Looking from a psychological perspective at life, we can say that the point of existing is to satisfy your needs. In your lifetime, there’s a constant flow of new needs, and your mission is to make yourself happy by satisfying them. It’s that simple.
Nevertheless, your needs must be met in a healthy and socially acceptable manner and in an absence of any internal conflicts, which can often be challenging. That’s where healthy assertiveness comes into play.
Unfortunately, healthy assertiveness is not as common as one would think. It actually takes quite a strong and emotionally sharp character to be assertive in a healthy way. You must trust in yourself and in the highly probable positive response that the environment will have to your needs; and in case if that doesn't happen you must not overreact to a rejection.
You must also be bold enough to act and go after your goals and desires, but on the other hand you must respect relationship boundaries and social norms that limit your immediate need fulfillment. There are many different forces to be considered and brought in line.
It takes especially vigorous upbringing with the healthiest possible home environment and strong parental role models to develop into an assertive person. If you weren’t raised as a healthy assertive person, your needs are still there, but the path to their fulfillment might be questionable in many situations.
Two very common examples of unhealthy ways of need satisfaction are to either suppress the needs (passivity) or satisfy them in an intrusive, social unacceptable way (aggression). Both ways backfire sooner or later and lead to more frustrations rather than enjoyment of life.
Finding a healthy way to satisfy your needs without unnecessary self-restrictions and by respecting social boundaries.
In this article, we’ll go through a few psychological theories, exercises and practical tips that will help you become more healthy assertive and proactive. It’s quite a long article, but after reading it, I promise you’ll have a really good understanding of what assertiveness really means, why you might lack it and how to develop it as quickly as possible.
The main topics we’ll cover are:
- The universal human needs you can’t escape from
- The personality fundamentals for human assertiveness
- The potential conflicts when it comes to satisfying your needs
- Healthy and unhealthy ways of need satisfaction
- Practical tips for becoming more assertive (Part 2)
The list of universal human needs
The first important lesson when it comes to human assertiveness is that we all have several universal human needs, impossible to escape from. These needs turn into desires, wishes and goals, and are somehow either fulfilled, sublimated or repressed with defense mechanisms. Thus, it makes sense to have a really good overview of all the universal human needs.
We know several main theories of human needs. They talk more or less about the same needs, but differentiate more on complexity, the assumptions of how the needs are interconnected (hierarchy, system) and how they change with age or other factors.
There are four main theories of human needs that are good to know in order to understand what kind of needs exist in the heart of every human being. The following are the four main theories (among them only the first two are from scientific literature):
- Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
- Fundamental human needs theory
- Anthony Robbins’ Six Main Human needs
- Child’s developmental needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs
The most known framework for human needs is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The biggest criticism of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is the hierarchy itself. Critics argue that there might not be such a hierarchy at all or that it can change under certain circumstances or even that it’s greatly influenced by age.
But the point of this section of the article is to identify as many universal needs as possible, and Maslow’s pyramid gives us a great overview.
- Physiological needs: At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, there is the will to survive. For that you need shelter, food, water, and rest. Among the most basic needs, there is also the will to reproduce and spread your DNA – have sex, in other words.
- Safety needs: This is then followed by the needs of basic security and acquiring resources. They enable you to make the step from surviving to thriving. Besides breathing and reproducing, you can also enjoy the material and social life.
- Belonging and love: We are social beings, so the next group of needs is about love, friendship and social connections that enrich your life.
- Self-esteem needs: Besides belonging and love, we all need some form of recognition, respect from others, and a list of achievements. That’s the second category of psychological needs.
- Self-actualization: On the top of the pyramid is self-actualization, which accounts for achieving one’s full potential with creative and higher endeavors.
In Maslow’s hierarchy, there are six different categories of universal human needs. These are all the needs you must and have every right to fulfill.
Fundamental human needs theory
Let’s move to the second theory. Manfred Max-Neef developed the theory of fundamental human needs and human-scale development. All the identified and presented needs are universal, which means they were present in all human cultures throughout history.
The only thing that changed with time is how they manifest themselves through different kind of desires, and consequently strategies for how these needs are fulfilled vary between cultures.
In Max-Neef’s theory there is no hierarchy of needs, yet they are put in an interrelated and interactive system with trade-offs and complementary fulfilments.
|Need||Being (Qualities)||Having (Things)||Doing (Actions)||Interacting (Settings)|
|Subsistence||Physical and mental health||Food
Take care of
Sense of humor
Relationships with nature
Take care of
Intimate spaces of togetherness
Sense of humor
Peace of mind
Places to be alone
|Spaces for expression
|Identity||Sense of belonging
|Get to know oneself
|Places one belongs to
In the table, the being column is about attributes – individual or collective. The having column describes institutions, norms, mechanisms, laws and tools. And the doing column represents actions. The last, interacting column is about the time and space in which needs can be met.
Anthony Robbins’ Six Main Human needs
Anthony Robbins simplified the list of all the needs into six core ones. This can help us focus human needs into nicely presented groups we all long to fulfill:
- Certainty: The need for safety, security, comfort, order, consistency, control
- Variety: The need for uncertainty, diversity, challenge, change, surprise, adventure
- Significance: The need for meaning, validation, feeling needed, honored, wanted, special
- Love and connection: The need for connection, communication, intimacy, and shared love with others
- Growth: The need for physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development
- Contribution: The need to give, care, protect beyond ourselves, to serve others and do good
Child’s developmental needs
Pete Walker wrote the book Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving in which he nicely describes the perfect environment for growing up. It’s not a scientifically confirmed theory, but a very nice overview of what kind of nurturance a healthy environment should provide for a child.
As we will see later, proper nurturance plays a great role in developing healthy assertiveness. That’s why understanding needs from the child’s perspective is even more important. Here are the child’s main needs and what kind of nurturance is needed to fulfil them:
- Physical needs and nurturance – Offering the child affection and protection, healthy diet and sleep schedule, teaching grooming, discipline and responsibility. Helping a child develop hobbies, interest and personal style. Teaching them how to balance rest, play and work.
- Emotional needs and nurturance – Huge amount of love, warmth, compassion and tenderness. Paying attention to the child’s emotions and welcoming their full emotional expression. Teaching them how to express negative feelings in a healthy way. Offering emotional protection. Also humor.
- Verbal needs and nurturance – Having intellectual conversations with a child, giving positive feedback, praise, mentoring and encouragement. Also providing teaching lessons, reading them stories and answering all their thousands of questions.
- Spiritual needs and nurturance – Showing the child that life is a gift, frequent exposure to nature, nurturing the child’s creative self-expression, offering spiritual guidance to help the child deal with painful aspects of life, developing strong self-worth, and we can also add help in developing basic goodness and a loving nature to the list.
|Physical nurturance||Emotional nurturance|
|Verbal nurturance||Spiritual nurturance|
In summary, a child must know that somebody is emotionally invested in him/her. There must be a stable and predictive environment that encourages the development of physical, emotional, verbal and spiritual aspects of a child’s personality.
A healthy environment leads to several underlying personality characteristics that are a prerequisite for healthy assertiveness:
- Optimistic expectations that the environment will respond positively to your needs
- Being emotionally stable so that you don’t overreact in case of a rejection or a conflict
- Easily finding alternative ways to satisfy needs when you can’t satisfy them directly (with sublimation, finding a new “win-win” situation etc.)
If we summarize all the theories, we can list 15 main needs that all us humans share:
- Personal autonomy, individual style and following your own goals and desires.
- Access to clean water, healthy food, nature and a stable home that serves as a shelter.
- Regular sex and producing offspring.
- Structured daily life that provides basic discipline, and getting enough sleep.
- Protecting yourself and living in a safe, secure and non-abusive environment, fair treatment.
- Warm and loving personal relationships, several close friends and social connections
- Being able to express negative emotions in a healthy way and providing self-nurturing when life gets tough or you fail. You have the need to not be too tough on yourself.
- Being part of social groups that you find important and valuable, and consequently being respected and respecting others. Especially important is the need for praise.
- Owning things and acquiring enough assets for a secure and comfortable life; being paid fairly.
- Doing work you're good at, providing value and achieving things important to you.
- Finding balance between work and play, having fun and enjoying life.
- Regular intellectual stimulation, getting an education, expressing your thoughts and opinions, acquiring knowledge and sharing it, and developing new skills.
- Being curious, experiencing new things, growing personally and going on adventures.
- Freedom of belief, religion and spirituality.
- Undertaking creative endeavors, building things, contributing to the society and leaving a legacy.
These are the needs we all have. Most of these needs can be only satisfied in interaction with other people. But many times these needs get suppressed or expressed in an unhealthy way.
If you say money is not important to you, that’s a sign of an emotional knot. If you feel alienated from all social groups, there’s big repression. If you don’t want to have offspring, there is probably some kind of emotional pain.
You get the point. But why?
Escalation of needs and seven deadly sins
If your needs are not met for a longer period of time, especially when you’re a child, the phenomenon of need inflation happens. In practical terms, there’s nothing that can quench your thirst.
Deep down, your inner child (emotional self) longs to be cared for, has a constant fear of abandonment and his needs not being met. And that’s when needs turn from something that can bring pleasure in life into a painful burden. That can happen in four major ways:
- Need inflation: You have an uncontrollable number of wishes and desires, and that leads to lashing out or even confusion, competing commitments and a lack of focus.
- Need escalation: You want too much of one single thing as a surrogate for what you lacked in your youth or later in life (money, good, knowledge etc.).
- Need perversion: Needs get expressed through weird wishes and desires (weird fetishes, abuse etc.).
- Need suppression: It's too painful to even admit to yourself that you have certain needs and desires.
There are several very standard ways of need inflation or escalation, interestingly all of them part of the seven deadly sins:
- Lust – intense or unbridled sexual desire
- Gluttony – overindulgence and overconsumption of anything to the point of waste
- Greed – intense and selfish desire especially for wealth or power (or today even knowledge)
- Pride – excessive view of one's self with no regard for others (greed for status)
- Envy – resentful covetousness towards someone else’s traits or possessions
The first lesson was that we all have universal needs. The second lesson is that if you aren’t properly nurtured as a child or if your needs are not met for a longer period of time, they inflate or escalate or get perverted or suppressed. At least until you become aware of them, and then satisfy or sublime them.
But the main point is, that in need escalation state it's almost impossible to be assertive, because you're driven by fierce emotions, not logic. You can be passive or aggressive, but certainly not assertive.
Conflicts when it comes to satisfying your needs
Together with needs comes one more thing all human beings have in common – conflicts. The reason for that is, because most of the human needs can only be satisfied in interaction with other people and with not having any redundant internal brakes.
A conflict arises when the fulfillment of needs is blocked or threatened somehow – internally (only in your head), externally (in interaction with other people) or even both.
That can happen in many different ways. You can go to war with yourself with self-sabotage, doubts, false guilt, rigid morals etc. Other people can block or obstruct your agency. It can be socially unacceptable for your need to be satisfied. And in the end, there are many other outside forces that can prevent you from going after your desires. Conflicts are simply part of everyday life.
In general, we know eight different types of conflict and they all somehow interfere with satisfaction of human needs (with examples):
- Man against self – having competing needs that can’t be satisfied at the same time or, as we’ll see, unbalanced id and superego
- Man against man – competing with others for the same reward
- Man against society – the desire to fulfill a need in a way that’s not socially acceptable
- Man against nature – natural disasters that endanger safety, diseases and similar
- Man against god/faith – when god doesn’t grant your prayers or diminishes hope
- Man against supernatural – dealing with life dimensions that can’t be explained
- Man against markets – financial or career losses because of market crashes
- Man against robots (with the rise of AI) – potential threat to our existence
Every conflict can be resolved in four different ways, and that gives us the first definition of what assertiveness is:
|I win – You win||I lose – You lose|
|I win – You lose||I lose – You win|
In a way, being assertive means finding a win-win situation in a conflict that enables you to fulfill your needs, while minding other people and their needs. But that’s not the whole picture.
The most interesting and complex type of conflict is the conflict within yourself. So let’s say a word or two about when and how you can turn into your own worst enemy when it comes to need satisfaction.
Balancing id, superego and the outside world
Freud, the most known name of psychoanalysis, defined three parts of a personality – id, ego and superego. The id is the source of your bodily needs, wants, desires, and primal impulses. It’s driven especially by your sexual and aggressive drive. You can imagine id as a child who wants to immediately satisfy all needs, no matter the consequences.
The child (or id) is a hedonistic little fellow who wants to enjoy life, not minding other people and society. The id wants instant gratification and doesn’t have a moral compass. Id has zero issues with satisfying the primal urges in an uncivilized manner using aggression, force and violence. All that leads to hurting other people and the society as a whole.
Safety is a very important need, and that’s why humankind strives to avoid war and violence. As we have seen throughout history, violence only creates more violence, and that brings a vicious circle of pain and destruction.
That’s why several psychological and social mechanisms evolved or were invented over time with the goal of balancing these primal human urges. The goal of these mechanisms is to make the society more civilized and everyday life more human, far removed from the cruelty of the jungle.
One psychological phenomenon that evolved in this matter is called superego. The superego reflects internalized cultural values and rules. It’s the moral compass that consists of ego ideals, spiritual goals and, more importantly, it has the power to prohibit the fulfillment of drives, feelings and actions.
The main weapons of the superego are guilt, anxiety, inferiority and other forms of inner criticism. A too strong superego is a consequence of too rigorous upbringing.
While the job of the id is to push us towards instant gratification of needs, the job of the super-ego is to make sure that it’s done in a socially acceptable way. The ego strives towards the self-ideal and social ideals without taking reality into account.
The poor ego, which we so often like to blame, has to balance the id, the super-ego as a supervisor, and reality.
To make things even more complex, the society has developed several other mechanisms to curb the aggressive impulses that are hurtful to the society. Examples of cultivation mechanisms are:
- Law, police and codes of ethics
- Trade – it’s cheaper to trade than to wage war
- Religion and spirituality
- Technology that provides surveillance, transparency etc.
- Culture, role models and similar
We love to blame the ego for many things. But the table above shows very nicely what a hard job the ego has. It must balance all one’s needs while being constantly supervised by the superego, mind a bunch of social restrictions, and face the limitations and hardships of reality (natural disasters, market crashes etc.). Not to mention that there’s competition out there for the same resources.
The superego is involved in the experience of guilt, perfectionism, indecision, preoccupation with what is the right or wrong thing to do, and hence plays an important role in the aetiology of some forms of depression, obsessional disorders and sexual problems. (Source: Introduction to Psychoanalysis: Contemporary Theory and Practice)
As we’ll see later, properly balancing all these forces is the foundation for healthy assertiveness. The solution is that the ego has to be strong enough to balance the id and superego. That’s how internal conflicts are avoided. But when the ego is not strong enough, the internal forces lean towards one direction or the other. That’s when problems with healthy assertiveness start.
Too strong Id
Too strong super-ego
Turning against the society
Turning against yourself
Too strong id or superego result in two potential unhealthy ways of need satisfaction. One is turning against yourself (with impossible standards and self-restrictions) and the other is turning against the society (with hurting others). And when the ego can’t find the right balance or a healthy way to satisfy a need, it turns to mechanisms of defense and toxic ways of need satisfaction.
False guilt is always looking for people to please and rules to be kept.
But balancing id and superego is only one part of the problem. The second part of the problem are psychological conflicts that naturally occur in different stages of development. If these conflicts are not successfully resolved, there is no healthy foundation for the assertive agency. To understand that, we have to turn to Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development Theory.
The developmental crisis and fundamentals for human assertiveness
There are eight stages of psychosocial development and a successful completion of each stage results in an emotionally healthy person who knows how to be assertive. Unfortunately, if you don’t successfully complete one stage, your ability to overcome the following stages is reduced and the emotional maturity you need for healthy assertiveness suffers even more.
The good news is that you can later resolve the stages that you didn’t successfully complete while growing up, as long as you decide to put in the effort. The eight stages of psychosocial development are:
|Stage||Age||Conflict / Crisis||Resolution / Virtue|
|1||Infant – 18 months||Basic trust vs. Mistrust||Hope|
|2||18 months – 3 years||Autonomy vs. Shame||Will|
|3||3 – 5 years||Initiative vs. Guilt and Doubt||Purpose|
|4||5 – 13 years||Industry vs. Inferiority||Competence|
|5||13 – 21 years||Identity vs. Confusion||Fidelity|
|6||21 – 39 years||Intimacy vs. Isolation||Love|
|7||40 – 65 years||Generativity vs. Stagnation||Care|
|8||65 and older||Integrity vs. Despair||Wisdom|
If you look at the table above, you can quickly see what kind of developmental conflicts need to be resolved for you to turn into a healthy assertive person. You need to trust people around you (your environment) that your needs will be considered and fulfilled, and that people will respond positively to your expressed desires.
You must see yourself as an autonomous person who deserves to have their needs satisfied and to go after personal goals. Then you must take proper initiative and develop the competences to the point where they match personally set challenges. In the end, you must also develop a clear identity of who you are, what your higher self-actualization needs are and how you’ll satisfy them.
On the other hand, if you don’t trust yourself and other people, if you’re burdened by shame, guilt and doubt, it’s very hard to go after your needs and goals. Either you find a way to not act, or you resort to unhealthy behavior in hopes of protecting your emotional self.
A failure of parental empathy, leading to disruption of a coherent sense of self and the emergence of ‘disintegration products’ in later life such as aggression, or attempts at self-soothing through addiction, compulsive sexuality and even self-injury. Source: Introduction to Psychoanalysis: Contemporary Theory and Practice
Based on that, we can draw a very simple conclusion:
- Assertiveness: Is based on feelings of trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, clear identity and great capacity for love.
- Non-assertiveness: Is based on mistrust, shame, guilt, doubt, inferiority, confusion, isolation
- External conflicts: You must find a way to win-win situations
- Internal conflicts: You must properly balance ego and superego
Now we know all the developmental factors that are the core source of nonassertive agency:
- Need inflation, escalation, perversion or supression because of neglect of child’s needs
- Unbalanced ego, with too strong/weak id or superego – too rigorous or loose upbringing
- Unsuccessfully resolved developmental crisis
Any of these situations leads to overly strong defense mechanisms (which are a too complicated subject for an already long article) and the four very nonassertive ways of need satisfaction.
The four toxic, nonassertive ways to need satisfaction in relationships
There are four very general ways how you can act unassertively especially in interaction with others and consequently go against yourself, the society or most often both. The four ways are based on the 4F primal response mechanism.
The fight/flight/freeze/fawn (4F) response is a normal human reaction to any danger (and conflict is danger). They are the tools you have at your disposal when you encounter a threat and need to protect yourself.
Since you can easily get yourself into an (internal or external) conflict when it comes to satisfying your needs, you can just as easily resort to one of these unhealthy responses.
We’re talking about an automatic response to a conflict, not something you consciously choose. The table below shows all the different toxic and nonassertive behaviors based on the 4F response.
|Fight||Flight||Freeze||Fawn / Needy|
|Controlling / Enslaving||Rushing or worrying||Hiding||Servitude|
|Entitlement||Drive-ness||Isolation||Loss of self|
|Type-A||Adrenaline junky||Couch potato||People-pleaser|
|Demanding perfection||Perfectionist||Achievement-phobic||Social perfectionist|
|Sociopath||Mood disorder-Bipolar||Schizophrenic||D.V. Victim|
|Conduct disorder||ADHD||ADD||Parentified child|
Source: Pete Walker (2013), Complex PTSD, page 107
All the nonassertive acts originate either from mistrust, lack of autonomy, shame, guilt, doubt, inferiority, identity confusion, isolation (as we’ll see) or need inflation and escalation.
The false underlying belief (or more exactly emotional hope) is that any such behavior, which you don’t even see as toxic, will provide you an emotional safety net. You assume that you can’t be hurt if you act in a nonassertive way.
Examples of false underlying beliefs or bogus emotional hope:
- Control over people – and with control comes false emotional safety
- Perfectionism – in hopes that you will be more lovable
- Distraction – with the goal of running away from your real needs and feelings
- Create distance in a relationship – and thus avoid being hurt
- Codependency – to create a false feeling of safety by serving others
In reality, you achieve the opposite effect from what you hope will happen. In false hope of protecting yourself, you simultaneously repress your real needs. With the fight response in any conflict, you push people far away from you, usually with anger and controlling demands.
The flight response leads to distance in relationships, usually achieved by being busy. You try to become perfect, while running away from relationships and your own needs. The freeze response creates false safety with isolation and platonic online relationships. And the fawn response creates a fake feeling of security by over-focusing on other people’s needs, or even merging your own needs with those of other people.
These are all nonassertive behaviors. The ego wants to protect you, and has to make a compromise in which your other universal and basic needs are not met.
In the end, I also want to mention defense mechanisms, which play a huge role in needs satisfaction. The point of defense mechanisms is to minimize conflicts, reduce tension, regulate self-esteem and avoid danger, anxiety and displeasure.
These defense mechanisms work on the unconscious level and play an important role in character formation. Psychoanalysis knows three types of defense mechanisms:
- Primitive: Autistic fantasy, devaluation, idealization, passive-aggressive behavior, projection, projective identification and splitting.
- Neurotic: Condensation, denial, displacement, dissociation, externalization, identification of the aggressor, intellectualization, isolation, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, reversal, somatization and undoing.
- Mature: Humor and sublimation.
A summary – what is assertiveness?
In summary, assertiveness means being self-assured in everyday life, without behaving aggressive or passive, with the goal to meet all of your needs in a healthy manner.
That can be achieved only if the following conditions are met:
- You are consciously aware of the majority of needs you have. It’s quite a long list of needs that we all humans share.
- If you were not properly nurtured as a child, there is a great chance that your needs somehow inflated, escalated, get perverted or repressed. They most often inflate as greed, gluttony, or any other deadly sin. But they are only poor surrogates for love, affection and closeness. You can’t be healthy assertive in such a state.
- The needs are best met in interaction with other people. But many times, that’s not possible, which leads to a conflict. A healthy assertive person looks for a win-win situation in a conflict.
- There are four types of un-assertive behavior in interaction with other people, based on the 4F response mechanism to danger (or a conflict). You either become aggressive (fight), passive (freeze), you run away from a conflict (flight) or submit to other people (fawn).
- The needs are also best met in an absence of any internal conflicts. That’s not possible if id or superego are too strong. False guilt, based on too strong superego, is always looking for people to please and rules to be kept.
- Assertiveness is based on feelings of trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, clear identity and great capacity for love. Non-assertiveness is based on mistrust, shame, guilt, doubt, inferiority, confusion, isolation.
Now I hope you understand very clearly what assertiveness really is. Thus, let's move to the second part, how to become more assertive (the article will be published in a few days).