Saying "no" and setting limits doesn't come easily to most people. It becomes especially difficult during the holiday season as we try to make everyone around us happy, often at the expense of our own well-being. How can we take better care of ourselves? Women, in particular, have a very hard time being assertive. We are socialized at a young age to defer to others. For years in my therapy and substance abuse counseling practice, I've led women's groups. A topic I always cover is assertiveness and I believe it's a skill we can all learn.
What is the definition of "assertive?" It comes from the root asserio, which means "to step forward." Most dictionary resources I looked at included the word aggressive. But I feel that "aggressive" is a totally different concept. The definition that seems most appropriate is, "describes someone who behaves confidently and is not frightened to say what they want or believe." Assertiveness is a way to express your personal power. A handout I give members of my women's groups is:
is your ability
to get what you want
in ways that maintain
respect and dignity
What's the difference between Assertive and Aggressive?
Unfortunately, the two words are often interchangeable in our society. Aggression also means that you express yourself and ask for what you want, but it often violates the rights of others. Picture someone getting in your face to make their point in an argument. More extreme forms of aggression include physical threats and harm.
What about Passive?
Merriam-Webster defines passive as, "acted upon by an external agency" and "receptive to outside impressions or influences." In the slang vernacular, you might be referred to as a "doormat." Deferring to others or compromising are often necessary in relationships. But if you are passive to the point that none of your needs are met, then it isn't healthy.
Take an Assertiveness Quiz
I really like this quiz at the Leadersdirect Web site. This site is obviously addressing this issue in the work environment. Human resource departments often have assertiveness training workshops for their employees. But the training and principles can apply to personal interactions, too.
Learning to be more assertive
Becoming more assertive takes practice. I have patients do role plays with me or each other in group in order to apply assertiveness to situations they encounter. One I use often is the following:
Role-play a family member asking you to come to a family function:
I like this example because it is a situation we all find ourselves in. Pressure from family is hard to take because it plays on our guilt and all those childhood tapes playing in our heads about obligation and being "good."
Family member: "We're having a birthday party for
Susie Friday night and we hope you'll be there."
You: Well, it's nice of you to include us, but we
have a dinner planned with Barb's boss."
Family member: "You can't miss this party! She
only turns 35 once!"
You: "Mom, there will be other big events that we
will plan on celebrating with the family. But with our schedules, we need to
plan ahead. Sorry, but we have this commitment."
Family member: "I understand and we'll miss you
and will be thinking about you."
More ways to practice assertiveness
At Coping.org, there is a very thorough listing of assertive "rights" and many exercises for Improving Assertive Behavior. Take some time to check out how you can begin to take better care of yourself by becoming more assertive.