People who are naturally assertive had their needs properly met when they were young. Thus, they developed a sense of trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, clear identity and great capacity for love. All that gives them the inner strength to go after their goals.
Without a healthy upbringing environment that’s responsive to one’s needs, without strong role models and loving relationships in youth, it’s almost impossible to develop into a healthy assertive person.
Unassertiveness is based on feelings of mistrust, shame, guilt, doubt, inferiority and identity confusion, or because your id (aggressiveness) or superego (passiveness) are too strong, as we have learned in the first part of the article.
But even if you aren’t naturally assertive, you have the power to change that. And now, in the second part of the article, we'll look at exactly how to do that.
The general overview of how to become more assertive
If you want to be healthy assertive, you need a new mental and emotional framework that leads to rational behavior and assertive agency. To achieve that, you ought to:
- Have optimistic expectations that the environment will respond positively to your needs, under three conditions:
- There is no need escalation (greed, gluttony etc.), inflation (neediness, lack of focus etc.) or perversion (weird fetishes etc.). Environment usually reacts negatively to these things.
- You clearly communicate your needs, since other people can’t read your mind.
- You know there will always be some some haters and blockers who will work against you. It's part of the reality and how life is designed.
- Not emotionally overreact in case of rejection or conflict. Rejection is unpleasant for everyone, but it shouldn’t catch you in a mental cage with emotional flashbacks. Many times people react positively to our desires and wishes, but rejections are also a normal part of life.
- Easily find alternative ways of satisfying your needs when you can’t directly satisfy them – either by adjusting your strategy or through sublimation of needs. That's something we'll learn in this article.
If you want to achieve such a psychological state, you must practice the courage to take initiative, develop a strong sense of trust in yourself and the environment, acquire a set of competences to match your desires and goals, and possess an abundance mindset to stay flexible about how you’ll satisfy your needs.
Let’s look at a few steps (assertiveness exercises) for achieving all that.
Step 1: Develop awareness of your emotions and desires
First of all, if you want to be assertive, you must be as aware as possible of your needs and have a clear picture of your desires. If you weren’t raised in an environment where your major needs were met in a healthy and respectful manner, you probably have a tendency to repress your needs.
Repression ensures that wishes incompatible with reality, your superego or any other impulses, remain unconscious or disguised. For example, you start believing you don’t need to be close to other people, that family members can’t hurt you if they're mean to you, that serious relationships or kids are not something for you or that material life is unimportant. We all have the same needs and they can either be fulfilled or repressed.
There are several things you can do to become clearly aware of your wishes and desires:
- Go through all the needs listed in theories of human needs. As we said, universal needs are those we all have, you can’t escape from them, even if you’re in monk mode. Specifically list all the goals and desires you have based on different categories of needs. Make yourself a wish list and constantly add new things as you identify them.
- Pay special attention to those universal needs that you think are not important to you. Examples are: I don’t care about money, it’s not important to me if people forget about my birthday, I didn’t want that promotion anyway etc. Many times, you use self-deception to make things that you want but don’t have less desirable (called “sour grapes” in psychology) and things that you do have but are not that important to you more desirable (“sweet lemons”). Start exploring why denial is present.
- Prepare a vision list of everything you want to experience in life. Try to list every detail that you would like to have, do or create. Dream of having no financial boundaries. Pay special attention to the needs where there is inflation, escalation or perversion present.
- Connect your severe negative emotions (anger, anxiety, depression, envy etc.) to the fear of your specific needs not being met. Try to take the analysis a step further and figure out which of your needs weren’t meet when you were a child and are now causing you emotional knots.
Without knowing your needs, you have zero chances of living a fulfilling, joyful, happy and satisfactory life. So first identify your needs.
Step 2: Identify areas where you are healthy assertive and where you are not
Being healthy assertive is not an all-or-nothing personality characteristic. Usually there are some life situations where you are very assertive, and others where you’re not. For example, you might be very assertive intellectually, but a complete coward when it comes to talking to the opposite sex.
In other words, take a list of the universal human needs and categorize them:
- Needs that you have no problem meeting in a healthy and respectful manner
- Needs with which you are under-assertive or over-assertive
- You get aggressive in case of a conflict
- You distract yourself with something else
- You run away and isolate yourself
- You automatically submit to others
- Needs that you’re confused about, you have no clear emotional or behavioral pattern
- Needs that you most probably repress (you can’t know that, but make a few assumptions about what kind of needs are being repressed based the universal human needs lists)
There are also a few very common life situations where people lack assertiveness. As we said, that originates from shame, guilt, mistrust and feelings of low self-worth. Below is the table detailing where people usually have problems with healthy assertiveness.
|Establishing new personal or business relationships||
|Intimate and sexual activities||
|Authorities (formal and informal)||
|Money matters, sales and negotiations||
You, you, you
Me, me, me
Find one or two situations where you are healthy assertive (not passive or aggressive) and all the situations where you’re not healthy assertive.
In the next step, what you can do is to practice transferring your healthy assertiveness from one area to other areas where you have problems being assertive. You can model your assertiveness best in order to use it in all the life situations that require assertiveness. The best way to achieve that is with practice.
Step 3: Face your fears and practice being assertive with moderate self-exposure
The best way to become more assertive is to practice assertiveness. In situations where you are a wussy, it’s time to stand up, and in situations where you’re an asshole, it’s time to cool down.
In a way, you must start performing experiments and see how your environment reacts when you’re being healthy assertive – considering your own needs and the needs of other people.
As you will see, a few things are very likely to happen:
- With new people, you will get a positive response more often than you think. If you don’t leave a big tip or if you ask a question or state your opinion, people won’t immediately dislike you. Your questions will be nicely answered and your food will still be served in a restaurant. Nothing terrible happens if you communicate your needs in a healthy way (as it might have in your upbringing environment).
- From time to time you will get the cold shoulder or a negative response. But you will quickly see that rejections are not as painful as you imagine them to be in your head. With a fast “no”, you can move on and find people who better resonate with your true self. Rejection is also a form of an emotional flashback. You must become aware that you are not a helpless little child anymore, and that you are not in the same situation as you were when young. You have options now. With every emotional flashback you can also easier explore your past.
- By practicing assertiveness, you’ll feel better in your skin. You’ll start to feel your personal power, you won’t feel guilt or shame when going after your needs, and your negative feelings will start to fade away.
- In your existing relationships, some people will respect you much more if you become more assertive and consequently healthy relationships will become even stronger. People you have toxic relationship with might get confused and angry. But you don’t want to have toxic relationships in your life anyway.
When you’re practicing assertiveness, start small. As an experiment, do a small assertive action that’s currently not something you would naturally do. A great example is advice for guys to become more assertive in dating. The most common advice is to start small with self-exposure.
Example of practicing assertiveness in case of dating for men:
- Ask a girl you like what time it is
- Ask ten girls what time it is
- Ask a girl for directions and her opinion on what to do in town
- Ask ten girls the same thing
- Ask one girl for an e-mail, and then ten girls
Exposure therapy is a very popular cognitive-behavioral treatment for anxiety disorders. As part of the therapy, you’re slowly confronting the things that get you anxious. As you begin to face your fears, your anxiety naturally decreases during exposure.
Below are a few ideas how you can practice exposure to develop assertiveness:
- Join a meetup and introduce yourself to a few people
- Say your first no; do it by e-mail if it’s easier the first time
- Ask for a raise when you complete a demanding project
- Don’t run away from conflict, but try to manage it
- Find one thing you like about your boss and compliment it (if you dislike your boss)
- Smile the next time somebody cuts you off
A very important part of this step is to work on your communication skills. How you communicate your needs does matter a lot.
If you don’t communicate them, people won’t know. Many times, we assume that other people know our needs, that they can read our minds. Well, people don’t. You can often be misunderstood as well. Good communication skills come with healthy assertiveness and vice versa.
Step 4: Pay attention to guilt and shame
As we said, under-assertiveness is often based on guilt and shame, and over-assertiveness is based on need inflation and escalation. Guilt and shame are especially sneaky emotions. The purpose of guilt is to meet your moral standard. You feel guilty when you assume you’ve done something wrong.
But false guilt, with an overly strong superego, is always looking for people to please and rules to keep. Shame is even worse. Feelings of shame are based on the belief that you’re bad, flawed and not lovable.
With strong feelings of shame, it often even comes to emotional substitution, and you prefer to feel anger with other people rather than shame with yourself. If you are a very angry person, you probably have strong issues with shame.
When practicing self-exposure before doing an assertive act, you will probably feel fear and doubt. But fears are the compass for where you need to grow in life, and doubt kills more dreams than failure or rejection ever will.
With fear and doubt, you are constantly caught in an emotional cage. That’s not life but slavery. So expose yourself to the point where fear and doubt are still manageable. You must get yourself out of the comfort zone into the learning zone, not the panic zone.
And after doing an assertive act, you will probably feel shame or guilt. You will feel like that because you assume it’s not okay to have your needs fulfilled. Deep down you think you don’t deserve it. That will happen, especially if you’re rejected.
There are two things you can do. First, with every small exposure, you will feel less fear, doubt, shame or guilt. You will realize that it feels good to meet your needs and that it’s perfectly okay to do so. Thus, be patient and persistent and give yourself a tap on your back every time you expose yourself and show your vulnerability.
Even more importantly, feeling shame or guilt is an excellent opportunity for self-reflection and healthy self-talk. It’s an opportunity to untie some of your emotional knots from the past. If you find that the feelings of shame, guilt or fear are too strong, you might even decide to enter a professional therapy.
Anyway, there are several things you want to achieve with self-reflection:
- Reinforce the healthy belief that you have needs like everyone else and that it’s your basic right to meet them in a healthy and respectful manner.
- Dig deep why you really feel guilt or shame; what kind of errors were made in your upbringing that put a tough emotional burden on your assertiveness.
- It’s a great chance to talk back to your inner critic and practice self-mothering; in other words, you consciously decide to take good care of yourself and your needs.
- Acknowledge guilt or shame, make room for it, write down why it’s so tough, talk to other people and then let it go.
But if feelings of shame, guilt (or even greed) are too strong, absolutely get professional help. There’s nothing wrong with that, all you want to do is to free yourself of the emotional cage.
Step 5: Work on your body language and do sports
Your assertiveness is expressed not only with words, but even more so with your body language. That means that by improving your body language, you can also improve your assertiveness.
As you probably know, your inner state and body language are closely connected. Next to that, your body language carries more than half of the influence of how you’ll be perceived (50 % what you say, 50 % your body language and tone of voice).
Here is what healthy assertive body language looks like – you:
- Feel comfortable taking space with your body
- Keep a nice posture in a confident pose
- Speak slowly with a relaxed and clear voice
- Go for direct eye contact and smile
- Listen and seek other opinions
- Express your thoughts and emotions
- Have physical contact with other people (when appropriate)
- And when things get tough, breathe and calm yourself, other people and the atmosphere down
You can always practice body language in the mirror or with your close friends. Rehearse and do role‑playing. Model people you admire. Read articles on body language. Improving your body language will have a great positive impact on your assertiveness.
Besides paying attention to my body language, exercising has really helped me to become more assertive. I would say sport is the number one thing that helped me with assertiveness and finding the right balance between passivity and aggression.
In sports, if you're too aggressive towards your body, you get injured. And performing any sport, gets you out of a passive mode by default. So if you want to become more assertive, put on your trainers and get your ass to the gym.
Step 6: Develop your social skills
There is a basic, primal trust in yourself and life on the emotional level that you can only develop in your youth or over time with hard work on yourself in the adult age; and then we also have the trust that comes from mastering a specific skill.
When it comes to assertiveness, social skills are the ones you need. The basic rule is that any skill can be developed. Logically, you can become more assertive by developing your social skills. It’s that simple.
- Read 10 different dating books, if you’re afraid of speaking to the opposite sex
- Join a public speaking course, if you’re terrified of public appearances
- Practice negotiating with a friend, if you’re afraid of heated discussions
- Study how to manage difficult people, if you have a difficult boss that makes you scared
Leveling up your social game will greatly help you in becoming more assertive. Just because you’re not a born people person, it doesn’t mean you can’t become one.
Step 7: The abundance mindset
The abundance mindset can also help you a lot with healthy assertiveness. Today we live in the best times ever, where your needs can be met in thousands of different ways.
You can connect with so many people, choose so many different hobbies, there are so many ways of making money, and so on. Thus, most of the time there is no need for you to be in a huge conflict after all.
The abundance mindset is defined by:
- Seeing all the possibilities the world has to offer in order to create, connect, grow and enjoy,
- knowing that you deserve love and prosperity, and
- realizing that if you’d experience only plentitude in life, it would be boring as hell and you wouldn’t appreciate anything you have at all.
With such a mindset, you can always find a way to satisfy your needs, as long as you’re flexible enough. The opposite of the abundance mindset are the scarcity mindset and oneitis. The scarcity mindset means being focused only on what you can’t have, and not considering all the things you can have.
Very similarly, oneitis means having an obsessive attraction towards only one person or thing, while completely excluding any other potential alternatives. That most often leads towards a big conflict, even though there might be no need for it.
Here are the proofs of abundance:
- There are around 7,000,000,000 people in the world, all of them your potential lovers, spouses, friends, social groups to join etc.
- There is more than 4,000,000,000,000 USD in circulation (M0). Let’s not even mention all the virtual money and other material assets (land, gold etc.).
- There are around 1,000,000,000 webpages and more than 130,000,000 books you can learn from – and more than a million books and new webpages are published every day.
- Only in the UK, they throw away 7 million tons of food and drink every year. That was the first data I found online, I’m not singling out the UK for any specific reason.
- There are more than 190 million registered companies you can work for in the world, 45,000 of them listed on the stock exchange.
- There are more than 190 countries you can travel to and around 2,000,000 cities worldwide.
- There are more than 200 different types of hobbies, more than 1000 different sports, more than 70 religions and belief systems, more than 30 different types of art, and so on.
I think you can absolutely find a way to satisfy your needs in a healthy and respectful manner, but only if you decide to practice assertiveness and stay a little bit flexible. The other option that we’ll talk about is the sublimation of your needs. They’re both healthy possibilities when you can’t directly satisfy your needs.
Step 8: Make the 4F response work in your favor
By becoming healthy assertive, you want to achieve that the 4F response to danger and conflict is working in your favor, not against you. When you manage to achieve that, the flight response ensures that you set boundaries and self-protection. The freeze response enables you to give up and quit struggling when there is no progress or when resistance is futile.
Flight instincts lead to you disengaging and safely retreating when confronting life-threatening danger. And the fawn response enables you to actively listen, help others in trouble and make healthy compromises, while still minding your own rights, needs and beliefs.
Here is the table showing how a healthy person uses the 4F response (and the list of unhealthy responses):
|Assertiveness||Disengagement||Acute awareness||Love & Service|
Source: Complex PTSD, page 106
One of the best things you can do is to print out all these healthy behaviors and practice them. Make them your virtues. When you come into conflict, use one of the healthy responses from the table. Pay attention to your emotions and learn to express them in a healthy way.
Step 9: Practice mature defense mechanisms
In the end, there is no way that all of your needs can be met. There will always be some (primal) needs that can’t be satisfied due to reasonable superego restrictions or limitations of the real world. In such cases, there are several mature defense mechanisms at your disposal.
The two most common ones are:
- Sublimation of needs: With sublimation, unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behavior. Your wishes are challenged rather than dammed or diverted. For example, you express your aggressiveness in sports and games, and your feelings are acknowledged, modified and directed towards goals. Sports, art, learning, there are many ways how needs can be sublimed.
- Humor: Humor enables you to share emotion without discomfort, to regress without embarrassment, to play games with freedom, to laugh with impunity and to relax in total pleasure. Humor is a great way to deal with needs that can’t be satisfied.
Other mature defense mechanisms that you can resort to are:
- Emotional self-regulation
- Emotional self-sufficiency
Explore how to use them.
The final thought on healthy assertiveness
A healthy assertive person is a person who likes themselves as they are, has a strong sense of self and their autonomy, has no problems with their needs being met, knows how to express feelings, knows where they’re going in life and what they want, is not afraid of conflict, knows how to set boundaries, takes initiative and contributes creative ideas.
That’s the sort of person you want to be; otherwise life will slip through your hands. Don’t keep yourself locked in a cage.
- If you don’t raise your hand and ask a question, you’ll never know
- If you don’t ask her (him) out, the answer is already no
- If you don’t ask for a raise or promotion, you most probably won’t get it
- If you buy love with money, people will never really love you
- If you never say no, people will have zero respect for you
There’s a little vulgar, but very illustrative quote (for men) that shows why you must be assertive in life: He who hesitates, masturbates. If you don’t act, nothing will happen. That’s for sure.
You just have to realize that in the long run, the pain of doing nothing is much greater than the pain of being rejected from time to time. You want to have zero regrets on your deathbed.
Here is a short summary how to become more assertive:
- Pay constant attention to your needs, wishes and desires. Be gentle and attentive towards yourself.
- Identify areas where you are healthy assertive and where you are not, and practice skill and mindset transfer.
- Face your fears and practice being assertive with moderate self-exposure. At every opportunity practice assertiveness by being in the learning zone.
- Lean to manage your fear, doubt, shame and guilt. Acknowledge them, make room for them, use them as a trigger for self-reflection and even more to reinforce healthy, assertive beliefs.
- Work on your body language.
- Start doing any type of exercise or sport immediately.
- Develop your social and communication skills.
- Walk proudly around the World with the abundance mindset and stay flexible how your needs can be met.
- When you come into conflict, use one of the 4F healthy responses.
- Sublime your needs – use humor or employ other mature defense mechanisms.
By developing healthy assertiveness, you’ll feel more confident, your relationships will improve, negative feelings will go away and you’ll feel much better and happier in general. You know that it’s better to live a single day as a lion than years as a sheep.
Most people die when they’re around 20 years old but are buried 50 years later; because they get caught in an emotional cage possessing no healthy assertiveness. Don’t be one of them, find the right balance between passivity and aggression. Now you have enough knowledge to become assertive in a healthy way. Apply it!