiveness can be especially damaging if it becomes a rule rather than an exception to our functioning in relationships with others. Whether submissiveness is one of the challenges you’re frequently struggling with, or a sporadic slip that causes minor frustration, this article may be a good reminder of the importance of clear, confident communication.

It’s Your Choice
Assertiveness is usually applied when you feel you are not being respected or heard. Such situations are naturally stressful and a confident, yet respectful, response doesn’t always come easily. Assertiveness usually requires some effort on our part, which is even the case with people who we think were born assertive. Nathaniel Branden, a psychotherapist who specializes in psychology of self-esteem says, “It is a mistake to look at someone who is self-assertive and say, “It’s easy for her, she has good self-esteem.” One of the ways you build self-esteem is by being self-assertive when it is not easy to do so.  There are always times when self-assertiveness requires courage, no matter how high your self-esteem.” Since it can be so challenging to be assertive, even for those whom we consider assertive champs, why would we want to make an effort to express our needs in a clear and confident manner? What makes the assertiveness worth such an effort?

The Perks of Being Assertive
In their book, “Changing for Good,” Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente discuss many benefits that being assertive brings, some of them being:

  • Decreased levels of anxiety, anger and neuroses
  • Better communication and leadership abilities
  • Increased self-respect
  • Increased satisfaction in personal relationships

On the other hand, the consequences of not being assertive can be pretty costly to our mental health. Low self-esteem, poorer relationships, and increased anxiety and anger are fairly common outcomes of continuously compromising one’s own needs, wishes and values. Nathaniel Branden summarizes these detrimental consequences by saying, “The opposite of self-assertiveness is self-abnegation – abandoning or submerging your personal values, judgment, and interests. Some people tell themselves this is a virtue. It is a “virtue” that corrodes self-esteem.” Who would want to practice behaviors that corrode their self-esteem? Probably no one, but most of us do. Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente claim that even though most of us can be assertive, we often times deny ourselves the right to be powerful. One of the common reasons why we resign from being assertive is because we are afraid to be considered aggressive or rude in our quest to communicate our thoughts and needs.

Assertive or Aggressive?
Many of us are afraid to practice their right to express their needs, as they confuse assertiveness with aggression. They are afraid to speak their mind in fear of being received as rude and uncooperative. Unfortunately this fear is not unreasonable in the case of women, whose assertiveness indeed is treated differently than men’s and often times gets interpreted as rude. Answering two simple questions may help you decide whether your behavior is indeed assertive or rather aggressive. The questions are:

  • Did I express my rights/needs?
  • Did I respect the other person’s rights?

If you can answer yes to both questions, you were being assertive rather than aggressive.

It is important to remember that simply because we expressed our needs or rights it doesn’t mean they will be respected and/or agreed with. However, it guarantees that others hear your objectives and will have a chance to respond to them.

Guilt-Free “No”
The art of assertiveness to a large degree revolves around the capability of saying “no” to people, without being defensive or feeling guilty. In assertive communication, that “no” is usually followed by our rationale behind our decision, need, wish, or thought. However, we ought to remember that even though assertiveness is polite, it does not have to be apologetic. We don’t have to justify our values to others. In the end, “NO” IS A COMPLETE SENTENCE.

It takes practice to become assertive. I am not even sure if I know a single person who is always assertive. But maybe it is so because assertiveness is not a trait, but rather a choice that we have to continuously make. Sounds like a life filled with difficult choices? The good news is that (according to Aristotle), “We are what we repeatedly do.”  If you want to live a satisfying life, make assertiveness one of your habits.

Marta Oko-Riebau, MA has a private practice at Maria Droste Counseling Center. Marta works with clients on their relationships, self-esteem, assertiveness, finding meaning, and increasing life quality and enjoyment.