Assertiveness falls between total passivity (letting others walk all over you) and outright aggressiveness (unpleasant hostility), and it’s difficult for many people — how can you be assertive in the right way, and do it without making yourself awkward or uncomfortable? To seek advice on this topic, we put out this query:
For timid people who may be suffering from “nice guy syndrome” and afraid to stand up for themselves, what primary piece of advice can you share on how to be more assertive? Personal stories on how you were able to become more assertive are welcome, as well as of course input from psychologists, therapists and mental health experts.
Of the 40 comments we received back (many from therapists and counselors), I’ve published and summarized the best ones below:
- Find out if it’s anxiety or shape that’s keeping you from being assertive, and go from there (link)
- Remind yourself that your needs and opinions are valid (link)
- Preparing yourself for offensive or negative feedback can help you be more assertive (link)
- Realize you may tend to lose more when you don’t assert myself (link)
- State your wants, needs, and preferences clearly (link), and be clear on your values (link)
- Being assertive does not mean being rude (link), rather it’s about believing in what you’re saying (link)
- Work on your communication skills and expressing yourself clearly (link)
- Practice different situations beforehand if you know there’s a particular moment where you’ll need to be assertive (link)
- It of course helps if facts are on your side and you’ve done your research beforehand for whatever you need to be assertive about (link)
- Stop chasing validation (link)
If you have input to share on the topic of how to be more assertive, please make a submission here and we’ll add it to this article.
- A lack of assertiveness is often based on feelings of anxiety (being afraid of standing up for yourself or of how people might react if you did) and shame (feeling like you don’t deserve to stand up for yourself because you don’t matter). A good first step is to figure out which of these is stopping you. Fear or shame?
- If it’s anxiety that’s keeping you passive, then you can use a classic anxiety tool to work on this. Build yourself a list of situations to practice in, starting with the easiest at the bottom, and working your way up to more difficult situations. For example, at the bottom, you might put something like “Ask a store clerk where to find an item I have on my shopping list” whereas something at the top might be more along the lines of “Asking for a raise I feel I’ve earned”. We can retrain ourselves to feel more confident by starting small, mastering little steps, and building up as we work up to harder challenges.
- Take time to stop and ask yourself what it is that you actually need or want. Many people who struggle to stand up for themselves have spent so much time NOT expressing these things, that it can take time to rebuild the habit of even recognizing what they want or need.
- Practice allowing yourself to get angry. For the classic nice guy, this may feel impossible, but anger is actually a critical skill in being able to stand up for yourself. Its important to note that anger (the emotion and internal feelings of “I’m not okay with this!”) is NOT the same thing as aggression (the external behaviors such as yelling and intimidating people). Practice alone, where no one can see you. Just let yourself feel the anger in your body and practice getting used to how it feels and noticing that you can have it happening internally without breaking everything around you or hurting anyone. This is a common fear for people who struggle with assertiveness and it’s important to take a look at the evidence and really learn that by allowing yourself to feel the feeling, you don’t necessarily have to become a frightening person.
These tips will put someone well on their way to assertiveness. The last step of actually verbalizing things, once they’ve mastered these, almost comes automatically.
--Candice Conroy, licensed mental health counselor, Let's Talk! Counseling and Services
Nice guys often struggle with immense shame and insecurity. They feel this incessant need to please others, causing them to sacrifice their own needs and wants. Over time, this pattern can cause tremendous resentment. You feel annoyed that other people treat you like a doormat, yet you continue to let them stomp all over you. It can become this terrible self-fulfilling prophecy.
Change starts by recognizing your patterns. When does the nice guy emerge? What messages do you tell yourself about setting boundaries? What small steps can you take to recognize your needs- rather than the needs of everyone else.
Assertiveness is a mindset. It comes from believing that you have inherent worth and that you're allowed to express your needs. Start by practicing assertiveness with safe people. You'll need to expose yourself to potential rejection and become more comfortable with it. Over time, you will start to realize that people respect you more when you stand up for yourself. Likewise, they will also treat you better because they know you won't put up with anything less.
--Nicole Arzt, licensed marriage and family therapist, wellbeingscounselling.ca
I've counselled nice guys (and gals) and even have a couple in my immediate and extended family, and assertive is something many people need to condition themselves to be.
Therapists often use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to try and work on the psychological processes that make self-advocacy and assertiveness difficult. One of the major impediments to assertiveness by people suffering from nice guy syndrome is the fear that one will come off as aggressive, or that in being assertive we will incur people's disapproval.
As a person struggling with assertiveness, the next time you find yourself in a situation where you are faced with the choice to self-advocate or not, remind yourself that your needs and opinions are valid, that what's reasonable is right, control your emotions with deep breathing, and maintain assertive body language. Over time this becomes habitual and you develop your assertiveness.
--Sarah Johnson, Family Assets
It was difficult for much of my life to be assertive because I did not always have the self-confidence I have today. I was constantly afraid of being condemned by those whom I've seen as my leaders (parents, teachers and so forth) so most of my young life I've been extremely obedient and submissive.
When I practiced writing my philosophical thoughts on paper and shared them to the world through the internet, I've gradually became more confident in my abilities, and as I wrote and published more and more and received feedback that was both negative and positive, I eventually came into the realization that I too have a right to sound and express my voice even if there are those who want to shut it down because they heavily disagree with me.
This is my primary piece of advice to the less-assertive -- the more you prepare yourself for feedback that might offend you (even if you're highly sensitive like me), the more you will be accustomed to express yourself and your positions freely. Not everyone is going to like it, but it doesn't mean you should not be assertive with or without their existence. Being assertive is a right everyone is accountable for regardless of reception.
--Tomasio Rubinshtein, Philosocom
One tip that has helped me become more assertive is realizing I tend to lose more when I don't assert myself.
For example; when I am already swamped with commitments and someone comes to ask a favor. If I say yes knowing I wouldn't be able to keep up, at the end of the day, I would disappoint that person and feel terrible too. Gently saying No in the first place would have made it easier on everyone.
--Lily Ugbaja, Dollar Creed
Learning how to be more assertive is a matter of deciding what you want to achieve and taking the necessary action to see it through. Simple I want, I need, and similar statements can help shyer people to assert their desires. The point is to state your wants, needs, and preferences clearly. There's no need to apologize for having legitimate needs, so don't precede or follow up assertive statements with I'm sorry statements.
If other conversationalists object to your wants, needs, or preferences, or iif they try to force you into something that you dislike, use a phrase such as Please consider, I'd like you to be open to this idea, I find that remark offensive, I don't like/appreciate/want/need or Please respect a different point of view that best suits the situation,
If you're a person who gives in quickly to feel that you're preserving some peace but at a cost to you, do some role-playing with sympathetic people willing to let you practice on them. Practice will let you grow more confident at asserting yourself with other people. Like all new behaviors, you'll make mistakes and enjoy victories while getting used to asserting yourself. New skills take time to master. Your self respect will grow as you grow more confident in standing up for yourself, and that's a wonderful reward for your hard work.
--Yocheved Golani, e-counseling.com
As someone who’s worked in the business world for quite some time now, I’ve gone from shy to assertive and there are myths about assertiveness that I’d like to kill. Most people think that in order to be assertive, one must first be rude. I don’t believe it. You don’t need to stop being a nice person so that people would listen to you, that’s not a quality everyone wants to see. What one needs is confidence and in order to be confident, one must know three things: worth, potential, and goal. A person who knows their worth, their potential, and their goal will definitely make it easier for his/her/them to share their ideas and assert themselves.
--Simon Elkjaer, avXperten
Get clear on your values. When you are clear about what you stand for, what you want to be known for in this world, it becomes easy to stand up for yourself and be assertive. When you are not clear on exactly what is important to you, what you value, then you have nothing to stand up for or be assertive about. It is easy to waiver or be swayed by other people's opinions when you are not crystal clear on your own beliefs and opinions. This sounds simple but so many clients come through my office not knowing what is most important to them in life.
--Kathryn Ely, Empower Counseling & Coaching
In order to be more assertive in life, and especially at work, you need to improve your communication skills. Specifically, you need to learn how to express yourself clearly every time you are communicating with others, so that they understand your expectations, your boundaries, and what you are comfortable doing, and not doing. In addition, you need to learn how to stay calm, how to agree to disagree, and avoid guilt trips in all their forms.
Bottom Line: Speaking directly and clearly, avoiding guilt trips, learning how to agree to disagree, and remaining calm even during disagreements are some of the ways you can become more assertive.
--William Taylor, VelvetJobs
In my previous job, one of the most frequent feedback I used to get from the European Head of our organization was that I was not assertive enough. I knew this was an issue while working in sales. I started by reflecting on my meetings and analyzing where I could have been more assertive. But I soon felt that a reactive approach is not enough.
I decided to do this exercise daily with some common situations and scenarios. I used to think of ways how I can get my points across. What kind of language, tone, and stuff I am going to say to the people so that they are more inclined to go along with the suggestions I am making. This exercise did not make me more assertive than I am. It did not change my nature. However, I was able to assert my position in the situations I have practiced beforehand.
--Vineet Jain, Divinio Limited
I used to be very timid at work - I was a foreign female at an investment bank where everybody else was Anglosaxon and male, and where it was very normal to interrupt me, talk down to me and make jokes about people from the country I was from. One thing that made me more assertive was to make the reason why I needed to speak up about something bigger than myself. I thought about all the women after me that would have to cope with being belittled and spoken down to. The next time I was interrupted, I said I haven't finished yet, please let me finish.
--Bianca Riemer, biancariemer.com
Let logic be your ally - For me personally, knowing that the facts are on my side can be just the confidence booster I need to be more assertive. Part of the fear to stand up for ourselves stems from the fact that we aren't even always sure that our opinions are right to begin with. This is why it's so important to research the topic you'd like to discuss, so that you can come into the conversation with all the facts and data to back up what you want to be assertive about.
--Jennifer Roquemore, Resume Writing Services
When people think of assertiveness, the image of the boorish blowhard who talks over all dissenting opinions is usually what will come to mind. But aggressive communication doesn’t equal assertiveness, it is most often an expression of feeling threatened. While aggressiveness can feel like empowerment, it doesn’t come true confidence, but rather a sense of fear. Assertiveness comes from a sense of faith in ourselves, and a belief in our convictions that we are willing to stand behind without trying to intimidate or minimize others.
--Ken Eulo, Smith & Eulo Law Firm
I often found myself in the pothole of Nice Guys during my late teenage years because I was lacking good social communication skills and kindness without boundaries. I realized that Nice Guy tendencies rise from the core of validations. These validations are feeding into people who lack confidence, assertiveness, and high self-esteem consciously or unconsciously, either way.
To remove this label, learn how to stop chasing validation for any means. Mostly, nice guys do everything to please others and receive their desired assurance. So, you can say that everything is a showoff. Instead, take a road trip alone. Experience something new alone, without letting anyone know through posting on social media. Take a break from your phone for a few days and enjoy your own company. Listen to your deep core to understand who you truly are and what you want. Another problem such guys have is difficulty saying no. Practice it by saying two letters word without putting out an explanation. And then act authentically by staying true to what you have said. Just say NO. Humans are multi-dimensional beings, full of emotions, desires, dreams, impulses, and needs. Instead of wrapping the true nature of yourself as a human being, acknowledge it and let it flow through you.
However, when you want to break this image, the number one step is understanding the root cause. It varies from one person to another as everyone has a history of different experiences. Once you identify the reason, which could be: fear of rejection by peers for not meeting their needs hence, low self-esteem. Prioritizing the interests of others over your own. Not knowing how to say ‘NO’ to people. Fear of new people, new places, or new experiencing so you stick to the same place even if it is not comfortable for you. The list can go on and on. As per my experiences, I will suggest that after finding your reason/s, break these fixations by slowly asserting yourself in the realm of real-world integrity. In baby steps, you can create a self-efficacy image of yourself. But keep in mind that it is not a one-time process rather a longitudinal one that requires patience and continuous practice.
--Dr. Asif Gul, PhD, Essay River
Many people struggle with being more assertive because they want to be likeable or are worried about being rude. While those are laudable goals, they are not mutually exclusive to expressing your opinions and desires. In fact, well-intentioned people will often welcome direct communication because it allows them to understand your feelings and modify behavior as necessary. A person may not know that their toe tapping is bugging you at work, or that their behavior is making you uncomfortable unless you speak up. Obviously this will not be the case in every situation. Sometimes being assertive will initiate conflict. In these situations it is important to recognize that you matter, your opinions matter, and that some temporary social discomfort or friction may be necessary to allow you to express yourself in the given situation. As long as you are polite in your delivery, clear about your intentions and feelings, and willing to negotiate when needed, you might find that being assertive will be better received than you would have expected. For people still struggling to be as assertive as they'd like, it may help to practice being assertive in low stakes situations before asking for a big raise at work or confronting a bully.
--Arash Fayz, LA Tutors
As someone who has been the “nice guy” for a very long time, I can attest to what it feels like when you’re not being assertive and let others walk all over you. My best advice?
You deserve so much better.
I know it’s hard to be assertive sometimes and stand your ground. But you owe it to yourself to do so! When you don’t express how you truly feel, when you let someone take advantage of you, when you let someone get away with disrespecting or manipulating you, you are doing a huge disservice to yourself. You deserve to be happy and be treated with respect.
No matter how ugly, awkward or difficult it was to be assertive, I always felt great afterward and it led to positive outcomes in the end. Believe me, when I first became more assertive, I could barely speak because I was so scared. But even when I looked like a fool, I felt great because I did myself a service by standing up for myself and for what I believe in. Being assertive is essential to being happy and being treated with respect.
--Roger Senpai, rogersenpai.com
For those of us who struggle to be assertive, it’s usually because we tend to people please. What we don’t realize is that people-pleasing is just lying. If you look at it closely, it’s just manipulating someone else’s emotions to get them to feel the way you want them to feel. Here’s the thing though, no matter what you do, some people will like you and some people won’t. The life coach Brooke Castillo talks about it this way, you can be the most delicious, beautiful peach in the world, but that won’t make any difference to a person that doesn’t like peaches. And we don’t blame the peach if someone doesn’t like peaches. There’s nothing wrong with the peach, that person just doesn’t like peaches.
So if whether or not someone likes you has nothing to do with you and everything to do with that person’s personality, preferences, etc., why not just boldly be yourself and let the people who like you like you and the people who don’t don’t? So be assertive, ask for what you want, be your true authentic self, and allow people to choose for themselves how they feel about you.
--Felicia Broccolo, The Life Coach School
Becoming more assertive is connected to self-worth and to understanding power dynamics. Too often, we stifle our truth, our desires, our boundaries about what works for us and what doesn't, out of fear of rejection, abandonment, conflict, or some variation thereof. The stronger our sense of self, the less dependent we are on external validation—what others think of us. More and more, we learn to stand alone as needed, rather than settling for morsels of acceptance or pseudo-love. We've also been conditioned to fear power with beliefs like Power corrupts. What we weren't told about that saying though, is that it pertained specifically to political power, not the interpersonal power we are exploring here. It is therefore critical that we understand the different types of power so that we can heal and resolve our ambivalent relationship to it: we want it but are afraid of it. My own personal journey of evolution from a painfully shy, self-doubting, and self-sabotaging teenager to an internationally recognized teacher and author on personal empowerment, is a testament to the effectiveness of this dual process.
--Christian de la Huerta, Soulful Power