Assertiveness: An Undervalued Skill
Assertiveness is the skill of being able to stand up for your rights without aggressively violating the rights of others or passively accepting what you know to be wrong. When a salesperson bullies you into paying for a product that you know to be substandard and that you don’t need, that person is being aggressive. If you accept it and pay for it, you are being unassertive.
When my professional peers and I were going through our training about a half-century ago, assertiveness training was “the new kid on the psychology block”. I fully expected it to become a permanent staple in the training of psychologists, and I’ve been surprised to learn that recent interns and psychology students that I’ve known have had little or no exposure to what I consider to be a very useful skill.
The titles of two of the most popular books during the heyday of assertiveness training actually summarize the concept very well: Your Perfect Right, by Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons (which was so popular that 10 editions were posted over time), and When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, by Manuel Smith.
Too many people have grown up being rewarded for being compliant and not asserting themselves – even in situations when sticking up for their rights would not violate the rights of others, although it might sometimes inconvenience them. Too often, people are more willing to inconvenience themselves than others, even when it actually teaches others that they don’t have to take responsibility for their share of the work or when they’ve made mistakes that they are capable of correcting. I call this the “addiction to second place” – as the unassertive person acts unassertively because it is less anxiety-provoking than being assertive.
As you probably know by now, I’m a big believer in the preventive benefits of psychotherapy. Therapy should not just be seen as a tool for coping with a crisis, but also to develop healthy behaviors that can prevent crises from occurring. If you find yourself having problems saying, “No,” when you have the right to do so, that’s a pretty good clue that preventive psychotherapy or Coaching in the assertiveness training area is in order.