Updated: Mar 2, 2022
I remember years ago sitting in my old studio apartment agonizing over a situation with my brother. I don’t remember exactly what happened… just that I was laying in my bed, my stomach was in knots, & my mind was running & re-running every possible way I could have (or should have) approached a text message that he sent.
I felt frustrated & helpless… like I couldn’t get my act together & just say what I needed to say (although to be honest, I didn't know what that was). It felt like he was judging me, that my whole family was judging me, & that I was this huge disappointment to everyone.
Looking back, I doubt the intensity of my feelings really matched the reality of all of it.
But... back then I often felt stuck like that. I couldn’t say the things I needed to say… or more so… even know what they were. Any conflict or criticism felt like an attack because I didn’t have the capacity to speak up when I needed to.
Learning how to be assertive was (& still is) a process. Back then…I sucked at it, especially with family or anyone I felt had some level of authority or power over me.
It was around that time (over a decade ago) that I bought my first book on assertive communication.
It was a step. And there have been thousands of small intentional steps (& messy mistakes) since.
And… you know what?
It’s not only easier to say what I need to now, it’s (mostly) natural. I trust myself, my voice, & my ability to reason, listen, & learn.
It takes time & is an ongoing process but it is possible. Not just for that highly anxious very emotional younger version of me… but for you as well.
The trick is to remember that it’s not about doing it all at once.
You build your assertiveness muscle by engaging in meaningful conversations & intentional actions one step at a time.
Below are 8 practical ways you can build your assertiveness skills today. Read through them all & then choose one to focus on for a week, month, or even year. You'll notice that as you break the pieces down, the process of being assertive will become more natural & allow you to feel more grounded & steady.
1. Honour Your Nervous System
A common challenges to being assertive is our physiological response. This could looking like freezing up, getting highly agitated, going totally blank, or feeling highly overwhelmed.
If you are stretched too thin or a situation is too overwhelming don’t start there. Work with your nervous system. Be assertive in those situations that are edgy but possible. This will build the resilience & confidence to take on more complex or challenging situations/people as you grow.
You can also support your nervous system with healthy food, good sleep, exercise, pleasurable activities, & somatic therapy if you are dealing with more complex trauma responses in the body. (This extra support can be a game changer for increasing your resilience in tough situations.)
2. One Relationship at a Time.
Being assertive will impact each relationship differently. When you become assertive in a relationship where you were submissive, it's often difficult for the other person to adjust to the new you.
That’s okay & normal. This is why it's important to go slow & focus on one relationship at a time ~ beginning with those relationships that are easier & progressing to those that you find more challenging.
3. One Specific Situation at a Time
Generalized challenges in communication such as “I never speak up for myself” are impossible to overcome because they lack clarity around the specific areas to change.
Instead of trying to be assertive in general, choose one specific situation that needs to be addressed.
Instead of trying to solve the problem 'I need to speak up to my husband' (general), choose a specific situation such as 'I will ask my husband to help me put the kids to bed.'
4. Address Your Beliefs.
Your beliefs whether conscious or unconscious will have direct implications on your ability to express yourself.
When you want to address a specific situation take some time to acknowledge your beliefs - particularly those around responsibility & expectations. Often unconscious conditioning from our pasts lingers in our present. Here are a few questions that might help you understand your beliefs.
Did you learn that your gender or culture was suppose to communicate a certain way?
Do you believe your values are as important as others?
Do you feel responsible for other’s expectations?
Do you feel others are responsible for you?
How was being assertiveness received in your family?
By bringing awareness to underlying beliefs around communication you grow your capacity for honest self expression from the roots.
5. Self Ownership
Assertive communication means that you are responsible for your emotions, your behaviour, you r listening, & your words. Use ‘I’ language & speak from your experience.
Self ownership also means stepping away from trying to manipulate the other or gain their validation. Being accountable to yourself is one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate self & mutual respect. It shows that you have the courage to stand for what you believe while also having the humility to listen, learn, & grow.
6. Let Others Have Their Response
This one can be tough. It means letting other’s have their response or experience, even if it doesn’t align with how you think it should go.
When you begin to be assertive, especially in situations where you were once more submissive, others may become defensive or respond in a difficult way. This is why it’s important to start in more manageable shores & grow from there.
Give people time to adjust & process your new behaviour. You may find that even if someone is defensive about a request or boundary that they still adjust their behaviour. People often absorb a request or change a behaviour without being able to speak to it appropriately in in the moment.
7. Set Attainable Boundaries
Through assertive communication that you can begin to express your boundaries in a clear & respectful way. This doesn’t mean that others will listen or adjust. Be mindful to set boundaries that you are willing to defend & stand up for. Specificity & taking manageable steps will help you to do this more effectively.
8. Assertiveness is Based on Mutual Respect
Ultimately, being assertive is about being integral with how you show up & letting other's have their experience. Even if some becomes manipulative or petty you can choose not to engage in those types of interactions & maintain your stance respectfully.
This ability to hold that integrity for yourself stops unnecessary & often painful defensive patterns from compounding. Engage with the real issues & leave the rest. It can be hard in the moment but it will leave you feeling more clear & steady in the long run.
Just like any worthwhile skill assertiveness takes time, patience, & often many mistakes. Growth is incremental. You may find that yourself dealing with a situation in a usual pattern (i.e. people pleasing, over-emotional, avoidance) except for one small thing you do that is more aligned & assertive. Celebrate the win because it's a sign that you are learning & growing.
You can build you assertiveness skills... just take it one small step at a time. You got this.
About the Author
Amy Thiessen is an international teacher, coach, & musician who focuses on helping individuals connect to their confidence, purpose, & self esteem through voice & communication. Offering a holistic approach Amy helps individuals uncover & overcome their unique blocks around voice & communication, connect to their self esteem & purpose, & ultimately express themselves in a way that is empowered & impactful.
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