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*
Self-enhancing at expense of others
Does not achieve desired goal(s)
May achieve desired goal(s)
Achieves desired goal(s) at expense of others
Chooses for self
Chooses for other
Uncertain, anxious, depreciates self
Confident, feels good about self
Impatient, guilty, or angry
Knows where one stands
Feels put down, depreciated
No respect for 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
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
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
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.