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 being assertive is not the same as being aggressive or demanding
- (stay) Mindful
- Appear confident
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?
- Cognitive Behavioural Interpersonal Skills Manual.
- Linehan, M.M. (2014). DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd ed. Guilford Press.
- Wikipedia: Assertiveness
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.