People sometimes confuse being aggressive with being assertive, and worry that in speaking up about things that make them unhappy, saying no, or asking for what they want or need, they will stop being likeable. In fact, the two things are very different.

Assertiveness is simply the ability to say how we feel and/or ask for what we want when we choose to, rather than suffering in silence and maybe exploding with resentment later on.

Some people think being assertive means that you’ll always get what you want. It doesn’t, because, obviously other people have needs and wants too. It’s about recognising that your needs are as important as theirs- not less important, but equally not more important.

Why are some people less assertive?

A  lack of assertiveness is usually based on (largely unconscious) beliefs that we have absorbed in childhood, and which may have been reinforced by experiences as an adult.

For example:

It is selfish to put my needs before or even on the same level as other people.

If I stand up for myself the other person may become upset or angry.

People won’t like me or won’t give me work in the future if I say no to them.

Consider when and where you find yourself being unassertive- and what the underlying beliefs are.

Maybe it’s mainly at work, or mainly with your parents or your partner, or only when you feel particularly insecure- such as in a job interview. Try and work out what or who triggers this response. Then try and identify what beliefs you are holding onto- and remember that you may not consciously believe them with your logical brain, but could still feel very uncomfortable going against them. Think about messages you often heard from your parents such as ‘money is the root of all evil’ (so don’t put your prices up or people will think you’re greedy).

Some common fears/beliefs are:

  • I shouldn’t say how I’m really feeling or thinking because I don’t want to burden others with my problems.
  • If I assert myself I will upset the other person and ruin our relationship
  • If someone says “no” to my request it is because they don’t like or love me
  • I shouldn’t have to say what I need or how I feel: people close to me should already know
  • It is selfish to say what you want
  • If someone asks you to do something you should do it if you possibly can.

Once you have identified some of these beliefs, you can start to question how much truth there really is in them.

What happens when you get more assertive?

Generally you will find that most people will not get upset if you stand up for yourself (assertively, not aggressively), and that people won’t hate you for saying no and so on. In fact, most people will like you better for it. Do you really want to be the kind of person who always responds to a question about where to go for dinner with ‘I don’t know, you choose’ or who says yes to everything and then gets all resentful about being overloaded?

However, just so you know, the people who taught you these things, or those who reinforced them in later life, or those who get something out of making you feel guilty etc might indeed react if you start behaving differently. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t change, but that you might want to take baby steps at first and/or practise with those you feel more comfortable around.