All of us should insist on being treated fairly; we have to stand up for our rights without violating the rights of others. This means tactfully, justly, and effectively expressing our preferences, needs, opinions and feelings. Psychologist call that being "assertive," as distinguished from being unassertive (weak, passive, compliant, self-sacrificing) or aggressive (self-centered, inconsiderate, hostile, arrogantly demanding). As mentioned in chapter 8, the Women's Movement since the 1960's has been a powerful influence on millions of women: women have gotten better career opportunities, more rights to control their bodies, more help from husbands with child care and housework, and so on. These changes happened because women assertively stood up for their rights.

 Because some people want to be "nice" and "not cause trouble," they "suffer in silence," "turn the other cheek," and assume nothing can be done to change their situation or "it is our cross to bear." The rest of us appreciate pleasant, accommodating people but whenever a "nice" person permits a greedy, dominant person to take advantage of him/her, the passive person is not only cheating him/herself but also reinforcing unfair, self-centered behavior in the aggressive person. That's how chauvinists are created.


 Assertiveness is an antidote to fear, shyness, passivity, and even anger, so there is an astonishingly wide range of situations in which this training is appropriate. Factor analysis of several assertiveness scales (Schimmel, 1976) has suggested several kinds of behavior are involved.


STEP ONE: Realize where changes are needed and believe in your rights.

 Many people recognize they are being taken advantage of and/or have difficulty saying "no." Others do not see themselves as unassertive but do feel depressed or unfulfilled, have lots of physical ailments, have complaints about work but assume the boss or teacher has the right to demand whatever he/she wants, etc. Nothing will change until the victim recognizes his/her rights are being denied and he/she decides to correct the situation. Keeping a diary may help you assess how intimidated, compliant, passive or timid you are or how demanding, whiny, bitchy or aggressive others are.

 Almost everyone can cite instances or circumstances in which he/she has been outspoken or aggressive. These instances may be used to deny we are unassertive in any way. However, many of us are weak in some ways--we can't say "no" to a friend asking a favor, we can't give or take a compliment, we let a spouse or children control our lives, we won't speak up in class or disagree with others in a public meeting, we are ashamed to ask for help, we are afraid of offending others, and so on. Ask yourself if you want to continue being weak.

 One may need to deal with the anxiety associated with changing, to reconcile the conflicts within your value system, to assess the repercussions of being assertive, and to prepare others for the changes they will see in your behavior or attitude. Talk to others about the appropriateness of being assertive in a specific situation that concerns you. If you are still scared even though it is appropriate, use desensitization or role-playing to reduce the anxiety.

 Consider where your values--your "shoulds"--come from. Children are bombarded with rules: Don't be selfish, don't make mistakes, don't be emotional, don't tell people if you don't like them, don't be so unreasonable, don't question people, don't interrupt, don't trouble others with your problems, don't complain, don't upset others, don't brag, don't be anti-social, do what people ask you to do, help people who need help, and on and on. Do any of these instructions sound familiar? They help produce submissive children--and adults. There are probably good reasons for many of these rules-for-kids but as adults we need not blindly follow rules. Indeed, every one of these injunctions should be broken under certain conditions: You have a right to be first (sometimes), to make mistakes, to be emotional, to express your feelings, to have your own reasons, to stop others and ask questions, to ask for help, to ask for reasonable changes, to have your work acknowledged, to be alone, to say "no" or "I don't have time," and so on. The old feelings deep inside of us may still have powerful control over us (see chapter 8). We can change, however.

 Besides recognizing we have outgrown our unthinking submissiveness, we can further reduce our ambivalence about being assertive by recognizing the harm done by unassertiveness: (1) you cheat yourself and lose self-respect because you are dominated and can't change things, (2) you are forced to be dishonest, concealing your true feelings, (3) inequality and submissiveness threatens, if not destroys, love and respect, (4) a relationship based on your being a doormat, a slave, a "yes-person," a cute show piece or a source of income is oppressive and immoral, (5) since you must hide your true feeling, you may resort to subtle manipulation to get what you want and this creates resentment, and (6) your compliance rewards your oppressor. On the positive side, assertiveness leads to more self-respect and happiness. Build up your courage by reviewing all the reasons for changing.

 Finally, there are obviously situations in which demanding immediate justice may not be wise, e.g. if you can get fired, if it would cause an unwanted divorce, if you might be assaulted, etc. Even in these more extreme cases, perhaps well planned or very gradual changes would be tolerated. Under any circumstances, discuss the reasons for becoming assertive with the other people involved so they will understand and approve (if possible) or at least respect you for being considerate of them, others, and yourself.

STEP TWO: Figure out appropriate ways of asserting yourself in each specific situation that concerns you.

 There are many ways to devise effective, tactful, fair assertive responses. Watch a good model. Discuss the problem situation with a friend, a parent, a supervisor, a counselor or other person. Carefully note how others respond to situations similar to yours and consider if they are being unassertive, assertive or aggressive. Read some of the books listed at the end of this method. Most assertiveness trainers recommend that an effective assertive response contain several parts:

  1. Describe (to the other person involved) the troublesome situation as you see it. Be very specific about time and actions, don't make general accusations like "you're always hostile...upset...busy." Be objective, don't suggest the other person is a total jerk. Focus on his/her behavior, not on his/her apparent motives.

  2. Describe your feelings, using an "I" statement which shows you take responsibility for your feelings. Be firm and strong, look at them, be sure of yourself, don't get emotional. Focus on positive feelings related to your goals if you can, not on your resentment of the other person. Sometimes it is helpful to explain why you feel as you do, so your statement becomes "I feel ______ because ______." (see the next method).

  3. Describe the changes you'd like made, be specific about what action should stop and what should start. Be sure the requested changes are reasonable, consider the other person's needs too, and be willing to make changes yourself in return. In some cases, you may already have explicit consequences in mind if the other person makes the desired changes and if he/she doesn't. If so, these should be clearly described too. Don't make dire threats, if you can't or won't carry out them out.

 Example assertiveness responses:

 Following these guidelines, write out in rough form some ways of responding in your problem situations.

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