Let’s Talk About… Assertiveness

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.

This is Episode 45 and this week I’m talking about assertiveness – I’ll be discussing what it is, how it can improve your wellbeing, and how to be more assertive every day. So, let’s talk about mental health!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.

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Just quickly before I begin today, if you haven’t already signed up to receive updates and weekly episodes in your email then please take a moment to head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe — I have lots of exciting stuff coming up over the next few months which will be announced exclusively to my mailing list before anywhere else, so make sure you’re included! Now, on with this week’s episode…

FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
  • One of the challenges in getting our message across to others is making sure that our needs are met and our feelings are respected — that’s where assertiveness comes in.
  • Assertiveness is behaving confidently and communicating your needs, wants, feelings, beliefs and opinions in an open, honest and respectful way.
  • Assertiveness helps your mental health because it’s about respecting yourself; it’s a form of self-care, in that it involves being clear about what you need and communicating your needs and feelings to others.
  • Building greater assertiveness can help you to increase your self-esteem and confidence, and helps to create and maintain better quality relationships.
  • Assertiveness involves understanding that you may not be able to control other people, but you can certainly influence how they behave towards you by assertively addressing issues if and when they occur.

Introduction

I’m an Australian (in case you couldn’t already tell!) and we tend to be a fairly assertive lot, in that we will usually tell it like it is and we’re pretty direct when we need to be. Now, of course, that’s a stereotype and there are all different types of people in this country so to say that we’re all assertive is a bit unfair. But regardless of where you’re from and what your dominant style is — assertive, aggressive or passive — what we all have in common is a need to be heard and understood.

One of the challenges in getting our message across to others is making sure that our needs are met and our feelings are respected — which is a very challenging proposition in a world of more than 7.8 billion people (source: https://www.theworldcounts.com/populations, data extracted 16 September 2020). Every time we interact with someone, regardless of whether they are a friend, family member, work colleague, general acquaintance or total stranger, we are shaping our future interactions based on what we will and won’t accept within the current interaction — and that’s where assertiveness can help you to better manage your relationships in order to help you maintain good mental health. 

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is behaving confidently and communicating your needs, wants, feelings, beliefs and opinions in an open and honest way, whilst still being respectful of other people and their needs and not intentionally hurting anyone’s feelings (adapted from an article in Better Health Victoria; read it at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/assertiveness)

I often take a moment somewhere in the episode to mention what the topic isn’t about, and today I’m going to do that a bit earlier by sharing a quote from that same article I just mentioned, which is:

“Some people confuse assertiveness with aggression and think that to assert yourself is to adopt a particular position in a disagreement, stand your ground and argue a point without compromise.”

Better Health Victoria [Australia] (source: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/assertiveness)

So, let’s be completely clear here that being assertive is not about being completely inflexible and never compromising, because that means you’re just not prepared to grow and evolve as a person. It means that you ask for what you need (through your words and actions) while also respecting the needs of others. 

Assertiveness has a couple of close relatives who I mentioned before:

  • aggressiveness, which is being openly hostile and forceful towards others
  • passiveness, which is allowing things to be said to you or things to be done that impact on you without responding or resisting

and then there’s also passive-aggression, which is avoiding direct and honest communication whilst behaving in a hostile or sarcastic manner… I’m sure many of us are familiar with one of our parents saying something along the lines of, “Well that’s your decision, and if you want to break my heart then go ahead and do what you like…” or something equally obnoxious disguised as being supportive!

I think these are all summed up nicely with a great quote by the author, psychologist and Holocaust survivor Edith Eger that goes:

“To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself. And to trust that there is enough, that you are enough.” 

Edith Eva Eger

The problem with these types of non-assertive behaviours is that somebody often gets hurt, and our interactions with one another don’t need to be about who wins or loses or who has power over another person. Assertiveness is about being kind and treating others fairly and equally, as well as ensuring that you are treated fairly and equally. 

I’ve used the saying “as within, so without” a few times before, and assertiveness is basically “as without, so within”, in the sense that how you move about the world and conduct your interactions with others will then go a long way towards your internal wellbeing. Why? Because when you ask for and receive equal and fair treatment from others, you’ll then be more inclined to value yourself and treat yourself fairly as well.

You know, sometimes I sit here researching and writing these episodes and I find myself thinking about just how much these topics fit in with not just mental health but also the broader world — again, “as within, so without”. We’re seeing more and more people demand to be treated equally and why shouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t we all want to be treated the same? And why would anybody want to deny someone else from being treated fairly and equally, expect to maintain their own power and push their own narrow-minded agendas? If we want to have good mental health then we need to think carefully about the way we treat ourselves as well as the way we treat others, because they are all interwoven — we can’t reasonably expect to be treated well by others if we don’t treat them well. Anyway, I digress, but this is something I feel pretty strongly about and I think we need to stop putting mental health and social wellbeing into seperate boxes because everything is connected. And so let’s move on to… 

Why is assertiveness important for good mental health?

Assertiveness helps your mental health because it’s about respecting yourself; it’s a form of self-care, in that it involves being clear about what you need and communicating your needs and feelings to others. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re right or that you will always get your own way, but it means that you’re able to ensure that you get your message across in a calm and rational way so that you can work towards a mutually-agreeable solution. It involves acting in your own best interests and standing up for yourself as well as making your own choices for your life. 

According to Psychology Today (Australia), assertiveness:

  • is associated with higher self-esteem and confidence,
  • allows [you] to stand up for [yourself] or others in a nonaggressive way,
  • can protect [you] from bullies and other social predators,
  • [leads to] less anxiety and depression [as well as] a greater sense of agency (i.e. Being in greater control of your life) and better relationships

(source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/basics/assertiveness

Working on your assertiveness can help you to:

  • establish and maintain fairer and more equal relationships at work, at home, with friends and even out in the world (for example, being comfortable in telling that tradesperson who never shows up when they’re supposed to that you’re going to terminate their contract… and yes, I’m speaking from current personal experience here!)
  • feel comfortable and confident in expressing your opinions, without worrying about whether or not others will agree (but while also respecting every person’s right to their own opinion)
  • feel more comfortable saying ‘no’ to others and ‘yes’ to your own needs
  • set clear boundaries and stick to them.

So with all of that in mind, let’s get into the ‘how-to’ part of this week’s episode.

How to be more assertive every day

I’ve got a few different points to cover this week and it’s less of a step-by-step process than it is a number of different things to consider.

Let’s start with being clear on your needs — know who you are and what you need from the people around you, and be clear about what needs are being met versus those that are not being met. When our needs go unfulfilled, we tend to run into a host of issues like stress, anxiety and depression, so it’s important to be honest with yourself and identify where you might need to do some work to ensure your needs are being met.

Next, be consistent and treat others the way you want to be treated — it’s called leading by example, and it works for a whole range of situations. For example, I’ve explained to most (if not all) of the closest people in my life that if they send me a message it will likely take me a few days or even a couple of weeks to see the message, but I make sure that as soon as I see one I respond to it within 24 hours where I can. I do that because I’m pretty busy with my work and I have notifications completely switched off because I hate them (and I mean HATE them — having reminders pop up sends my anxiety into overdrive), so it means I need to go in manually to check my messages, which is something I only do for Messenger & Facebook every week or other week because I hate them too (lol! My apologies for any of you who love Facebook and I fully respect your choice — each to their own — but Facebook drives me nuts!). However, when I do see a message I will usually respond to it on the spot because there’s nothing worse than seeing that someone has read a message but hasn’t responded to it, so treat others the way you want to be treated. Which brings me nicely to my next point…

Address issues early and be honest, unapologetic and calm — if you’re feeling some type of way about something, you may find it’s better to get it out than to let it fester internally. But there are two very different ways to go about it: either completely gung-ho with zero thought for the other person’s feelings (like a bull in a china shop, which is quite likely to cause a lot of damage) or, more effectively, taking the time to think about what you might need to say and how you can deliver your message in a calm and non-judgemental way (which is a much kinder and fairer way to tackle the situation). Honesty is important (i.e. Say what you mean and mean what you say) but it’s also about being thoughtful in your delivery so that it reminds kind (i.e. Without judgement or accusations, which just serve to create conflict); further, don’t apologise for being honest… as long as you’re kind, respectful and thoughtful, you don’t need to apologise.

Let me talk you through an example of what I mean. I have two friends who I love deeply but who are both horrendous with responding to messages — I’m talking not replying for weeks after they have read the message. There are four different ways I could handle that situation:

  • Passive: Just send messages to them anyway, hoping that they’ll eventually respond without ever actually addressing my feelings about the situation
  • Aggressive: Sending them nasty messages telling them off (or being super-aggressive by going round to their house and yelling at them…!)
  • Passive Aggressive: Giving them the silent treatment then dancing around the subject when they eventually do get in touch
  • Assertive: Addressing the situation calmly and logically by explaining the impact of their actions without judgement, and giving them an opportunity to modify their behaviour (which is what I did, by the way)

(And before I continue, can I just say here that in this example I’m talking about someone takings days or weeks to respond, not just hours? Assertiveness does not mean being pushy or demanding; please respect that other people are not just sitting there waiting to respond to their messages as soon as they arrive… but when someone reads your message and then doesn’t reply for days or weeks, that is a whole other story and I think that should be addressed in a gentle-yet-assertive way…)

One of the challenges with dealing with other people is that we can often jump to conclusions about their motivations, and we’re not always correct. The thing is that you never know what another person’s intentions are and there is a big difference between doing something (or not doing something) deliberately versus unintentionally. I tend to give most people the benefit of the doubt and I’ve found that most of the time when you calmly and kindly explain how what has happened has affected you, they will generally respond with genuine remorse and will resolve to do better next time — and that’s really all you want, since the past cannot be changed. I talk often in Let’s Talk About Mental Health about the fact that you can’t control other people (and you can’t), however you can influence people and situations through having open, honest and non-judgemental conversations that come from a place of love and shared humanity. I firmly believe that most people don’t set out to be mean or inconsiderate, it’s just that sometimes we forget to think about how our actions are impacting on other people, so it’s up to us to be more forgiving while also not letting ourselves be taken advantage of. Which brings me to…

Address patterns early and be direct — in the words of Ian Fleming (who wrote the James Bond series), “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” I mean, “enemy action” might be going a little far there but it’s definitely true that when the same thing happens three times it’s no longer coincidence but instead a pattern of behaviour, and patterns need to be addressed — it’s the old root cause vs symptom thing that I talk about a lot in this program; if someone is behaving the same way towards you over and over again, and if you’ve been addressing it and nothing is changing, then something deeper is happening and that needs to be addressed. If someone pretends not to know that they’re being thoughtless towards you but then they keep on doing it even after you’ve addressed it a couple of times, then they know exactly what they’re doing and so no amount of covering the same ground over and over again is going to change things unless you get to the bottom of what’s really going on. How do you do that? You ask. Yep, I know it’s confronting to even have to think about — however if you don’t address it then nothing will change, and nothing changes if nothing changes. 

Also, be clear about your intentions — are you addressing an issue to create drama or to get your own way? If your intention is anything other than to find a mutually agreeable solution, there’s a problem. Which leads me to…

Be flexible — assertiveness isn’t about being right, it’s about being heard. If you argue without being prepared to be flexible (and compromising when you need to) then you’re being aggressive. Or if you back right down or give up completely, you’re being passive. Or if you back down and then go around telling everyone how terrible the other person is, you’re being passive-aggressive (and a bit of an arsehole). 

Remember that balance is the goal in all things — that means honouring your needs and the needs of the other person. Sometimes that might mean that you need to meet in the middle; compromise isn’t settling, it’s about finding a win/win for both parties (or at the very least avoiding a lose/lose!). Negotiation is not a dirty word and there is balance to be found in all situations! 

Keep it factual and avoid blame statements — stick to the facts! You’ll see a lot of advice recommending that you structure your approach around, “when you [action], I feel [feeling], because [reason]… I would prefer [preference]” — so for example, “When you talk over me after I ask you not to I feel devalued because I start wondering if what I have to say really matters. I’d prefer that you let me finish what I’m saying before you talk, so I have a chance to explain my point fully.” And can I just say that when you do this, it’s essential to avoid blame and to make sure you don’t make sweeping generalisations like “you always do this” or “you never” — nobody does or doesn’t do something 100% of the time, and it’s  about as helpful as telling someone to calm down!

Know your worth — I talked about this a lot back in Episode 43: Self-Esteem so check that out, but also let me say that you are unique, you are valuable and you have something important to contribute to the world… so never let anybody take that away from you. Ever.

And finally, here are four general points to keep in mind:

  • Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of or being mistreated by others. I once had a new manager who I bumped into in the airport and he pushed in front of me at the bar — I let him, even though I was quite taken aback (and nearly told him to piss off), and it completely changed our working relationship for the worse from that moment onwards because he had asserted his dominance and I had let him. It’s ridiculous the games some people play, but remember that it does take two to tango so you can choose whether or not to allow others to take away your power and you can choose to assertively address issues.
  • If you can’t respond assertively and kindly in the moment, take a break and come back to it. I just did that with a friend and I ended up taking three weeks because I needed to sort some stuff out about how I was feeling, and so when I did come back to her I was honest about what had taken me so long which actually led to a better conversation. 
  • Remember we are all unique, so each to their own. If it’s not harming anyone, let people get on with their lives; Different isn’t wrong, it’s just different. You don’t have to like it and you don’t even have to agree with it, but you can choose to be an adult and let people be. Focus on what really matters — doing no harm, being kind, and giving more than you take.
  • Pick your battles. Not everything has to be turned into a confrontation (because that’s aggression) and sometimes the most assertive thing you can do is to change the way you approach the situation. Sometimes, that means simply walking away. Remember that all you have direct control over are your own words, actions and feelings.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to assertiveness and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: assertiveness is a choice. It’s a choice that you make to look after your needs and feelings in a way that also respects the needs and feelings of other people. You may not be able to control other people, but you can certainly influence how they behave towards you by assertively addressing issues if and when they occur. Some people will find it confronting or uncomfortable when you are assertive towards them — but that’s their issue, not yours. Be respectful and be mindful of not hurting other people’s feelings, but that doesn’t mean stepping back and becoming passive because then nothing will be achieved. When you are assertive, you’re making it clear to others — and to yourself — that your needs matter, which they do. And when you do that, you begin to take much greater control of your life.

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Eleanor Roosevelt, and it is:

“Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Next week I’ll be talking about gratitude. I’m not sure that a single episode of Let’s Talk About Mental Health has gone by without me mentioning the notion of gratitude at least once, so I thought it was about time that I gave the topic its own episode (and what better time to do it than now, since September is Mindset Month on Let’s Talk About Mental Health!). So I’ll be talking about what gratitude is (and what it isn’t), why it’s important for your mental health, and I’ll be sharing simple ideas for how to incorporate more gratitude into your life every day.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland & Europe, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada.

You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here) — if you haven’t already subscribed to the YouTube channel please do as there will be a lot of extra content coming to that platform very soon.

If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).

Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

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