What is... psychology series

What Is… Assertiveness

graphic of a head with cogs turning inside

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.  This week’s term is assertiveness.

Wikipedia explains that assertiveness can be seen as falling in between passive communication styles and aggressive styles.  Assertiveness training is a type of behavioural therapy developed in the 1960s that includes increasing awareness of one’s own rights, understanding what assertiveness is and differentiating it from other styles of communication, and building skills in assertive communication.

Assertiveness in DBT

In dialectical behaviour therapy, assertiveness plays an important role in interpersonal effectiveness.  In the DBT Skills Training Manual, Marsha Linehan explains that assertiveness can be used to bring about change in aversive environments and increase the likelihood of obtaining desired interpersonal outcomes.  The DBT skill acronym DEAR MAN is particularly relevant:

  • Describe the situation
  • Express clearly
  • Assert wishes: expression alone is not asserting, and assertiveness is not the same as being aggressive or demanding
  • Reinforce
  • (stay) Mindful
  • Appear confident
  • Negotiate

Making requests of others and saying no are some specific examples of how to apply assertiveness.  Linehan suggests preparing ahead of time to be assertive.  Role-playing can be a good way to get feedback on the strength of assertiveness and whether passivity or aggressiveness crept in.

Cognitive behavioural therapy

Assertiveness is also an important skill in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).  According to the Cognitive Behavioural Interpersonal Skills Manual, there are a number of considerations in being assertive:

  • Maintain culturally appropriate eye contact
  • Maintain a relaxed posture and mirror the other person
  • Use a calm, level tone of voice
  • Set limits, including saying no
  • Ask for what you want
  • To be clear about your feelings and choices with others, you also need to be clear with yourself

Reflecting on myself

I tend to be passive when I feel like I just don’t have the mental strength or energy to stand up for myself.  On the passive-assertive-aggressive continuum, probably my biggest stumbling block is when I try to be assertive and am met with resistance that for whatever reason I perceive as unfair or an attack.  I then shift onto the fast track to emotional meltdown territory, which I suppose could be passive if I run away and cry or aggressive if I implode in front of whoever I’m interacting with.  

The issue seems to be less about assertiveness skills per se, since I don’t seem to have much of a problem being assertive in situations that don’t have a lot of emotional charge.  The problem seems to be more about emotional reactivity hijacking the whole show, so it’ probably more important to focus my attention there rather than assertiveness skills specifically.

Is being assertive something that you struggle with?  What have you done to try to work on this?


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find a directory of the terms covered in the what is… series here.

There’s also a collection of psychological tests here.

20 thoughts on “What Is… Assertiveness”

  1. I absolutely agree with you that where emotions come into play I tend not to be assertive. I become more passive than I’d like to. I think sometimes if we can work on lessening our attachments to things we can become more assertive but as soon as we’re passionate we can supercharge into aggression. It’s a tricky one. Maybe we need to have silent conversations to take ourselves away from the centre of emotion and reassert ourselves.

  2. This is SUCH a good one! I’m a firm believer that assertiveness can be incredibly important. We need to empower ourselves and learn we’re worth it when it comes to standing up for ourselves. I used to be so unassertive and shy and unconfident with social anxiety through the roof when I was younger, especially back in high school. It had a huge negative impact on me and my life. It took years to gradually become more assertive, and even though I still struggle, it’s much better than it was. It can affect relationships, our health (ie. fighting to be heard and taken seriously by doctors), our opportunities, enjoyment, the things we do in life without fear or such holding us back, our ability to think and act for ourselves. Very thought-provoking post 🙂
    Caz xx

  3. It’s tricky, and there’s definitely more to it than just learning and practising the skills although that is a help. I do find though that after many years of using role playing and simulation as a learning tool (pretty common in health field) I tend to go into “role-playing mode” in classes and I’m not always able to act the same way in real life and transfer those skills.

    I find being able to be assertive is highly contextual. Like you there are times when I have no trouble whatsoever – usually that’s a combination of feeling secure in my own knowledge and ability for that situation and it not being an emotionally charged issue – but other times when I just can’t do it. Those times nearly always seem to tie in with previous trauma. I will mostly freeze and be very compliant, and then afterwards wonder WTF just happened? Why on earth did I give in on that? and the only times I tend to react with overt anger or aggression is if I am already worked up and angry before I get to the face-to-face encounter.

  4. This is such a complex issue, and I enjoyed reading about your struggles with it.

    With me, there’s a tendency to bully others into getting my way IF AND ONLY IF I feel truly entitled to it. Usually, we’re talking about confrontations with a part-D drug company that doesn’t want to pay for my expensive drug, or bad service at the pharmacy, some similar customer service issue. I will come batshit unhinged until they agree to do whatever, and my thinking is that, if they’re my insurance drug provider for example, then they need to freakin’ deliver. Their suggestions that I try another drug are met with ridicule. (As if.)

    I don’t use that power in a day-to-day sense. With people who I really care about–close friends, etc.–I don’t want it to come out. I don’t want to, like, get so upset that I lash out at a friend, because it can’t be undone, and I’d never want to hurt someone I care about. So there’s this weird dichotomy (is that the word?) in me. The biggest challenge there is that when I’m on my period, I can get irrational, and that never leads anywhere good.

    I often choose being passive to spare people’s feelings. I’ve known people who were overly assertive to the point of being obnoxious. Not aggressive, just expressing their entitlement to everything around them.

    So I have all these different sides to me that are… situational? Also, when I’m in some sort of situation where I’m afraid I’d get in trouble for acting out, I can deliver a freaky-scary stare that can unnerve someone without technically being illegal.

    (I swear, with all “good” people, I hold back, more often than not.)

    Wow!! I don’t really like myself very much now! 😀

  5. Great article. It’s sometimes very hard to be assertive as opposed to passive or aggressive in some situations. I find it hard to assert my needs to a senior male without feeling inadequate or uncomfortable but I’m working on it! It’s a great skill to have for conflict resolution!

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