Assertiveness Training: The Importance of Standing up for Yourself


By Dr. Allison Belger

When my husband, TJ, and I arrived at the hospital for the birth of our second child, we hadn’t yet decided on a middle name if we were to have a girl.  TJ is all about turning such scenarios into games, so he suggested that if we had a girl, her middle name would be the name of the first female nurse to come into our room.  We agreed to go for it.  In walked a very friendly nurse whose name was Vietnamese and difficult for us to pronounce.  We chose “Brooke.”

I tell this story as an intro to this week’s post.  Through the holidays, my goal was to spend as much time with our girls as possible, and frankly, I had little motivation to write and struggled to develop article ideas.  Last night I committed to myself that I’d ask my 11-year-old daughter for an idea, and no matter what it was (even if Vietnamese and difficult to pronounce), I’d give it a whirl.  She did not disappoint. Her idea:  “Why don’t you write about the importance of sticking up for yourself?” She went on to describe that in Little Women, which she’d just finished reading, the character Meg has difficulty standing up to people and needed to work on that.  Done.  I’d committed to her idea, so here goes.

The ability to be assertive and stand up for our own needs and desires is handled differently by each of us.   Culturally, especially in years past, boys have had an easier time with this than girls; apparently, the message for young girls was to be quiet and respectful, and not cause a stir.  Clearly that message has changed, but nonetheless girls and women may still  have a harder time with assertiveness; they are less likely to confront and want to be liked.

Male or female, standing up for yourself can take many forms, from being able to hold your place in line at the grocery store when someone tries to work his way in, to being able to tell your mother that you don’t like it when she tells you what to wear.  It might mean telling your soccer coach that you feel stronger as a defender than as a striker, or telling your son’s teacher that you are concerned and anxious about his learning disability and would appreciate weekly check-ins.  It could mean telling the trainer who is preparing you for your next CrossFit competition that you’re not sure her programming is working for you and your need to be home with your kids at critical hours.

For those who struggle with this kind of assertiveness, the challenge may be rooted in both your personality (nature) and your earliest interactions with caregivers (nurture).  Perhaps you had a domineering parent who overreacted whenever you expressed your needs. Perhaps you have an extra dose of innate anxiety, or maybe you grew up with a sibling whose needs were more apparent and always seemed to take center stage.  While you may have to work harder to combat natural forces and environmental shaping, the results are worth the effort.

Even if you are someone who is generally able to speak up for yourself and ask for what you want, you may struggle at certain times and in certain situations—e.g. facing an intimidating boss, in social settings where stakes are high, or at times when you feel insecure and self-conscious.  Below are some pointers that will help you develop your own assertiveness quotient:

*Role play.  Hokey as it sounds, going through the motions with a trusted friend or family member is often a great way to develop the guts to stand up for yourself in especially tricky situations.  Have your partner respond in various ways to ensure you are feeling ready for whatever response you might get in the real-deal scenario.  Practicing will ease your anxiety when it matters most.

*Conjure your deepest darkest fears and worst-case scenarios with a specific issue or individual in mind.  Write them down and then write down the worst thing that could possibly happen in each case. It is likely that your amorphous, nonspecific fears are far more threatening than any real-life versions of what might actually happen

*Practice being more assertive and asking for what you need with those closest to you, with whom you feel safest.  This should work like training wheels to get you ready for interactions with others out in the world.

*If you have children, imagine what strategies you would like them to develop as they grow and encounter peer pressure and other life challenges. This might help you view assertiveness skills with a greater appreciation for their impact on your own life and inevitable stressful situations.

How might these exercises play out?  Next time you’re at the gym, be sure to speak up if you need a modification for a movement or would like some special help from a coach.  When you’re at work and have a question or suggestion for your boss, make the time to approach and discuss.  When you’re on the phone with your sister and need her to listen to your story (for once!), find the words to get her attention.

The bottom line is that the ability to ask for what you need is a critical life skill.  When done within reason and with awareness of others, expressing yourself and making realistic demands will allow you to navigate life with less frustration and resentment.  Of course, it is possible to take this too far with negative, self-absorbed results, but that’s a topic for another article.

This week’s focus is on the importance and benefits of being able to “stick up for yourself,” of recognizing your own needs and presenting them firmly in ways that allow others to respond and comply, with appreciation for your point of view.  The world may not accommodate every request, but it sure as heck won’t if you don’t try. Martyrdom is never a great tactic long-term, so recognize your needs, embrace the process, and assert yourself!

Related reading from the archives:  Peer Pressure and Homework:  It’s Not Just for Kids!

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