Expressing Warm Feelings Is a Highly Assertive Act
Expressing warmth is a vital form of assertiveness.
Posted Aug 28, 2020
Though I wrote a science-based book on how to transform to be assertive, I can’t resist dipping into that area in my reading.
I picked up a book on assertivenss considered a classic, “Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships,” by psychologists Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons.
Midway through, they write something that I hadn’t thought of before, the notion that “Expressing your warm feelings for another person is a highly assertive act.”
They’re right. We tend to think of assertiveness (and the self-acceptance and confidence that power it) as just a means for standing up for ourselves and others: for getting our needs met, trying to even out unfair situations and relationships, and defending our rights.
But the authors quote the late psychiatrist Michael Serber, writing in the journal Behavior Therapy in 1971:
Certainly, behavioral skills necessary to stand up to the multiple personal, social, and business situations confronting the majority of people are imperative to master. But what of other just as necessary skills, such as being able to give and take tenderness and affection? Is not the expression of affection toward other people also assertion? The ability to express warmth and affection, to be able to give and take feelings, including anger, badly need special attention. Humanistic goals and behavioral techniques can yield both meaningful and concrete new behaviors.
They lay out some ways to assert yourself by expressing warmth: communicating “you mean a great deal to me” or that the person has changed your life for the better in some way:
- A warm, firm, and extended handshake
- A hug, the squeeze of an arm, an arm around the shoulders, an affectionate pat on the back, the squeeze of a hand held affectionately
- A warm smile
- Extended eye contact
- A gift of love (made by the giver or uniquely special to the recipient)
- Sincerely warm words, such as “Thank you.” “You’re great!” “I really understand what you mean.” “I like what you did.”
I grew up a bullied kid, and I had no friends—not a one—until I was 15. A gang of girls, bigger and older than I was, at my junior high school, assaulted me in the halls every day until my dad went to the principal to complain. It made sense that I lived “on guard” to a degree, waiting for the other shoe to drop—or fly across the room and hit me in the head.
Of course, after I became an adult, living in New York City, I was able to make friends and there were no longer big mean girls trying to give me a daily beatdown. But behavior patterns that work for us at one point tend to become behavioral habits that we engage in automatically, and I remained Amy the Worm, careful never to express an opinion unless I thought others would approve of it and behaving in various other suckuppy, self-denying ways.
Eventually, I came to realize that behavior that was adaptive for me as a kid getting beaten up all the time was no longer adaptive for me as an adult. In fact, it was keeping me from having real friends, the kind you can be vulnerable to, who know who you really are. It also kept me from being a good friend, from sticking my neck out in caring ways—like Emmons and Alberti suggest.
I do that now constantly, telling people in my life that I care about them, that they made a difference for me. I tell a friend who’s a mom (who worries that she’s a bad friend to me by sometimes being too exhausted to make a call we’d planned) how much I respect the effort and time she puts into raising a daughter with good character.
Now, it’s harmful doormat behavior to just take it when people in your life are abusively thoughtless. But now, standing on the tall plateau of self-acceptance and confidence, which brings with it the clarity of discernment, I can divide people into those who sometimes don’t follow through on their appointments because they aren’t very good people and those who sometimes don’t follow through because, well...because they’re human and really need a nap.
If you aren’t assertive, and would like to start, good news. As I write in my new "science-help" book, "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence,” your feelings are not the boss of you. Acting assertively just takes telling your fears to bugger off and then saying what you should.
It’s important to speak up when you're being treated unfairly or to stand up for a point of view, but it’s equally important to do it to show love and gratitude to the people you care about—starting today.
Alberti, Robert E., and Michael Emmons. Your Perfect Right. Impact Publishers, 2017.
Serber, Michael. "Alberti RE, Emmons ML, Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Behavior, Impact, San Luis Obispo, California (1971)." (1971): 253-254.
Alkon, Amy. Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence. St. Martin's Griffin, 2018.