Assertiveness requires a delicate balance, especially if you are new to it. You may have started as too passive, but take care to not swing into the aggressive territory where you are robbing other people of their needs. You can’t control what others do or how they might respond to you, but you can control your own behavior.
Tony Robbins succinctly articulated the six needs of human happiness you are likely keeping yourself from as a result of lacking assertiveness. They are certainty, variety, significance, love and connection, growth, and contribution. This is what’s at stake every time you come to a fork in the road and consider shrinking away from the moment. It’s not trivial, and can lead to a life you want, or a life you don’t.
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The Balance of Assertiveness
What does assertiveness mean to you? I can tell you what it means to me: freedom.
It’s not necessarily freedom from others or from the obligations in my life, but assertiveness is the freedom to choose what I want to do and not be beholden to people, places, and things.
It might sound insignificant, but it’s absolutely not. It’s analogous to the difference between feeling like you’re drowning versus treading water effortlessly. And if it sounds familiar, then welcome to the first step in taking back your time, energy, and life.
I’m a recovering people-pleaser, passive person, and overall doormat. I realize now that I acted in this manner for a few reasons. First, I didn’t know that it was okay to say no to people. Second, I felt like people would hate me if I disagreed with them. Third, I literally didn’t know the words to use. These things sound almost silly to read back as I write them, but I know I’m not alone in them—I’ll dig into these factors deeper in later chapters. I wrote this book as much for me as for you.
Becoming an assertive person who knows how to stand up for themselves takes far more than a few simple phrases in the guise of communication skills. It requires a deep look into the relationship you have with others, and more importantly, the relationship you have with yourself.
That’s why you’ll go to extreme lengths to avoid conflict, unable to express yourself clearly and fairly without your emotions sabotaging you. That’s also why you’ll beat yourself up for being such a pushover, losing your temper, or following orders against your better nature.
Assertiveness is, in theory, as easy as saying those simple phrases: “No,” “I don’t want to,” and “Are you trying to take advantage of me?” But in practice, it’s one of the most difficult lines to tread. How can you get your message across without insulting or enraging others? Is there a way to balance your needs with the requests of others?
Let’s take a look at a scenario that is likely familiar, from one perspective or another.
Three friends had been meaning to meet up, so Keisha booked a table for dinner that night. She ordered the most expensive meal because her promotion allowed her to treat herself. Michael hadn’t told them he was recovering from gastric flu and didn’t order food, excusing himself, sweating and shaking, to throw up halfway through the meal.
Gita had paid out for unexpected car repairs that day and, hiding a gasp when she saw the prices, just ordered a side dish so she could afford a much-needed drink.
When the bill came, Keisha told the waiter they would split it three ways.
Michael resented paying for their food when he should have been at home in bed, but he agreed, not wanting to disappoint Keisha. Gita, probably helped along by the house wine on an almost empty stomach, passive-aggressively groused that Keisha was too controlling and they should have cancelled. There was palpable tension in the air until things became obvious and plain.
“Why didn’t you both just say?” Keisha asked as she theatrically paid for the entire meal amidst protests that turned into deafening silence. That was the last time they met up as friends.
Most people can remember a time when they have played the role of Keisha, Gita, or Michael. Assertiveness would have been a very welcome fourth dinner guest.
Michael’s passive behavior stemmed from feeling too guilty to tell Keisha he wasn’t well enough to meet up; he felt obligated to make it out. Gita was ashamed of her financial situation and fearful of judgment, which bubbled into mistrust of Keisha’s intentions. Despite Keisha’s outward appearance, her low self-worth fueled her aggressive behavior surrounding where, when, and how they ate together.
Have you been any or all of these people on some occasion?
Assertiveness allows you to let people know where you stand, but in a way that doesn’t change your relationship, and doesn’t attach negativity to the situation. If those things do happen, it won’t be because of your actions or words.
Think of assertiveness as a bubble protecting your values, availability, capability, and needs—your confident bodyguard who stops things from spiraling out of control. Being assertive is calmly standing up for your rights and respectfully influencing others in potentially stressful situations.
Again, it seems as easy as just speaking a few phrases directly and without subterfuge, but we instinctually know that people are anything but predictable or logical, so it’s never that simple. How do you suppose Michael, Keisha, or Gita would react to an assertive pushback? We can never imagine it going well, though there are many ways to smoothly and strategically speak your mind. Whatever the case, it’s this assumption that keeps us quiet until we reach our breaking points.
One way to make assertiveness easier is to have remind ourselves of what we’re missing out on in our lives—what’s at stake. It is anything but trivial, and it compounds on a daily basis if you don’t speak up.
Asserting Your Needs
We all have needs, psychological or physical, and the inability to be assertive means your needs will often go unfulfilled. On a short-term basis, this is acceptable and sometimes even necessary. Sometimes we choose to downgrade our needs in favor of someone else’s more pressing matters. But the vast majority of the time, are we really making that choice, or do we simply feel handcuffed by our inability to express ourselves as we want?
Needs are a big part of who you are: they are the indulgent daydreams of your deepest desires, what you wish for when you toss a coin into a fountain or see a shooting star, or the goals you enter into a journal on New Year’s Day. They are everybody’s driving force, and unmet needs create feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and unhappiness.
It’s important to understand the needs that you have to meet, as they are what you’ve been missing out on by not being assertive. This is what you’re giving up in life—the costs—by always letting things slide and not speaking up for yourself. Would you discover that you are living your life in a state of constant deprivation and lacking? Noted personal development speaker and author Tony Robbins defined the following universal six core human needs. Some may apply more than others to you because some are opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s not a scientifically founded explanation, but it should provide a clear illustration of the everyday basic necessities that are missing from your life—because of you and no one else.
(1) Certainty is the need for consistency, stability, security, safety, order, comfort, and control. It is a basic need that focuses on survival and the ability to build a structure and a routine in safe conditions.
Without assertiveness: If your housemate failed to spend the money you gave him to pay your mutual rent and bills and you didn’t confront him, leading to angry letters from the landlord and your water and electricity being cut off, this need would not be met.
However, human beings are complex creatures; too much certainty leads to boredom. This is where a need for (2) variety comes in: this is the need for diversity, challenge, change, surprise, uncertainty, and adventure.
Without assertiveness: Your housemate always pays his way but views any sense of decoration or organization as a waste of time. Your décor gets you down but you can’t find it in you to convince him a makeover is the right move. You almost wish he’d stop paying the rent; then at least you could find somewhere new.
(3) Significance is the need to feel needed, honored, wanted, special, and validated. From birth, we need to feel unique and worthy of attention, and one way we can achieve the feeling of significance is through teaching.
Without assertiveness: A teaching position you’d love to have is being advertised at work. It’s assumed a colleague will get the role, but they’re not really interested and you know you’d be great. You can’t quite bring yourself to make your case to the hiring manager, though, and they eventually give the job to a less qualified candidate.
(4) Love and connection is the need for communication, connection, intimacy, and shared love with others.
Without assertiveness: Despite months of hints, you couldn’t bring yourself to take the plunge and ask someone who cared for you deeply on a date. The moment was there, but you faltered and they left, sadness ingrained on their face. A few months later, you found out from a friend that they had a new partner now. Significance only goes so far, as humans crave a much deeper connection.
(5) Growth is the need for intellectual, spiritual, physical, and emotional development. This need takes you from matters of the personality to matters of the spirit. Without the previous needs taken care of, you can’t begin to grow.
Without assertiveness: Your company is offering training in public speaking, but when signing people up, they laugh and walk past you, joking that the timid mouse wouldn’t dare. You stare silently at their backs as they walk off and resign yourself to the fact that people like you don’t deserve to conquer their fears.
Finally, (6) contribution is the need to do good, serve others, give, protect beyond ourselves, and impacts others.
Without assertiveness: You’ve always dreamed of rescuing animals, but you’re scared of convincing the shelter staff; you suppose the animals would be better off elsewhere and block out thoughts of the lives you could improve. Your attempts at veganism stop when your friends laugh that you wouldn’t last a week. You eat the meat they cooked and tell them you were only joking.
Being assertive in the examples above could have garnered you a newly decorated apartment, dream teaching job, a partner, and a pet. This is what you’re missing out on; the stakes are high, even if they don’t appear to be on a daily basis. They add up. You shouldn’t be resigned to neglecting them.
Even if throughout your life your needs haven’t been met, and you perhaps don’t remember what they feel like, you still have them. It will be impossible to behave assertively if you tell yourself you don’t have needs and resent others who agree with you. Do you feel that your happiness is subject to what the people around you will accept or tolerate?
The great cost of your lack of assertiveness is a life that doesn’t resemble anything you’ve ever wanted. After you evaluate yourself based on those six needs, or even just asking if you’re getting what you want from the people around you, it’s likely enough to make you want to unload, guns blazing, on the next person who dares to cross your path.
You’re ready to believe that you deserve to be fulfilled. You may begin to feel you are owed something and blame others for the fact you’re insecure or aren’t achieving what you want.
While you shouldn’t selfishly deny the needs of other people, or simply switch roles from masochist to sadist, it quickly becomes clear that to get more of what you want, and less of what you don’t want, you must come to terms with being less nice.
Indeed, science has bore out the fact that this can pay off handsomely. In a study published in the journal Social Forces, sociologist Robert Faris followed students in grades six to eight from three North Carolina counties for three years.
Faris used factors like being voted “most likely to succeed” in yearbooks to determine the “elite” students and then looked at who they had named as their friends. The “hangers-on” had named a member of the elite as their friend but hadn’t been named back. Students also shared who they’d treated badly and who had been cruel to them.
The elite represented only 5% of all the schools, with their friends and hangers-on totaling 14%. Faris found that the last 81% of students were still able enter the top tier through “reputational aggression,” which included gossiping, shunning, spreading rumors, and teasing.
This behavior doubled the chances of becoming friends with one of the elite, particularly if the aggressive behavior was targeted at a high-status student or their close friends. The victims of reputational aggression slunk down to the depths of the second or third tier of the hierarchy. The conclusion was clear as the oft-used phrase, Nice guys and gals finish last. Aggression was how people got what they wanted, more often than not—but it will probably lead to negative long-term ramifications. Assertiveness fits right into the slow between nice and aggressive.
It’s at this point that you may realize that your definition of “nice” is tantamount to extreme people-pleasing and not voicing any of your own thoughts or desires. Assertiveness is something you may recognize as decidedly “not nice.” And that’s okay.
It will feel oddly confrontational and tense—and that’s okay.
Your relationships with people may change, as a result of them being used to walking all over you—and that’s okay.
You may feel that should stop, and rather pick your battles instead of making a fuss at every small thing—and that’s okay.
Just remember what’s at stake with your needs, desires, and way you pictured your life playing out. It’s time to stop compromising on them and respect yourself the way you do others. You don’t have to be Keisha, Michael, or Gita; those are not the only choices of how to handle a hazy interpersonal situation.
Assertiveness is asking for what you want, turning others down, and making decisions that are right for you without anger, threats, manipulation, or fear of repercussions. Everybody deserves to have their needs met while maintaining their sense of self-worth, and no matter what others may do, you always have the power to control how you react.
You’ll never be able to stop other people asking something of you, but you always have the power to say no. Being assertive is understanding that you can’t control what others may do, but you can control your own behavior.