My default response used to be “Yes!”
When someone said, “Hey, can you do me a favor?”
I would say, “Sure, what is it?”
Consequently, I was often overworked, overwhelmed, and my relationships were strained.
Think about the level of generosity offered in that statement. Notice, also, the lack of assertiveness, appropriate boundary setting, and self-care. I was committing to something before even hearing the request (a truly cringeworthy habit)!
One day, I stumbled across an idea – if you’re not willing to say “no” when you want to, you’re not really choosing to say “yes”, either. That was the beginning of a deep dive into the importance of asserting myself.
Misconceptions about Assertiveness
A common misconception is that outgoing, extroverted, or gregarious people are also assertive. Although they are often used, and perceived as synonymous, each of these terms has a different and distinct meaning. They may overlap, and then again, they may not.
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Introverts and Extroverts
Introverts are often presented and described as being quiet and shy, maybe even socially awkward or anti-social. Leaders are often presumed to be extroverted, as are class clowns, and the last one standing at a party. While I understood that introversion and extroversion were invisible to an onlooker, until recently, my definition was just as flawed.
I, like many, saw the distinction as related to where a person derives their energy. I’d been told that introverts’ batteries were drained by human interaction, particularly with large groups. Whereas, for extroverts, it was “the more the merrier”, or adding people adds voltage.
The reality is:
“It’s your sensitivity to stimulation. If you’re an introvert, you’re more prone to being overstimulated by intense or prolonged social interaction—and at that point, reflecting on your thoughts and feelings can help you recharge. But introversion-extroversion is about more than just social interaction. Extroverts crave stimulating activities like skydiving and stimulating beverages sold at Starbucks. Introverts are more likely to retreat to a quiet place, but they’re very happy to bring someone else with them.”
5 Myths About Introverts and Extroverts
Degrees of Assertiveness
Another common misconception is that people are either assertive, or they are not. Assertiveness is on a continuum, we all have it to some degree, and everyone (many of us, at least) could stand to develop our ability further.
Attitude & Behavior
Assertiveness is about thoughts, not just actions. In other words, assertiveness is a mindset, that is demonstrated through our behavior. It is also a skill, that can be learned, practiced, and improved upon. For those who are low on the assertive continuum, attempts may be rough, unpolished. With practice, discomfort fades, asserting oneself becomes more natural, and assertions may even develop a certain elegance or finesse.
Persons, who are assertive, are able to:
- Articulate their needs, desires, and rights
- Stand up for themselves when necessary
- Establish their boundaries, while respecting others’
- Be honest even when it is difficult
Assertiveness is not about “getting what you want”, it’s about having your desires be a part of the conversation, alongside of and as valued as anyone else’s.
Being assertive does not mean being rude or aggressive toward other people. In fact, it’s not predominantly about other people at all. It is about self-control, self-respect, and healthy boundaries.
There is a correlation between lacking assertiveness and having low self-esteem or low self-worth. However, low self-esteem is not the only reason people fail to express their wants and needs. They may have learned to fear speaking up, or simply haven’t had the opportunity to practice expressing themselves.
Failing to express oneself or set boundaries can cause difficulty, both personally and professionally. When we hold in our emotions, letting them build up, we are more likely to explode as the result of a “last straw.” The inability to say “no” can lead to feeling used, manipulated, and resentful (toward others and yourself).
Whether or not we feel heard has a strong emotional impact. When we fail to assert ourselves, we risk leaving conversations feeling confused, sad, or irritated. Conversely, when we are effectively asserting ourselves, we feel positive and empowered.
Unsure how assertive you are? Take the inventory!
Changes in attitude and behavior start with self-reflection and awareness. Begin by watching what you’re doing and saying, or aren’t doing and saying. Pay attention to others’ responses and reactions to you, as well as cultural messages received from the media.
Notice any assertive people in your life. Watch them, listen to them, ask them questions. If you’re lucky, you may find a mentor!
Is assertiveness encouraged in your family, at your workplace, and in your society? If so, is it nurtured and appreciated equally? Or, is it encouraged in some, but discouraged in others (perhaps based on age, gender, status, etc.)?
Check in with your thoughts, particularly critical or defeating internal voices.
- Do you know where those ideas originated?
- Are the negative thoughts you own? If not, are they the opinions of a sibling, parent, or high school coach?
- Are your thoughts helping or hindering you?
- Are they based on a past experience?
- Are they based on logical fallacies? If so, what is an alternate perspective?
Know thyself! You cannot ask for what you are unaware that you require, just as you cannot implement a boundary you don’t realize you have.
Is Assertiveness Impolite?
I have trouble walking away from people selling things, in person or on the phone. I’ve taken many a detour to avoid someone peddling sea salt in the mall.
The cause of my dilemma stems from a desire, identity, and a definition. I want to be polite, and I like to see myself as a good person. There is nothing wrong with either of those two things. The problem lies in my definition of politeness. I want to connect to people, to hear what they have to say, to truly listen and attempt to understand. I can remember feeling dismissed or ignored, and would never want to cause someone else to feel that way. I see hearing someone out as an essential component of being polite.
There is an alternative interpretation of these situations. One where hearing the person out is actually rude and inconsiderate….
A salesperson is working. Their livelihood may depend on selling a certain number of products over the course of a day, week, or month. To listen to the entirety of what they have to say, with no intention of making a purchase (regardless of the benefits of the product or how good a deal being offered), is to waste their precious time. It is better to decline their offer quickly, but kindly, so they may direct their energy elsewhere.
I had to process and internalize that shift in perspective before I could change my behavior in those types of situations.
The book, Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships, by Robert Alberti, PhD and Michael Emmons, PhD, outlines these key components of assertive behavior:
- Making eye contact increases directness and, typically, perceived sincerity
- Good posture and facing your entire body toward the person you are speaking to conveys confidence and may invite more personal conversation
- Communications are clearer and more effective when facial expressions align with what is being said
- Vocal tone, inflection, and volume can influence how persuasive we are or whether we come across as credible
- Fluency, the flow of our speech, when broken can convey lack of sincerity or seriousness
- As they say, “timing is everything”! But it is better to interject after the perfect moment than not at all
- Although it may seem counterintuitive, improving listening skills increases our ability to be assertive
- Becoming aware, as mentioned earlier, of our thoughts and feelings is a vital part of creating and sustaining behavioral changes
- Persistence pays off! No one is a natural at anything on their first attempt. Stick with it, muddle through, don’t give up!
- Content and context matter. People are more receptive to information presented through “I” statements. Showing interest in and concern for others will, most of the time, leave them more receptive to hearing you out
Being assertive won’t always change outcomes, but it can shift your attitude and feelings about, or how you approach, challenging situations.
Effectively asserting yourself has the potential to transform all of your relationships for the better. Most importantly, your relationship with yourself!