Assertiveness Skills: Introduction

You are entitled to express your feelings, needs, and opinions
without apologising, feeling bad, or having to justify your reasons

Learning to be assertive, rather than passive or aggressive (or both), will give you the skills and self-assurance to say what you feel, need, and think, in a clear and confident way. Being assertive shows you like and respect yourself, meaning other people are more likely to do so too – whereas few people will respect a timid or shouty person. Assertiveness is also a particularly valuable skill for autistic people and/or those who have been abused.

Assertiveness is the balance between passiveness and aggression. When we are assertive, we can be polite and respectful, without being over apologetic or grovelling. We can also be determined, without resorting to intimidation or force. Many autistic people will relate to this aspie’s plight: “When I try to disagree, or say what I think, I always end up shouting or crying. There’s no middle ground.” But there is a “middle ground” – assertiveness.

Passive
(apologetic/grateful)
Assertive
(confident/calm)
Aggressive
(intimidating/angry)

Manipulative people (including abusers) are skilled at making us feel guilty for expressing our feelings, needs, and opinions – even when we are being 100% reasonable. A manipulative partner might say, “It’s all about you, isn’t it?” or “You’re so self-obsessed,” or “What about me for a change?” (see also: Mind Games), or a colleague or “friend” might say “we’re not really interested in your view, thanks.” So, because they refuse to engage with us on an equal, respectful level, we’re forced into either the passive (apologetic) or aggressive (angry) position, depending on the situation. We want something? We have to shout for it, or beg for it, or both. But having to shout or beg for anything harms our self confidence, and shows others we can be forced out of the middle (assertive) position – the place where negotiation happens. However, assertiveness is a difficult skill to gain, and harder to regain when you’ve been conditioned not to challenge other people (e.g. in manipulative or otherwise abusive situations), as it can feel painfully confrontational.

If you are in a relationship with a violent partner
Please seek advice before starting to stand up for yourself, as it could put you in harm’s way.
See Where to Get Help (UK), or google “help with domestic violence” in the country where you live.

Understanding the “Passive” Mode
Passiveness is when you feel subservient, like you have no right to say or do, or even feel what you want. You feel you can’t ask for what you need, because you’ll be seen as rude, selfish, or uncaring. (Manipulators are extremely good at telling you you’re rude/selfish/uncaring, whether they truly believe it or not – all they care about is that you think they believe it, because they want you to believe it too.) Passive people tend to have an apologetic and over-grateful manner, e.g. “I’m really sorry to bother you, but…” or “thank you so much, that’s so kind of you,” in situations that just don’t require that level of humility (like when someone’s just doing their job). This is not “being polite” it’s grovelling, and sends out a clear message that we’ll do anything to avoid upsetting other people, which in turn makes it easy for other people to “push us around” (metaphorically or otherwise): all they have to do is say – or even just infer – that we’re being unreasonable, and we stop. Even a look can be enough.

It’s easy to punish ourselves for being passive – calling ourselves weak and useless, and saying, “I can’t even… [whatever].” We’re conditioned to believe everything is done as a “favour” – even if it’s perfectly reasonable thing to expect (e.g. fair share of domestic tasks) – and we are conditioned to be super-grateful for these “favours”. Passive people also put themselves down (e.g. “I’m so stupid!”), which gives out a signal that we don’t respect ourselves, so others don’t see the need to respect us either. We end up feeling guilty about everything we want or need, grateful for anything we get, and too scared to say no. We become more and more easy to control. It’s important to not blame yourself for sliding into passive mode: we’ve been conditioned to behave that way. We think if we just try hard enough – are kind and accommodating enough – everything will be okay. But it won’t.

Avoiding the “Passive” Mode
  • Avoid using weak words to describe yourself: e.g. can’t, wrong, sorry, fault, blame, stupid, useless… even as a joke.
  • Remind yourself you deserve respect, including from yourself.
  • Accept that trying to please everyone isn’t healthy: it’s okay, and sometimes vital, to put yourself first.
  • Avoid quiet and hesitant speech.
  • Stop apologising for everything! (Look out for: “How to Not Say Sorry” – coming soon)
  • Stop saying “thank you” for everything too: try saying “that’s great” instead.
  • Don’t minimise yourself or your opinions: e.g. “I’m probably wrong about this, but…”
  • Avoid sounding like you’re whingeing or wheedling: e.g. “Oh but I really need…” or “But that’s not fair“.
  • Think about what your hands are doing: don’t wring them, clasp them together, or touch your face.
  • Think about your eye contact: if you don’t make any eye contact, or can’t hold it long enough, it makes you look nervous and unsure of yourself.
  • Try not to fidget: it conveys uncertainty, and suggests you feel you are undeserving.

Understanding the “Aggressive” Mode

Aggressiveness is when you feel your only option is to force or bully the other person into accepting your needs. Aggression usually takes over when you feel frustrated, scared, angry, and/or resentful. When you let aggression take over, it’s easy to “attack” your abuser, either physically, or verbally by accusing them of things they’ve done to hurt you. But by being aggressive, you violate their rights, in the same way they violate yours, and you expose yourself to retaliation and blame. Many manipulators deliberately goad their victims into being aggressive, to give them an easy excuse to be aggressive back – after which they say “were provoked,” or “you deserved it,” or use it as “another reason why you’re so hard to live with,” and the whole argument becomes circular. Alternatively, some abusers are so good at playing the victim, that other people (including the police and social services) will think you’re the abuser, and any attempt to tell them the truth with be seen as a sick attempt to deflect blame. So, once you slip into aggressive mode, you risk losing even more control over your life, and for no gain: abusers will never genuinely acknowledge the hurt they cause, but will instead use your attack/accusations to make you feel guilty. Later, you might feel you “shouldn’t have reacted like that,” or say “sorry for getting angry,” or blame yourself for for losing control – this is you sliding back into passive mode again.

Avoiding the “Aggressive” Mode
  • remember you’re being provoked: the manipulator wants you to lose your temper, or have a meltdown. Understanding their motivations makes it easier to resist.
  • don’t bother accusing a manipulator of provocation: s/he’ll deny it. It’s better to keep that piece of knowledge to yourself, and use it in your own favour.
  • remove yourself from the provocative situation, and use your “feeling overwhelmed” coping-strategies: earphones/ear plugs, dark glasses, stress toys, weighted stuff, take yourself somewhere quiet/dark if posible, whatever you need to calm yourself.
  • use anger-control methods – count to ten, relax your muscles, 7/11 breathing (see box).
  • avoid domineering words when referring to others: e.g. never, always, should, must.
  • avoid loud or forceful speech, or a sarcastic or curt tone of voice.
  • avoid making demands (e.g. insisting on something happening NOW) or using intimidation.
  • don’t belittle other people’s opinions (e.g. “that’s just stupid”).
  • don’t stare at people; scowl; fold your arms, or loom over people.
  • don’t stride around, wave your arms, thump the table, or make other sudden movements.

Understanding the “Assertive” Mode
Assertiveness is when you clearly and calmly state what you feel, need, or think. Note the word “state” – you are neither demanding these things (or the right to have them) nor begging for them. Assertive people like and respect themselves, and expect other people to like and respect them too. They don’t criticise themselves when they get things wrong; they learn from their mistakes, forgive themselves, and move on. They can say “no” without feeling guilty or resentful. From the position of an abuse victim, this all sounds unattainable, but it isn’t. I promise.

It’s vital to remember that the other person also has the right to express their feelings, needs, and thoughts, even if you don’t agree with them.

Achieving the “Assertive” Mode
When you first manage it to stand up for yourself by saying something assertive, it feels like a huge achievement! It gives your self-confidence a massive boost, and shows you can do it. After this – as you begin to recognise the achievement and feel proud of it – it gets easier to like and respect yourself – which makes it easier to stand up for yourself.

  • keep your tone of voice balanced and calm, even if you’re trembling/raging inside.
  • maintain a calm facial expression – keep your facial muscles relaxed.
  • make eye contact while you’re stating your feelings/needs/opinions. It’s hard, but it helps to show you can’t be persuaded to change your mind.
  • keep your whole-body-language relaxed too: particularly keep your shoulder, arms, and hands relaxed. If in doubt, let your arms hang by your sides.
  • make clear and confident statements of need, opinion, and intent.
  • acknowledge other people’s opinions, remembering you don’t have to agree with them.
  • smile when you’re pleased, frown when you’re angry – keep your responses balanced.
  • try to maintain confident eye contact: this doesn’t mean staring (which is seen as aggressive), but holding eye contact for 3-5 seconds at a time (we know it’s hard).
  • continue to state your needs/feelings/opinions at appropriate moments, regardless of any criticism, or mockery you get in return.
  • if you struggle to behave in a confident way (assertive), concentrate on NOT behaving in a subservient (passive) or angry (aggressive) way instead.

Start Small
Resist the urge to tell a manipulator that you’ve worked out what they’re trying to do, they’ll deny it, and just resort to more subtle tactics for a while. Alternatively, they might apologise, and pretend to be nice (while they gradually reassert their control). Also avoid trying to get a manipulator to agree with you; just make clear your stance/feelings/needs and leave it at that for the time being. They are experts at resisting reasonable argument, either by ignoring what you say, accusing you of nagging, or agreeing at the time, but later “forgetting” (see Mind Games). Choose your first “battles” very carefully – they will be extremely resistant – so don’t start by saying you’re going to take a week’s break in Marbella, just that you’re going to stop and have a cup of tea (at an appropriate moment). Then do it, regardless of what they say.

Tactics manipulators use to resist your assertiveness, and regain control
  • they will try to make you cry.
  • they will try to make you angry.
  • they will feign fatigue, hunger, illness, stress, boredom, and upset/anger, whenever you try to state your needs.
  • they will accuse you of “nagging” when they’ve ignored your reasonable request for the 10th time.
  • they will accuse you of being self-obsessed.
  • they will feign anger.
  • they will mock you.

Learn to spot these tactics, and ignore them.

You are entitled to express your feelings, needs, and opinions
without feeling bad, or having to justify your reasons

Related Pages
» Abuse Tactics: Introduction
» Assertiveness Skills: How to Say “No”
» Look out for – Assertiveness Skills: How to Not Say Sorry – coming soon.


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