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How, and How Not, to Stand Up for Yourself

When is assertiveness nothing more than self-righteous defensiveness?

Key points

  • People who are non-assertive generally don't get their needs met. Conversely, aggressiveness can result in one feeling "cut off" from others.
  • Adamantly and self-righteously standing up for oneself while invalidating another's point of view is ineffective.
  • Clarifying one's perspective instead of attacking the other person leads to better communication.

It’s become conventional wisdom that it’s essential to stand up for yourself. But there are ways of doing so that are hardly advisable. Ways that will hurt both you and your relationship. Ways that will prevent you from confronting the person most needing to be confronted—yourself.

Out of context at least, assertiveness is always a good thing. Candidly letting others know what you need and desire—as well as how you feel—demonstrates personal dignity, self-confidence, and respect. Moreover, it can make others much more sensitive to the validity, or legitimacy, of your outlook. In effect, you’re saying: “Look, I matter. I need you to take my point of view and feelings into account. Maybe you don’t think my position is as good as yours—but I still think it deserves to be taken seriously.”

People who are non-assertive—that is, passive, verbally withholding, or overly deferential—generally don’t (and can’t) get their basic relational needs met. They end up feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and unfulfilled. Ironically, though, individuals who are more aggressive than assertive similarly wind up feeling “cut off” from others, despite being much better at getting others to do their bidding. But through insistent, “bullying” demands and projecting the message that their own (ego-centered) needs are unquestionably more vital, more valuable, than anybody else’s, they eventually alienate those around them.

Assertiveness, then, would seem to represent the golden mean. And though, in general, it is, it’s also possible to be more combative or contentious in your assertiveness than you realize. If you resolutely proclaim the righteousness of your position without attending to the other’s wants, needs, and feelings, you’ll be perceived as aggressive—regardless of what may be your conscious intention simply to stand up for yourself.

And being seen this way—not as assertive, but as self-righteously defensive—is precisely what I have in mind when I allude to the unfortunate downside of (incorrectly) standing up for yourself.

Although you may not mean to aggress against the other person(s), whenever your assertive declarations are imbued with a certain self-righteousness, you can’t help but convey the message that your perspective really is more important than theirs—that it’s superior, and so ought to be given priority. In such instances, you’re simply unwilling to consider that the other person’s position is—in the world of their experience—just as sincere, authentic, or heartfelt as yours, and held with every bit as much conviction.

Inadvertently, you may be employing a double standard: one blatantly biased in your favor. Totally convinced that your way of thinking is the only “right” one, you lose the capacity to detach from it and honor the personal validity of the other’s viewpoint. And so, inevitably, your whole attitude toward them becomes dismissive. In reaction to feeling made wrong by them, you hasten to make them feel wrong in return.

And, finally, doesn’t this all come under the heading: “Two wrongs don’t make a right?”

Obviously, once you’ve invalidated the other’s point of view, the opportunity for any productive discussion or problem-solving all but disappears. The mutual goodwill requisite for resolving differences is missing in action. It’s one thing to have dissimilar preferences or needs. Or to interpret a situation differently. But it’s quite another to self-righteously stand up for your position as the only reasonable one. Such failed assertiveness (true assertiveness always takes into account the thoughts and feelings of others) is not only discourteous and disrespectful but almost certain to defeat your purpose.

Adamantly standing up for yourself can also be taken as ridiculing, offensive, belittling, or belligerent. In which case, the other’s response is all the more likely to be similarly attacking, defensive—or to prompt them to withdraw from you altogether. You’re insisting on the singular “correctness” of your viewpoint without the slightest acknowledgment that, for them, their viewpoint may feel equally true.

At times, standing up for yourself can be virtually synonymous with defensiveness. If you’re too fearful or insecure to look within at your own possible weakness or wrongdoing, you may feel compelled to stubbornly defend your viewpoint—unwilling to explore its possible irrationality. If in feeling criticized your irresistible, knee-jerk reaction is to fight back, you may not be able to realistically assess whether perhaps it’s you who needs to reconsider your position or to change in some way. As long as the situation feels threatening, you’ll remain closed to what the other has to say, unable to consider that this could be a time to take in their message rather than reflexively repudiate it.

If you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions, here are a few suggestions. Before standing up for yourself in any particular circumstance:

  • Consider where the other person is coming from. What do you think their thoughts and feelings might be? Could you begin simply by asking them?—or, before you respond, take into account what at least you imagine might be going on with them?
  • How much do you really need to justify, or explain yourself? Might it be enough simply to say that since your backgrounds and life experiences differ, it’s only natural that you wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on this matter?
  • Think of how you can, without attacking, best clarify your perspective—that is, in a way that’s neither self-righteous (i.e., expounding on the superiority of your position) nor overly defensive (i.e., strenuously seeking to discredit or reject their unfavorable impression of you).
  • Assure yourself that, without your consent, no one has the authority to invalidate you. That, unless you’ve been in flagrant denial about the facts of the situation, the prerogative to judge the validity of your thoughts and feelings belongs to you alone. And that you hardly need to take up arms against someone else’s viewpoint.

Once you’ve learned how to mindfully stand up for yourself, you’ll find that you’ve greatly increased the odds that whatever you have to say will be better understood—and given more weight—than may ever have been the case previously.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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