- Assertiveness involves more than simply speaking your truth.
- To be assertive, you must know what you feel, want, and need and also manage your feelings while choosing your words carefully.
- Many are held back from learning assertiveness skills by doubting the validity of their own feelings and thoughts.
Is either of these remarks, spoken to a neighbor, assertive?
- If you don’t mind, can you turn down your music?
- You need to turn down your music right now.
The answer is no.
People often think that assertiveness involves standing up for yourself—saying what you think and feel. If that was the full story, the second statement could perhaps be considered assertive. But the second statement is actually considered aggressive because it’s said in a demanding way, making it harder for the person on the receiving end to take it in and hear the message.
The first statement attempts to be assertive, but it falls short because its passive nature makes it too easy for the recipient to discount the message being said. It doesn’t sound important, even though it most likely is.
Think of assertiveness on a continuum: On one far end you come across too weakly and the message isn’t taken seriously, and on the other far end you come across too strongly and the other person may grow defensive. Assertiveness falls at neither end, but right around the middle.
Here’s what true assertiveness actually is: stating your feelings and needs in a kind, respectful way that makes them more likely to be heard.
Assertiveness takes skill and practice. It’s not something that comes easily to most, so if this is difficult for you, please know that your skills can be strengthened. One of the most impactful ways to develop assertiveness skills is to begin to take your own feelings and emotional needs more seriously. But this does not come naturally for the legions of people who grew up with childhood emotional neglect.
Childhood Emotional Neglect Harms Assertiveness
Being assertive requires you to know how you feel and express it in a healthy way. It’s quite challenging to do this if you grew up in an environment in which you didn’t talk about feelings.
If you grew up in a household that ignored, minimized, or discounted your emotions (childhood emotional neglect), you very likely struggle with assertiveness today. As an emotionally neglected child, you missed out on learning some important lessons about your feelings and how they work. Your parents failed to tend to your emotions, setting you up to believe that your emotions are unimportant. You didn’t get to learn the skills to express yourself including the emotional language to do it.
The 5 Assertiveness Skills
1. Become aware of your feelings in the moment that a situation is happening.
Knowing how you feel before and after is useful, but, to be assertive, you must be able to identify your feelings in the middle of encounters.
The music has been playing loudly all night, and it’s getting late. You notice yourself feeling hot with a surge of energy telling you to take action. You identify your feeling as anger.
2. Know and trust that your feelings and thoughts are valid and deserve to be heard by others.
You tell yourself that your angry feelings are valid. It’s 2 a.m. and you have to be up early in the morning.
3. When you’re hurt or angry (or any other possible emotion), it’s important to manage your feelings so you can put them into words.
This involves first identifying and validating your feelings internally, so you are better able to express yourself externally.
You take a few minutes to yourself before reacting. You drink a glass of water and take some deep breaths to calm down.
4. Attempt to understand the other person (or people) involved.
What might they be feeling?
You understand that your neighbors are probably having a great time and aren’t being malicious by listening to music loudly.
5. Consider your surroundings, the situation, and the setting.
You think about how you’d like to communicate your message. You decide you can walk over to the fence and talk in person or through a phone call. You also take into account that this has been happening a few times a month for the past couple of months.
Once you put these skills together, you will be able to express how you feel and what you need in a way that can be heard by others. When you speak up in a way that isn’t too weak or too strong, you are more likely to be met with understanding and maybe even get your needs met. So, you say:
It sounds like you are having a lot of fun over there, but I’m having trouble falling asleep with the loud music. Would you be able to turn the music down around midnight from now on? I’d really appreciate it since I have work in the morning.
Communicating assertively involves combining several skills into one. These skills can be built up over time. You can use the suggestions below as your aid.
How to Build Your Assertiveness Skills
Do daily feeling check-ins. Ask yourself these questions: How am I feeling right now? Why might I be feeling this way? Where do I feel this in my body? Is there anything I need?
Know that your feelings are there to help you. When you listen to and value your emotions, you’ll have a greater understanding of when you need to assert yourself. Your feelings give you energy and motivation to communicate what you need.
Emotional language is important. Perhaps you know feelings like happy, sad, and angry, but there’s an array of emotion words that can be used to your advantage. Widening your emotional vocabulary helps you to better understand your feelings and vocalize them to others.
Know your worth. Every time you decide to speak up for yourself, you send the message to yourself and others that you matter.
You won’t get it right every time, and that’s OK. The benefits of working on these assertiveness skills are great. After some practice, you’ll soon discover more ease in communicating, increased awareness, and growing confidence.
Instead of living by the credo your parents, unfortunately, taught you: “My feelings don’t matter,” you’ll be following a more realistic, more meaningful, and more loving credo: “My feelings may not be the reality, but they are my reality. So they matter.”
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
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To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.