Assertiveness: Standing up for myself

Did you ever feel you had to do something for someone you didn’t really want to? Were there times when you had to give way to someone because the idea of saying ‘No’ was too hard to contemplate? These situations may sound familiar because you or those around you have experienced similar incidents. And perhaps what you felt then wasn’t very pleasant.

Human beings are, as Aristotle said, social beings. We live in a society and are a part of one. We create and co-exist in our culture and, of course, we abide by certain standards that are set by our society as well. The likelihood of having to interact with people on an everyday basis is very high. When we interact with people, we realize that no one is really the same. Every human being is different – in temperament, intelligence, personality, looks and in numerous other ways. Therefore, it follows that the way we react to people or situations differs from person to person as well!

Every human being has a set of rights ranging from constitutional rights to various others such as the right to be peaceful, understanding and so on. In the same way, we all have a set of personal boundaries which we are very particular about. We feel angry or hurt when someone crosses these boundaries and for the most part, we try to avoid crossing someone else’s boundaries too. For example, if an acquaintance asks you an overly personal question, you might feel annoyed at him/her for taking that liberty when he/she doesn’t know you too well. This person has crossed your personal boundary. In the same way, if you were really ill and needed someone to take care of you, you would hesitate to ask anyone but your closest friends or family to help you. You don’t want to cross someone else’s boundary by asking them for more than they may want to give. Have you ever faced situations where you wanted to do something but couldn’t because you were afraid you’d hurt someone else’s feelings? And because you were sensitive to the other person’s feelings, you might have compromised on your wishes and it didn’t leave you feeling very good. What do you do in such situations where your boundaries were crossed but you felt too hesitant to stand up for yourself?
Being sensitive to someone else is extremely important but sometimes we become so caught up in trying to avoid hurting or depriving other people that we forget about ourselves somewhere along the way. This slowly starts to become a habit and we may end up compromising all the time. Eventually, it could become a part of our personality, a part which you are unhappy with.

This is where the concept of being assertive comes into the picture. There are three types of behaviours that people can engage in when others do things which they don’t like– passive, aggressive and assertive. All of us are placed at different points along this assertiveness spectrum based on the way we react to people in such unpleasant situations.

When someone is aggressive, they usually go to any lengths to get what they want, most often overstepping other’s boundaries and rights. For example, Anish has a disagreement with his co-worker on how to proceed with a project at work. Anish ignores his co-worker’s suggestions and uses his rank as project manager to ensure he gets what he wants without worrying about how it affects his co-worker.
People who are passive more often than not comply with a more aggressive person and give way to them even if they don’t want to. As a result, passive people feel like they were deprived of their rights by others and are not taken seriously because they don’t know how to stand up to opposition. Manoj feels he cannot say ‘no’ when someone asks him for a favour. Whether he wants to or not, he feels obligated to help other people out at the cost of his own time or energy. As a result, Manoj’s friends often take advantage of his passive behavior and make him do their work for him or ask him for favours nobody else would be willing to do.

Assertive behaviour is about finding a balance between aggression and passivity. An assertive individual places equal value on his/her own desires or opinions as well as the desires or opinions of others. In other words, those who are assertive do not override anyone else’s rights or boundaries but also make sure they get what they want in the process. Assertive behavior can help us in all areas of life, whether it is in the workplace, with family members/spouses or with friends and others. Harish, for example, is an assertive individual. He is able to stand up for himself and say ‘no’ to unrealistic demands his friends/boss make in a respectful, polite way which doesn’t hurt their feelings. At times, he agrees to help others after completing his own work when he is able to do so.

Being assertive and standing up for oneself is the ideal way to behave in unpleasant situations but it isn’t always the easiest to do. Something as basic as saying “no” is the foundation to being assertive. Being able to say no to someone without hurting their feelings is a challenge and a gift that not all of us have. This is why we sometimes do things for people we wish we had said no to instead. One of the reasons saying ‘no’ is so difficult is because we want to please people. We want people to like us and we, of course, want to comply with a certain standard of social conduct. However, saying “no” doesn’t always hurt people’s feelings nor does it make us bad people if it is said in the right way.

To be able to say “no” and to become an assertive individual who exercises his/her rights without walking all over someone else’s requires appropriate skill learning and acquisition. Armed with these set of skills, one can do wonders in our everyday life by being able to stand up for our beliefs and actions rather than comply with someone else. To learn more about being assertive and how to gain these skills, you can talk to the professional counselors at Talkitover who provide individual.

About Babushka Chauhan

Babushka Chauhan has completed her Masters of Science in Psychological Counselling from Christ University and is currently teaching Psychology part-time there. She is also a counselling psychologist and has worked with children, young adults and alcohol and drug addicts. She enjoys spending her time reading, writing and engaging with photography as well.