Everything you need to know about assertiveness in 5 minutes or less

🎯 What Is Assertiveness?

Assertiveness means aligning your actions with your values. While the term assertiveness is often used to describe assertive communication—expressing honestly what you want and don’t want—the principle of assertiveness applies beyond speech to behavior more broadly. To live assertively means to pursue your authentic wants and needs courageously while simultaneously respecting the rights of others.

👀 Examples of Assertiveness

Examples of assertive communication:

  • Asking for what you want. For example: Asking your boss for a raise or asking your partner to spend more quality time with you on the weekends.
  • Sharing your beliefs, opinions, or ideas. For example: Sharing a political opinion during a conversation despite feeling embarrassed by it or expressing a creative idea during a meeting at work despite being worried that you’ll look dumb.
  • Saying no and setting healthy boundaries. For example: Telling your manager that you can’t come into work on Saturday or saying no to a family member’s request for money.

Examples of assertive behavior:

  • Following through on your goals and commitments. For example: Going to the gym after work like you planned despite feeling tired.
  • Making difficult decisions. For example: Leaving a job and career that’s overwhelmingly stressful or burning you out. Or leaving a marriage that’s abusive and unhealthy.
  • Restructuring your life. Moving to a new part of the country or downsizing your home to something in a less popular but more affordable neighborhood.

😬 Problems Associated with Low Assertiveness

  • Anxiety. Most people who struggle to be assertive end up falling into a passive style of behaving and communicating, which means being overly deferential and accommodating with others. And when you consistently ignore your own wants and needs, anxiety becomes your mind’s way of telling you something is wrong. In short, much of anxiety is a symptom of low assertiveness.
  • Low self-esteem and poor confidence. When you habitually fail to act on your values, your self-esteem—which can be thought of as your reputation with yourself—understandably suffers. Similarly, if you regularly avoid challenges and difficulties because of fear, your confidence decreases with time.
  • Overthinking. Because overthinking feels productive, people often use it as a way to procrastinate on or rationalize their avoidance of  important but challenging goals in their life. In other words, the more you get in a habit of avoiding action, the more likely you are to go “inward” and get lost in overthinking like chronic worry or self-doubt.
  • Relationship problems. When you’re unwilling to ask for what you want, express yourself, or say no and set boundaries in your relationships, you will end up resenting the other person, and ultimately, yourself. This quiet resentment is often at the heart of relationship problems like lack of intimacy and trust or constant conflict.

🌀 What Causes Low Assertiveness?

  • Self-criticism and self-doubt. If you’re constantly criticizing and doubting yourself, you’ll have less confidence to act assertively despite feeling uncomfortable or afraid. And the less you practice assertiveness, the more opportunities for self-criticism and self-doubt you create. A vicious cycle.
  • Faulty theory of emotion. Acting assertively is a challenge because it almost always requires that you tolerate difficult emotions like fear or embarrassment. However, if you believe that painful emotions are bad, or a sign that something is wrong, you will avoid difficult emotions rather than accepting and tolerating them, which results in very few opportunities to practice being assertive and build confidence.
  • People pleasing and reassurance seeking. Many people rely on people pleasing and reassurance seeking as their primary method of dealing with fears and insecurities. Unfortunately, both of these habits frequently involve chronically subordinating your own wants and needs to those of others, which is antithetical to assertiveness.
  • Fear of disappointing others. Pursuing your values will often trigger other people to become upset. But if you can’t tolerate other people feeling upset and disappointed with you, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to consistently act assertively.

💡 Key Insights About Assertiveness

  • Assertiveness is not aggressiveness. Aggression means pursuing your wants and needs while violating the rights of others. And assertiveness, by definition, means always being respectful of the rights and autonomy of other people as well as your own. NOTE: See the assertive communication matrix in the next section for more details on how assertive communication differs from other forms of communication.
  • Assertiveness is about you, not other people. Assertiveness is not fundamentally about other people. And it’s certainly not about trying to control or manipulating other people. In fact, the opposite is true: Assertiveness is about taking responsibility for yourself, your actions, and your values regardless of how other people behave.
  • Assertiveness is a skill, not a personality trait. While our basic temperament and personality may influence our tendency to be assertive or not, ultimately assertiveness is a skill that anyone can cultivate. But like most skills in life, it requires practice and patience. Specifically, it requires that you are able to be aware of and tolerate difficult emotions rather than trying to cope with or avoid them.

📊 The Assertive Communication Matrix

The assertive communication matrix is a simple visual guide to understanding the difference between the four fundamental communication styles: assertive, aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive:

🛠️ Tips and Tools for Improving Assertiveness

  • Improve your emotional endurance. Very frequently it will feel scary to act assertively. If you can’t tolerate that fear and be assertive anyway, your assertiveness will decrease rather than improve. Building emotional endurance is essential if you want to feel more confident with assertiveness.
  • Avoid fake guilt. Often the biggest obstacle to assertiveness is guilt. Or rather, it’s the fear of feeling guilty because someone else might become sad or angry after your act assertively. But that’s not actually guilt. Guilt is the emotion you feel when you knowingly do something immoral. Feeling guilty even though you’ve done nothing wrong is fake guilt and you shouldn’t let it stop you from being assertive. Remember: You are responsible for your actions, not other people’s feelings.
  • Clarify your values. It’s important to remember that despite assertiveness often feeling uncomfortable or scary, we’re doing it for a reason. We’re setting boundaries on work so that we can protect our mental health, for example. Or maybe you’re expressing yourself with your partner because you value honesty and trust in relationships. When you make time to clarify the why behind your assertiveness—your personal values—you will feel more motivated and confident to act assertively despite the discomfort.

💬 Quotes About Assertiveness

  • Asking for what you want is highly correlated with getting it. — Thomas T. Hills
  • It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. — J. K. Rowling
  • Most men die at 27, we just bury them at 72. — Mark Twain
  • If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. — Greg McKeown
  • One day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to do the things you’ve always wanted. Do it now. — Paulo Coelho

🔬 Selected Research on Assertiveness