Being assertive is important. It means expressing your thoughts, feelings, needs and wants in a relationship, said psychologist Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, LCSW. However, many of us have a hard time being assertive with certain people.
Maybe it’s someone with a strong personality. Maybe it’s someone you perceive as more powerful or even “better” than you. Either way, one thing is clear: You find yourself being passive and unable to speak your truth.
The problem? According to psychotherapist Michelle Farris, LMFT, “over time, not speaking up makes you feel like a doormat.” This sinks your self-esteem, sets you up to be a victim and makes you feel powerless, she said. “You say yes when you mean no, which leads to resentment and a sense that you’re invisible. This can lead to feeling depressed and devalued.”
It might be harder for you to be assertive because you fear “being challenged, shamed, ignored, disregarded or socially excluded,” Hanks said. You also might’ve had critical or rejecting caregivers, peers, teachers or neighbors; you find anyone who reminds you of those relationships to be intimidating, she said.
Hanks often hears clients talk about loved ones as intimidating — anyone from a spouse to an in-law. This is because we fear being rejected or losing the relationship, she said. “The stakes are higher with people you care deeply about, so expressing a difference or a preference can feel more intimidating because the risk of loss is higher.”
“[I]ntimidation, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder,” said Diann Wingert, LCSW, BCD, a therapist and coach with a private practice in Pasadena, Calif. That is, each of us finds different people intimidating.
Thankfully, we can work on this. Wingert helps her clients realize that they can choose to feel secure (instead of intimidated), “regardless of the situation and who else is in it.” Here are six tips to try.
1. Clarify your values.
The first step to being assertive is knowing yourself and your values, said Hanks, director of Wasatch Family Therapy and author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women. She’s found that most people who have a hard time acting assertively haven’t reflected on what they think, feel, need and want.
“If you have uncertainty or don’t have conviction about what you want to express, it’s really difficult to behave assertively.”
To get clarity, she suggested simply asking yourself questions, like the below, on a regular basis:
- How am I feeling right now?
- What signs is my body giving me that I need to be aware of?
- What matters most to me in life?
- What were the best days of my life so far?
- What do these experiences have in common?
Hanks also recommended using a feelings word list to describe how you’re currently feeling. To clarify your values, read through a list of values, and pick three which matter most to you. “Write them down and post them on your fridge, your mirror, your computer and ponder them to make sure they ‘fit’ for you.”
2. Start small.
Most of us find it hard to set boundaries in general, because we were taught to seek approval and please others in childhood, Wingert said. So if you’re just starting to act assertively, she said, it helps to start small.
Instead of being assertive with your boss or parent, practice with less challenging people in your life, she said. For instance, practice with “the barista who always seems to get your coffee order wrong or the co-worker who monopolizes every conversation in the lunch room.”
3. Remember you’re not “less than.”
One of Hanks’s friends uses the saying: “Everyone is worth one point.” This is helpful to remember when you’re feeling “less than” someone else, she said. “No matter who you are, your value is equal to the person with whom you are interacting, and you deserve to have a voice.”
4. Think of the person as your employee.
Many of us find doctors, professors and others in prominent or powerful positions to be intimidating. Wingert suggested thinking of yourself as their boss. “You are the reason [this person] has a job… See if this causes a different pattern of thoughts and feelings to emerge when you think of this person.”
5. Think silly.
“The next time you are going to interact with your ‘intimidator,’ try imagining him or her wearing a clown nose or diapers and a baby bonnet or a bunny costume,” Wingert said. You might visualize this image before interacting with them or during your interaction if you start feeling uncomfortable, she said.
“Visualization is a great tool for changing the way you feel in any situation. It’s completely portable, and no one even knows you are doing it.”
6. Refocus on the person’s emotional state.
For instance, you might decide to feel empathy or compassion toward them, Wingert said. “Imagine that [they’re] behaving in the ways that you find intimidating because [they’re] deeply unhappy about some aspect of [their] life. You can imagine that the behavior you find so challenging is a symptom of this unhappiness that has nothing to do with you.”
This doesn’t mean putting up with bad, abusive or unacceptable behavior, Wingert said. Rather, it shows you that you can choose what to think, and this can change how you feel, she said. Because what matters most isn’t the situation; it’s what we tell ourselves about it.
“Looking for alternative explanations can demonstrate to us that we have a lot more control over how we feel than we think we do,” Wingert said. “We have the power to shift our perceptions, our thoughts and our beliefs intentionally and deliberately. When we do, our emotional reactions begin to change, and we experience a greater sense of control and power over our lives.”
And, again, as Hanks said above, remember that you deserve to have a voice when interacting with anyone.