When psychologists speak of assertiveness, they typically are referring to being able to express your thoughts and feelings honestly while not impacting on the rights of others. 

Unassertive people are easily taken advantage of because they don’t stand up for their own rights – and they may make purchases that they don’t need or work overtime at the workplace while co-workers who asserted themselves go home on time.  There is an internal price to pay for lack of assertiveness in addition to often also paying a financial price by being talked into an unneeded purchase.  Some unassertive people also reach the point where they’ve internalized all that they can handle, and they become aggressive and lash out – but not always at the source of their anger.

There is a major difference between being assertive and being aggressive.  While both types of behaviors involve sticking up for one’s right, the aggressive person is indifferent to respecting the rights of the other person – as long as s/he gets satisfied.  Some people are unfairly labeled as aggressive when they are actually very good at being assertive.  The key is whether the other person’s rights are being respected.

In many ways, the unassertive person and the aggressive person have much in common.  If you are unassertive, you lack sufficient self-self-respect, and the aggressor is also more than willing to disrespect you too.

Being assertive is part of your job as you build your psychological core.  When you begin to assertively tell a friend that you care about what they are saying but really don’t have time to discuss it at this moment, or when you tell a salesperson that they indeed do have a nice product but it’s not something that you need or can afford at this time, you are being assertive.  As you test out assertive behavior, you will find out that it is quite rewarding.  Not only will you feel better about yourself, but the other person will understand (and maybe even appreciate) your point of view – which is a way of being respectful of your rights.

There are many techniques that can be learned in assertiveness training but let me close by pointing out one that is particularly helpful and even somewhat fun.  It’s called the “broken record”.  All you have to do is identify a sentence that you can comfortably repeat when someone is pressuring you to do something that you don’t want to do.  Examples are: “I understand that you are in a bind, but I just can’t stay late at work today”; or “I realize that I may never be able to purchase it at such a low price in the future, but I’m not going to buy it now”.  Then, no matter what the other person says, keep repeating it like a broken record.  After a few tries, you may be surprised at how easy it becomes to use the technique.  Just find a phrase that you are comfortable repeating in a particular situation, and then just stick with it.

More important than any specific technique, however, is the mindset that enables you to recognize that being assertive is your right.  It makes you feel better and actually improves the quality of your relationships in comparison to being either unassertive or aggressive.

Ron Kaiser, Ph.D. Psychologist, Educator, Author, Podcaster

Ron Kaiser, Ph.D., is a positive health psychologist, coach, author, podcaster, educator, consultant, and speaker. He has been in practice for more than five decades, including 25 years as Director of Psychology at the world-famous Jefferson Headache Center at Thomas Jefferson University. As an innovative thought leader in the field, he has developed the concepts of THE MENTAL HEALTH GYM, GOAL-ACHIEVING PSYCHOTHERAPY (GAP), THE TYPE P PERSONALITY, and REJUVENAGING®.

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