Posted by: thealienist | June 8, 2010

Foundations of Mental Health: Assertiveness

In my previous post, I noted that being able to submit (when appropriate) is important for socialization and building relationships.  However, many have problems that prevent them from assuming control of their lives (when appropriate) and making their thoughts, emotions, and wishes knows.  Some are generally submissive even when it is not appropriate.  Some are too often aggressive and ride rough-shod over others who they would like to have relationships with.  But many alternate between being passive (and storing up negative feelings against those they see as unfairly controlling their lives) and exploding with aggression when they can no longer tolerate the frustration of passivity.  The good news is that there is an alternative to passivity and aggression.  It is a middle road — assertiveness.

While it is appropriate to submit at times and it may be appropriate to be aggressive at times, each of these strategies if overused can cause problems.  If you are inappropriately passive, people will take advantage of you, and you may frequently feel “walked on.”  If you are inappropriately aggressive, you will hurt those around you and neglect to take their wishes and views into consideration.  Assertion allows you to take active control of situations and make your desires known while still respecting and engaging those around you.  It is probably the nicest way to confront another person.

The Rules

When I teach my patients to be assertive, I use three rules.  I note that these rules are easy to remember but difficult to practice, though with practice they become easier and easier.  The three rules are…

1).  You are allowed to tell people how you feel.

2).  If you are going to take someone’s time to tell them how you feel, tell them why you feel that way.

3).  If you are going to take someone’s time to tell them how you feel and why you feel that way, tell them what they can do to make things better.

For example, I might tell a person, “You know, I feel disrespected when you text people while I am talking to you.  Could you please finish your conversation and give me about 5 minutes to tell you about what I would like for us to do together?”  This is probably the nicest way I could express my frustration with this person, but it does not guarantee that this person will comply with my wishes.  For instance, he might explain that there is an emergency that he has to take care of and that we cannot talk right now.  He might think that my request is unreasonable and start an argument.  Regardless, I have given him the best opportunity to work with me and find a solution to our problem relating.  If he agrees or if he helps me find a mutually agreeable solution to the problem, we both win.  If he decides to ignore the problem, then I have learned something about him that I can use to decide whether this is a person I want to maintain a close relationship with.


Now, it is important to know that not every communication that has the form of an assertive communication is really an assertive communication.  For example, I was once teaching assertive communication to an older couple who were having problems with their relationships.  I taught the rules as I expressed them above.  The woman’s eyes lit up and she said, “Oh, I see!  So I should tell my husband, ‘You make me sick because you’re such a loser, so drop dead!.”  She smiled and breathed a sigh of relief.  Unfortunately, I had to point out to her that, though her communication had the form of an assertive communication, it was really an aggressive attack.

How Do I Know When to Use This?

Of course, you cannot talk using assertive communications all of the time.  This would sound very weird.  A general rule of thumb that I use is that whenever I feel a strong surge of emotion, I should consider using assertive communication to express it.  Sometimes I will decide that it is most appropriate to submit.  Sometimes (but rarely) I will find that the issue is so important that I need to take aggressive action.  Most of the time, however, I will decide that it improves the situation if the person I am talking to knows my feelings about the situation and my ideas about how to improve it.  In return, I invite him to express himself assertively to me so that I can know how he feels and what he is thinking.  In this way, we build mutual respect and the ability to trust one another with our thoughts and feelings.   I would encourage anyone who wants to build relationships with family, friends, and co-workers to practice assertive communication.  Also, if you want to bring peace to difficult situations, be ready to diffuse aggression with assertiveness.


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