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We are often confronted with situations in which we must stand up for ourselves. The situation may involve a "friend" who continually borrows money. It may be a sister or brother who prevents us from studying by playing music too loudly. It may be a boyfriend or girlfriend wanting us to be something we are not. It may even involve dealing with a teacher who gave us, what we believe, is an incorrect grade on a test or project.
When facing such situations, there are generally three ways we may conduct ourselves:
Non-assertiveness is a passive way of dealing with confrontive situations. This type of behavior often results in our allowing others to determine what happens in our lives, producing feelings of helplessness, loneliness, and poor self-concept. We may also be angry and depressed at letting others control us. Non-assertive communication is usually indirect and not completely honest, which traps the thoughts and feelings we have inside us. These unexpressed emotions can lead to stress and its resulting physical problems.
Since non-assertiveness is often used when we want a relationship to continue but are unsure about the consequences of standing up for ourselves, it is ironic that non-assertiveness generally leads to interpersonal problems. While one conflict may be avoided, future interactions will be tainted by the lack of direct expression of thoughts and feelings. The other person will inevitably notice something wrong, either by our withdrawal, our sarcasm, or our inappropriate reactions to other incidents, but s/he will not know the real reason for our feelings, and, thus, will be unable to do anything about it.
A second method of dealing with such situations is aggression. While aggression certainly expresses our displeasure with a situation, and we may even get our way, it does not show sufficient respect for the rights of others. They may feel devalued or humiliated by the experience and will likely lose respect for, and positive opinions of, us. Such outbursts often lead to feelings of guilt and frustration. Despite controlling the situation, we may have significantly harmed the relationship and may still not have made the other person understand our perspective.
Assertiveness may be defined as expressing our own needs, wants, and basic rights as a person without violating the rights of others. It involves open and honest interaction directed at the person to whom it is intended. Assertive behavior shows that we respect others and ourselves, and, in turn, elicits respect from others. It also promotes self-confidence, self-control, and feelings of positive self-worth.
In addition, assertiveness is the most effective means for solving interpersonal problems. Since assertive communication is direct, we confront the source of the problems, enabling our message to be heard without distortion. Being open and honest aids in maintaining a good and respectful relationship with the other person, so future dealings will likely be positive.
Assertiveness is not a skill with which people are born. To become more assertive, you must first recognize that you have the right to take care of yourself and to sometimes put your needs ahead of others. Then you need to learn and practice assertive thinking and behavior. When practicing to be more assertive, it is helpful to get feedback from someone you trust. It is easy to undermine what we say by our facial expressions and gestures. We may also go to the opposite extreme of behavior (e.g., non-assertive to aggressive) in our attempts. For these reasons, assertiveness training has become quite common in the last several years. Both individually and in groups, the skills of assertiveness can be acquired in a safe and supportive atmosphere.
One source of assertiveness training is the Counseling Center, where Assertiveness groups often run. Arrangements for individual assistance may be made at the Center as well. If you are interested in such training, call the Counseling Center at 301-314-7651, or stop by the Shoemaker Building.
This article was written by Dr. Jonathan Kandell, formerly a Psychologist and Assistant Director at the Counseling Center.