We’d all like to confidently stand our ground and openly express our feelings to those around us, whether it’s to decline an invitation or stand up to a co-worker. But it doesn’t come easy.
“Many people struggle with being assertive because it’s hard to know where the line is between coming across as too strong or pushy, or appearing weak and insecure,” says Joree Rose, LMFT.
These tips can help you get more comfortable with speaking up and advocating for yourself.
The first step toward becoming more assertive is taking inventory of how you voice your thoughts and feelings. Do you use a passive or aggressive communication style?
If you have a passive style, you may allow the needs of others to come before your own, says licensed psychotherapist Annemarie Phelan. You might mean well, she explains, but this style of communication can lead to harmful resentment over time.
An aggressive style, on the other hand, tramples on the rights of others. This is very different from being assertive. Phelan adds that with assertive communication, “there is no bullying, no intimidation, just clearly stating your desires or needs.”
Understanding where you fall on the spectrum between passive and aggressive communication can help you narrow down areas that could use improvement.
Finding your style
Not sure where you fall on the scale? Consider this example.
An acquaintance asks for a favor. You’ve helped this person many times and are getting tired of it. There’s a personal project you’d really like to work on instead.
Here’s how you might respond based on your communication style:
- Passive. “Sure! I’d love to help!”
- Aggressive. “I’m tired of your whining and neediness. You never do anything for yourself.”
- Assertive. “I’m not going to be able to help this time.”
Find yourself automatically saying yes to things without thinking about it? If you tend to do this, Phelan recommends having some go-to phrases when you’re faced with a request or invitation you aren’t that into.
Here are a few starters:
- “Let me get back to you on that.”
- “I need to check my calendar.”
- “I have a schedule conflict.”
- “I won’t be able to, I have plans.”
If you do decide to say you need to check some things first, make sure to get back to the person.
Above all, remember that you’re not obligated to explain your reasoning for declining a request or invitation.
If you find yourself feeling guilty when you try to assert yourself, keep in mind that saying no to a request doesn’t mean you’re rejecting the person.
It’s hard to practice being assertive when you’re in the moment. That’s why Rose recommends mentally pumping up yourself with positive self-talk.
It might sound corny, but if you’re about to have a conversation where you know you’ll have to put your foot down, hype yourself up with positive thoughts of “I’ve got this” or “My time is important.”
If your heart starts racing at the mere thought of placing a boundary, take a moment to breathe deeply, especially if you feel aggression starting to take over.
“Breathing will calm the brain and the body and help ground yourself, making it easier to come back to your intentions,” Rose adds.
Deep breathing exercise
The next time you feel yourself getting overwhelmed or losing focus, try this exercise:
- Find a quiet place to sit or stand.
- Inhale deeply through your nose.
- Hold your breath and count to 5.
- Slowly release your breath by exhaling through your nose.
Communication isn’t just verbal. Before going into a stressful situation or a difficult conversation, Rose recommends adopting an assertive body stance that makes you feel more confident and powerful.
What does that look like? Stand up straight, rolling your shoulders back. Maintain regular eye contact and a neutral facial expression.
If you have a big issue you’re trying to address, consider role-playing with a trusted friend by practicing different conversation styles. Write it down, then say what you want to say aloud.
Remember to ask for feedback about how clear you’re coming across, and how the other person might see the situation.
Pay attention to how they respond to your tone of voice and body language. Are you communicating without becoming shy or hostile? Evaluate yourself afterward. Tweak your approach according to their input.
Without a healthy and balanced sense of self-worth, you’ll likely keep accepting less from others, or end up giving more than you receive.
“If you don’t believe in yourself, it’ll be hard for someone else to believe in you or give you want you want,” Rose says.
Remember, assertiveness and aggression are different things. Assertiveness is about stating your needs or requests in a respectful manner and within personal boundaries, explains Ashleigh Edelstein, LMFT.
If putting down boundaries feels aggressive or uncomfortable for you, consider this scenario: Your boss is constantly piling work on your desk without checking in on whether you can take more projects.
An aggressive response would be blowing up at your boss in a meeting or demanding that someone else do the work.
An assertive response, on the other hand, would be scheduling a meeting with your boss to discuss a new system for assigning work, or coming up with ways to better delegate responsibilities.
If all of this sounds a bit daunting, consider starting with some small exercises to help you practice being more assertive in low-risk situations.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Speak up when you’d rather watch a movie at home instead of going out.
- Let your partner know you won’t be able to do a specific errand. This can also be a good opportunity to practice saying no without offering a full backstory.
- Go to a new restaurant and ask for a table that’s in a quieter area or near a window. Even if there’s nothing available, it’s a good way to practice asking for what you want.
If you’re finding it hard to practice being more assertive, consider talking things out with a qualified therapist for additional support. Underlying factors, including stress and anxiety, can make it particularly hard to ask for what you need.
A therapist can help you identify roadblocks and come up with new tools for navigating around them.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.