Personal    Learning    Career    Peer Helping   


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.

Human beings have a right, and even a responsibility, to assert their rights. To do otherwise is to go around half alive, passive, inhibited, cowed and submitting, even suffering such complaints as headaches, stomach disturbances, general fatigue, rashes, and so on. Non-assertive individuals seldom feel happy with or proud of themselves; in fact, they often put themselves down in a rather destructive way.

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. Used by permission of the authors and publishers.

Strange as it may seem, our main educational institutions like the family, school and universities, and religion, have tended to encourage non-assertive behavior. Indeed, assertiveness is often labelled aggressiveness, thereby associating guilt with a behavior that may be normal and right. For these reasons, many people have not learned the responses and skills that constitute appropriate assertive behavior. However these can be learned.

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 heretofore. However, once they try an assertive response, and practise it, there is usually a marked reduction in social anxieties. Indeed, learning appropriate assertive behavior is one of the main ways by which social anxiety is now being treated.

One of the most significant implications of learning assertiveness is that it increases the individual's freedom. No person should be subject to the domination, whims, and aggression of others. There is only one way to eliminate such restrictions to one's freedom, and that is by being appropriately assertive with those who would smother or dominate. People must be free to choose how to act. If they are unable to be assertive in a situation, they are not free to choose what to do, or even whether to be assertive or not. If they are able to be assertive, then they can choose to be assertive or not, and they are free.

Another implication of learning to be more assertive is that this can lead to greater emotional freedom in general. People who are very non-assertive, passive and inhibited often cannot freely express other emotions like tenderness and real affection. Learning to express justified annoyance and anger, and to assert one's rights in a firm and straightforward manner, makes it easier to relate to people in a friendly and caring way. With reduced anxiety and uncertainty in interpersonal situations, a person can be less defensive and afford to risk greater openness and honesty in emotional expression.

Very few people are aggressive nearly all the time and in all situations. Likewise, very few individuals are non-assertive in all situations. The more typical case is when people hold their own in some circumstances, but are non-assertive in other kinds of situations. The task is to analyze these situations, become more fully aware of how one responds in that situation, observe and learn alternative ways of acting, and practise these more appropriate responses in easy and gradually more difficult situations. Sometimes a person will overdo it at first, and there will be some ups and downs, but that is a normal course of learning.

Although the reactions of others are usually neutral or positive, it is only realistic to note that the odd person will react in an adverse way to even an appropriately assertive response - he or she may make an effort to keep you in a cowed and submissive state. Here are some of the possible but not too likely adverse reactions, with suggestions for handling them.

  • Backbiting - The other person may complain and grumble, on the side or behind your back, with remarks like "Someone thinks they're a big shot." The best tactic is to ignore such fallout.
  • Aggression - The other person may react with verbal hostility (e.g., shouting), or even with shoving. It is important not to get drawn in with counter aggression. Rather, firmly hold your ground, but do not apologize or back down. You may "regret" that the person is upset, but affirm your position.
  • Pouting - This would be represented by the other individual looking hurt, expressing self-pity, pleading poor health, or even crying. Again, do not back down; at most, "regret" that they are upset.
  • Psychosomatic reactions - The other person may complain of getting a headache, feeling faint, and so on (this occurs infrequently, but it does happen with individuals in whom a very strong and long standing habit is being thwarted.) Do not back down, and be consistent the next time also.
  • Overapologizing - This person may apologize, act overhumble, and seek to avoid you or the situation. It is appropriate to point out the kind of behavior the individual is exhibiting, and say that it really is not necessary to act that way, and then reaffirm the appropriateness or fairness of what you said.
  • Revenge - Some individuals react to assertiveness by taunting, trying to undermine your argument and position, and other such behavior. It is important to squelch such reactions immediately, by pointing out what the person is doing, and by affirming your position. Sometimes it is more appropriate to take the person aside to confront him/her with the behavior, rather than doing it in front of others.
  • Denials - The other person may deny what was said or what it meant, or even what was done. It is appropriate to apologize for your possible error, but it is also important that you re-assert your position - e.g., "That was what I understood. If I was wrong, I am sorry. But if that had been the case my statement would stand."
  • Overly sensitive and inadequate behavior - Sometimes the other person is so weak, inadequate and sensitive, that an assertive response would only cause further difficulty. It is not appropriate to add to the hurt or confusion of someone who is already down or in trouble.
  • If you prove to be wrong, or over-assert - It is appropriate to apologize, but don't overdo it.

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.

Back to Navigation