Asserting our Self to create our preferred World

by Dr Robyn Vickers-Willis

“Ex-pression is the opposite of de-pression. Whenever we de-press, we usually need to ex-press.”  Sark, Living Juicy

In my mid-thirties, when I first became a consultant to organisations, one of my first assignments was to design and run an assertiveness course. As I read books on assertiveness I was shocked to realise that I wasn’t assertive in much of my own life. I read that we all have rights to express our thoughts, feelings and needs. Although we can’t make others accept them, we always have a right to express them. Why hadn’t I known this before? I also read about the communication skills needed to be assertive. In some situations I did use them. However, this was more by luck than conscious application.

Since running that first course I have taught many women and men assertiveness skills in courses and individual counselling sessions. I have come to accept that most of us are unskilled in assertiveness because of our early conditioning. We rarely saw assertiveness skills modelled when we were young. Our world at home and school was authoritarian. We did what others told us to do. Rarely was there room for disagreement and discussion. Given this early conditioning, I now accept that assertiveness is the most important interpersonal skill to learn if we are to create for ourselves a satisfying, meaningful personal world while at the same time maintaining satisfying relationships.

Signs of the need for assertiveness are teeth-grinding, nail-biting, finger- or foot-tapping or jiggling, artificial nervous laughter, insomnia, churning stomach, tightening jaw, headaches, tight neck muscles and any other personal ways to express tension. Behaviours that may signal the need for assertiveness are lashing out, procrastination and feeling low. If you have any of these signs or behaviours understandings that might help you in developing your assertiveness are:

  • Assertive behaviour is about being able to express our own feelings, thoughts and wishes while at the same time respecting the right of others to do the same. Assertive people can also express their personal likes and interests spontaneously; talk about themselves without being self-conscious; accept compliments comfortably; disagree with someone openly; view mistakes positively and learn from them; and say ‘no’.
  • To come across assertively it is important to be clear about what our rights in the situation are. Often we have ‘unconstructive self-talk’ that sabotages our efforts to be assertive and so we need to learn to challenge it.
  • Being assertive doesn’t necessarily mean that we get our wishes met. An aggressive person is more likely to get their needs met, however this is often at the expense of their
    relationships. A passive person rarely gets their needs met because they never make them known.
  • Even if we do not get what we want, when we are assertive we behave in a way that ensures we do not continually come away from situations feeling bad about ourselves. We feel more confident and have the satisfaction that we did not let ourselves down, nor did we abuse the rights of others. We show respect for ourselves, while at the same time maintaining respect for others. We become more relaxed in interpersonal situations, and as a result we are more fun to be with.
  • When we are first assertive with a person we have not been assertive with before, they are often shocked. Our behaviour may be perceived as aggressiveness if in the past we have been passive in a similar situation. Gradually, the person will get used to our new behaviour and respect us more for it.
  • We often need to use the ‘broken record technique’—that is, we need to say the same assertive statement several times before it is actually heard. It feels a bit strange at first, however it does work.

And finally, the three steps in an assertive statement:

Step 1  Show you understand the other person’s perspective.

Step 2  Say how you are feeling or thinking.

Step 3  Say what you want to happen.

Assertiveness is the most important interpersonal skill for developing self-confidence, self-esteem and effective, intimate relationships. If we are passive we end up with a whole lot of feelings burning up inside us, creating tension and ultimately physical and psychological ill health. If we are aggressive, we get our feelings out but wonder why we do not have comfortable relationships with people. Developing our assertiveness skills is also the key to begin directing our own life and shaping it to be more congruent with the person we are.

Dr Robyn Vickers-Willis, a psychologist, is author of Navigating Midlife: Women Becoming Themselves (2002), Men Navigating Midlife (2004), and Navigating the Empty Nest: Recreating Relationships (2008).  She currently facilitates a weekend retreat Navigating Midlife and Beyond, at the Gawler Cancer Foundation’s Yarra Valley Living Centre.