Learning to be Assertive


Steven has been with his girlfriend for almost two years and is tired of not getting his needs met. According to Steven, he has a difficult time in asking for what he wants and needs. A simple decision, for example, about where to eat dinner is challenging for him. Instead, he allows his girlfriend to pick the restaurants, while he gets frustrated with himself for not speaking up. Steven acknowledges that he is passive in many of his relationships. Non-assertive people such as Steven are often unable to express emotions of any kind, negative OR positive.

It’s very harmful for a relationship when the person can’t be open about their thoughts/feelings. Assertiveness is a learned behavior and thinking style. The messages that we receive growing up have a lot to do with the way people act and think. In Steven’s case, his family taught him that you should always please others before yourself- in other words, he learned to put his needs on the backburner. Now, in his relationships, he has a tough time voicing his needs. 

What is Assertiveness?

Assertiveness is the ability to express your thoughts, feelings, opinions, attitudes, and rights, without unwarranted anxiety, in a way that doesn’t invade or disregard the rights of others.

Assertiveness differs from aggressiveness- It is true that both assertive and aggressive communication consist of have your needs stated; however it is different to state your needs assertively and state them aggressively. There are variances in the words and tone used, as well at the body language used.

Some questions that I explored with Steven when thinking about how he may have learned to become unassertive are: 

 How did your family handle conflict?

  • What did they do when they disagreed with somebody or were upset with people? 
  • What were their messages given to you about dealing with conflict? 
  • In what ways did you learn to get what you wanted without asking for it directly?
  • (e.g., crying, yelling, making threats etc.) 
  • How do you still use these in your present life? Are they working for you?

Types of Behaviors:

Above I described what Assertive behavior looks like. In addition to Assertiveness, there are also other ways of behaving:

Passive / Non-assertive Behavior is when someone gives up their right to express thoughts, feelings or desires (directly or indirectly) i.e. “We can go whatever you want. You know of better places to go.”

Aggressive Behavior is when someone stands up for themselves without regard for others; typically demands, attacks or humiliates other people i.e. “I want this done right now.”

Passive-Aggressive Behavior is when someone tries to get what they need or want indirectly or manipulatively. i.e. “I’m sorry I’m so late. I didn’t realize this was such a big deal.”

Here are some helpful Assertiveness Skills:

  • Use assertive body language: such as maintaining eye contact, stand/sit straight, keep your voice calm, etc.
  • Use “I” statements. Keep the focus on the problem you’re having, not on the other person. i.e. “I would like 5 more minutes to get ready” instead of “You always rush me.”
  • Make clear, direct, requests, instead of “will you please…” or “do you mind…”
  • Don’t apologize when it isn’t necessary. Avoid lines such as “I’m sorry but I really can’t…”
  • Avoid making excuses or trying to defend yourself when it’s unnecessary. “Oh you don’t want to hang out today, how about tomorrow?” Trying to find excuses is typically dishonest. It’s not that you can’t do it, but you choose not to.
  • Asking for a time out: Letting someone cool down before discussing an issue.

For any questions, feel free to email me at cnm.therapy@gmail.com


About Pasadena Trauma Therapy

​I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist as well as a Certified EMDR therapist in Pasadena, CA. I have provided outpatient individual and group therapy throughout the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley areas to teens and adults on a variety of issues, ranging from trauma, sexual abuse, physical abuse, incest issues, dissociation/dissociative disorders, anxiety, depression, gang affiliation/involvement, drug and alcohol abuse, etc. I work predominately with adult trauma survivors (sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, physical abuse, dissociation, etc). I also help clients work through issues of anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, attachment disorders, codependency issues, etc. I am trained in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), an evidence-based treatment approach shown to help children, adolescents, and their caretakers overcome trauma-related difficulties. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing ( EMDR) and Trauma Resiliency Module(TRM) are a big part of my practice. Both are very effective in treating traumas. EMDR is a form of psychotherapy that has been successful in helping people who suffer from trauma, anxiety, panic, disturbing memories, nightmares, etc. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation (such as eye movements or tapping) while the client attends to past memories and triggers, in efforts to decrease or eliminate emotional distress connected to the memory. TRM helps clients with traumatic stress reactions learn skills to help stabilize the mind and body. Clients will learn to track body sensations and bring balance back to the nervous system.
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