In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist for
twenty-five years, I deal with the same eight conditions
over and over. The most common is anxiety but the other
seven are sometimes equally problematic.
(The other seven are mood problems, children’s behaviors,
ADHD and/or learning disorders, relationships issues,
low self-esteem, poor quality relationships and lack of
The last issue, assertiveness, is very frequently
seen in my office, and the lack of assertiveness
undermines success in almost all the other areas mentioned
above. Usually, I try to describe ways to increase
assertiveness. This is the normal approach to a clinical
issue. But a lot of people do not read articles because
they figure they already know how to do this. Then, they
fail to “do” the things listed. I’ve found that some
people better respond to a negative approach. In other
words, a lot of people respond to a “backwards” description
of an issue. Paradoxically, the message often “goes in”
when delivered in this way. So, here are some things we
can do to NOT be assertive.
One way to be less assertive is to start out life
being shy. This is not a pathological condition, just a
temperamental orientation. Shyness causes kids to sit in
the back of the class, to not speak up, to avoid being in the
spotlight. It also negatively correlates with what
assertiveness demands; namely, the opposite of these three
(and other) behaviors. Shyness can be overcome, so
apparently it is not so “hard wired,” but it can be difficult,
especially if early family experiences reinforce it.
Another way to be less assertive is to learn to hold
in feelings. Many families practice the old Biblical adage,
“Turn the other cheek,” or in more modern parlance,
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
These ideas sometimes have their place, like when talking to
authority. However, largely these orientations are
psychologically unhealthy. Holding in feelings, again,
is the exact opposite of what assertiveness entails.
Assertive people speak up or at least share their experiences
out loud. Then, usually following this (but not always),
assertive people ask for what they want. The single most
effective way to boost assertiveness by about fifty percent
is to articulate our feelings. That means use a feeling word
in a sentence out loud and use it to describe what we feel and
then ask for what we want. Using the feeling word is the key
that makes the biggest difference. So, if we don’t want to be
assertive, don’t use feeling words, don’t speak to them and
don’t ask for what we want.
Another way to be less assertive is to be aggressive.
Aggression is behavior that is harmful to others, either verbal
or physical. If we want to not be assertive, call someone a
name or hit him or her. Easy. The consequences will
certainly be different than when being assertive, but this is
probably the quickest way of avoiding assertiveness.
Another way of doing something other than being assertive
is to de-focus. This could be altering awareness. Sleeping,
running away, doing drugs, engaging in non-verbal activities
like sports (especially extreme sports) come to mind. If we
alter our mindset, the usual verbal (and other) behaviors become
unusual in the new set of mind. For example, let’s say I don’t
want to express my feelings and I do want to avoid them.
If I use drugs, I change (sometimes obliterate) my awareness of
the normal way of being, and will start behaving differently,
depending upon which drug I use. Different drugs cause
different reactions, but most of them cause alterations of
awareness that are incompatible with assertiveness.
(Some people argue that some drugs make it easier to express
feelings. This is true, but that doesn’t mean assertiveness
will follow. When drugs are used to “loosen” one’s tongue,
judgment usually becomes proportionally impaired.)
I might speak up more with certain drugs but probably my
ability to be assertive will decrease. Conversely, many drugs
cause withdrawal, which is obviously the opposite of speaking up.
For more on assertiveness and how to learn it easily, see
the author’s ebook on this subject.