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Assertiveness Topics (on this page)

What is it?
A Test for Low Assertiveness
Your Right to be You
About Conflict (and 3 possible responses)
Changing Your Point of View
How Counselling Can Help

Wouldn't say boo to a goose?  Could counselling help?  Goose image courtesy of Dan and Shy Lady by Michal Marcol at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So what is assertiveness?

Greater assertiveness is the solution to a series of problems that may present themselves in different guises. Many of my clients appear to be withdrawn or shy and have great difficulty in social situations. Some are depressed or may have given up on themselves, perhaps turning to drugs or alcohol, whilst others may have problems with inappropriate anger. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the clients who need help with assertiveness are highly successful individuals, often people with significant levels of responsibility or seniority at work.

The principles of assertiveness are based on what I call "Your Right to Be You". As I just said, not all of us believe in this right. In counselling, part of the work we might do involves looking at the arguments for and against this philosophy, perhaps examining your assumptions about yourself and your life and inviting you to consider the appropriateness or helpfulness of some of these assumptions, making you aware of your choices where perhaps previously you were unaware of them. Some of the principles I believe in as part of "Your Right to Be You", are given below. Before that is a series of questions which are designed to help you establish if you perhaps might have a problem with assertiveness. There is more about these important principles on this page. To skip the test click here

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Although I have singled out assertiveness as a separate topic it is often intertwined with other problems. Indeed, it may perhaps be considered as arising from poor self esteem. For example, a person may not value him/herself and their needs highly enough to let people know what they want think or feel. The person with poor skills of assertiveness may become depressed and there is often great anxiety involved in the struggle to insist that she or he be considered or valued by others. Living a non-assertive life  may also be extremely stressful because other people may 'put upon' you or even bully you. You may end up taking more than your fair share of work or responsibilities.

A Test to Find Out if You Have a Problem with Assertiveness

Answer the following questions honestly ...

Do you feel that people often act as if you are not there, or as if they are unaware, or don't care about, your feelings?

Do you sometimes know clearly what you want or think but don't say it, possibly in order to live what you perceive is an "easy life?"

When people offend you, or do things that displease you, do you frequently say "Oh that's okay" but inside feel something completely different?

Do you often say 'yes' to people's requests when you actually want to say 'no?'

Do you find that you often feel angry with yourself but perhaps really it is others that you should be angry with?

Do you frequently take on extra work yourself, rather than asking someone else?

Do you feel as if you are the one that everyone turns to for help and advice yet find that no one seems to be there for you when you need support?

Do you feel angry a lot of the time and does that anger never seem to go away?

Do you frequently get disproportionately angry about little things, often with those closest to you, or let things get out of all proportion?

Do you often feel that it is easier to go for a drink (or do other drugs) rather than talk to people about the things that bother you in your relationship with them?

Answered the questions? How did you do? If you have answered 'yes' to four or more of these questions, and if this forms the pattern of your life or has been the case for at least several weeks, then it could be that you have issues arising from low levels of assertiveness. The greater the number of questions you answered 'yes', the greater your problem with assertiveness is likely to be.

Your Right to Be You

A young woman punches the air, glad to be who she is. Photo: Mateusz Stachowski.

Being assertive doesn't, as many people perceive, mean being aggressive. It means living your life based on the belief that you have a right to be you and that you have as much right to express your views, needs, preferences or opinions as anyone else. It doesn't mean always expecting to get your own way and nor does it mean being inappropriately selfish. However it does involve developing a healthy and appropriate self regard and valuing of oneself.

Many of us have a natural belief in ourselves and in our right to be who we are. Unfortunately many of us do not. We may believe that we are somehow less important than other people, or that if we express our views or preferences it will lead to trouble or rejection. There are many reasons why we might hold these beliefs; perhaps we were never encouraged to be ourselves in childhood, perhaps our views were always strongly overridden, or perhaps we lived in families where there was a great deal of inappropriate or violent anger and we lived in fear lest we should rouse that anger. More damaging still, we may have been subjected to violence or other forms of abuse and this might have suppressed our natural tendency to express ourselves. Alternatively we may have been set an example by parents or carers who actively discouraged any form of conflict and tried to hide any anger beneath a facade of calm and apparent tranquillity. In such circumstances we may have internalised a message that 'conflict is bad or wrong or harmful'. There are many reasons for low self-belief -- these are just examples. Top of Page 

About Conflict and Three Possible Responses to It

The fact is, conflict is a part of life. Clearly, some types of conflict -- like violent conflict -- are extremely harmful and unwelcome but in any society of individuals there are bound to be differences of views or need and this will always lead to potential or actual conflict. Because we all see the world differently and have different views about the best way to do things, conflict is ever-present. For the unassertive person, this can feel like a continuous nightmare. Unless we accept these differences and this conflict however, both in others and in ourselves, then we are denying a fundamental reality.

There are three possible responses to conflict

  1. Withdrawal or Avoidance

    This tends only to lead to misery, depression and lower levels of self esteem. You may get angry that you cannot do or say what you feel you want to do, quietly get angry with yourself or end up feeling powerless and hopeless. It can also lead to bullying, where those who might 'get off' on oppressing you realise that you are unwilling or unprepared to challenge them and defend your rights. People who avoid conflict are often victimised or may end up doing more than their fair share.

  2. Aggression

    Sometimes, people who have low self esteem and low assertiveness may deal with conflict by meeting it with aggression. This may be because you 'over react' and effectively panic when dealing with even a small challenge; you fight back big because you lack confidence that if your response was anything less it would be ineffective. Also, attack may sometimes feel like the best form of defence. Although unassertive men may especially tend to do this, women may also meet challenge with inappropriate levels of aggression, however, this may present slightly differently than in men. 'Passive Aggression' is sometimes also a response. This is where someone responds to conflict or difference with aggression that shows itself indirectly, like being unco-operative or unreasonably obstructive on unrelated matters, or being withholding of affection in a relationship for example. Aggression leads to further insecurity (because you can never feel that people around you like you). Indeed, many people won't like you. They may avoid you. It can also lead therefore to loneliness, isolation and misery.

  3. With Calm Balance, Poise and Assertiveness

    This is what I target in my work with clients; in this response you understand, honour and respect the other person's point of view. You ensure you listen to it, understand it - and let them know what your understanding is. You do not necessarily agree with it. You are able to state your point of view calmly but firmly, re-stating it if necessary until you feel it has been heard and acknowledged. You may  compromise if you choose.  Whether your view prevails, or their view does, or whether a compromise is reached, you feel empowered and can feel satisfied that you have expressed yourself.

If You Don't Like What You See, Change your Point of View

So how do we work towards living an assertive life? Much depends on your beliefs and whilst you can't change the world or the people in it, you can change the way you see the world and your place in it. In life I believe that there are few universal truths and most things are a matter of opinion and perspective. Where you stand affects what you see -- in other words -- your unique life experiences will make you have a unique point of view and inevitably this is likely to be somewhat, or even very, different to mine and everyone else's.

I believe that it is important to respect these differences and also to respect each person's right to look at life in whichever way they choose. Obviously, I accept that there are certain things which society deems are unacceptable (such as criminal activity for example) and as a member of that society I have chosen (whether I realise it or not) to abide by its rules. In choosing to respect difference and to accept conflicting points of view I do not feel that I necessarily have to agree with those differences or points of view. However, I feel it is important to honour them because in doing so I convey upon myself the right to also have my own uniquely individual opinions, thoughts, needs and feelings.

Put simply then -- there are no rights and wrongs except those which society has deemed to be wrong. Most things in life are matters of opinion and shades of grey. If I accept this, then I choose to live in a world where everyone, including myself, has a right to express what they think and feel. I can hear people's opinions but I do not necessarily have to agree with them and similarly I expect that they will hear and honour my opinions and values, even if they hold conflicting ones. In this view, conflict is natural, inevitable and acceptable (within society's 'norms'). When I am faced with conflicting views or needs, this does not mean I have to abandon my own - although on occasions I might choose to compromise. Moreover I expect that the other person (or persons) will respect my right to my individual views, needs and opinions - as I will respect their's.

Clearly, putting this in practice can be very difficult when you may have had a lifetime of experience of not doing this. This is where counselling can help

How Counselling Can Help Assertiveness

 I can work with you to break the process down into manageable chunks, offer support during difficult times, review your progress, help you celebrate your successes and assist you to learn and recover from any 'failures'. We can also discuss and practice techniques to help you deal with specifically difficult or challenging situations or people. For example, I can teach you my 'Three Stage' model of Assertive Communications, a method I have developed over many years to help clients confront difficult people and challenge their behaviour. I can also help you to manage any anxiety that may arise. By working together you will quickly learn to develop your own strategies for living a more assertive and more fulfilling life.

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Dr Alan Priest is a Huddersfield-based UKCP Registered Psychotherapist and BACP Accredited Counsellor About Me

Page modified 24 March 2013