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Becoming Assertive: How to Communicate Your Needs

Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you wanted to respond in a certain way, yet something held you back? Have you ever rehearsed the same conversation over and over, feeling disappointed in yourself for not saying what you really meant to say? Do you find that others are able to express how they feel, but you feel paralyzed when trying to do the same?

You are not alone.

There are many situations in which we have difficulty being assertive. Maybe your boss is making unreasonable demands. Your roommate is too loud. You have a hard time refusing favors. Your colleague takes undue advantage of you. You just can’t say no.

A lack of being assertive can generate feelings of guilt, shame and even anger, leading to negative self-talk and a rupture in your relationships. Assertiveness is not easy and it can feel uncomfortable and anxiety provoking, especially if we believe we don’t have the right or the skill to be assertive. However, assertiveness is a crucial skill for healthy relationships and self-esteem.

Assertiveness is a form of self-expression that allows us to be direct and honest about our opinion, pursue our best interests more confidently, and bring us on equal footing with others. It helps us maintain boundaries, allowing us to preserve our autonomy while enhancing our relationships. Being assertive means standing up for yourself to maintain equality in your relationships without putting down or stepping over others. The goal of assertiveness is always for healthy and effective self-expression.

It might feel daunting to begin asserting your needs, and that’s okay. Being assertive takes time, skill, and practice. Here are some first steps to gaining confidence and becoming assertive.

1. Identify your boundaries: It is really important that you understand your own limits to be able to distinguish when you are comfortable with someone’s demands or not. When boundaries aren’t clear, you might start to notice that you give in more often than you feel comfortable with, take on more than you can handle, or let go of things that mean a lot to you. One way to know if your boundaries are being violated is to check in with yourself. Do you notice any discomfort or resentment? Do you feel taken advantage of? Discomfort and resentment may indicate that what the person is asking of you oversteps your boundaries.

2. Replace negative automatic thoughts with more skillful ways of thinking: Being assertive is a healthy form of self-expression, and so it is important to challenge your negative automatic thoughts that may be holding you back from expressing what you really need from a situation. For example in a group meeting at work you may be thinking, “No one is interested in what I have to say.” To challenge this thought, you might examine whether that thought contains any cognitive distortions. You might also look for more useful ways of thinking based on prior evidence, such as, “I have had experience with this topic and someone might benefit from the insight I have to offer on the matter.” If you are having trouble challenging your thoughts it might be helpful to seek therapeutic services, where you and your clinician can work together to come up with more balanced thinking.

3. Be more expressive about your needs in a situation: Assertiveness means to act in your best interest and so it is important for you to be direct about your needs. While we often hope people intuitively know what we want (or don’t want) from them, don’t expect others to mind-read what is going on for you. Speak in clear words, using “I-messages” to relate your needs. The idea behind I-messages is to provide feedback to the other person about their behavior and the effects it has on you without placing any blame. For example, if you find yourself in a relationship where your partner is making all of the decisions and you don’t feel heard, an effective way to communicate that through “I-messages” would be as follows, “I feel very frustrated when I don’t get an opportunity to participate in the decision-making regarding our plans.”

4. Be mindful of your non-verbal cues: Eye contact, body posture, facial expressions and your voice and gestures go a long way in relating confidence. In fact, research has shown that “power poses” can increase hormones in the body that boost confidence levels.

Although when you’re nervous it might feel more fitting to slouch and look away, sitting upright and maintaining appropriate eye contact will convey that what you have to say is important and deserves to be heard. Mirroring the non-verbal cues of the person you are speaking- such as following tone, gestures, eye contact, and body posture- can increase positive feelings of relatedness, connection, and understanding.

5. Allow yourself to say “no”: Saying ‘no’ within healthy limits can preserve your sense of self-worth, and while seeming counterintuitive, can improve your relationships as well. By being able to say no compassionately, you can be more authentic in your relationships. It also relieves you of the anxiety, stress, and resentment that may build up in a relationship due to ‘having’ to honor all commitments.

It is important to change any unhelpful beliefs regarding saying no such as “it is rude or selfish” and “others may reject me for not agreeing with them.” Remember that self-care is really important, and before you can be there for others, you need to take care of yourself and have your needs met.

6. Be Persistent: Be persistent in practicing your assertiveness skills. It is important to note that being assertive doesn’t mean that you will always get your way or what you want. However, the more you practice voicing what you need in a situation, the more confident you will be in your ability to speak up for yourself.

Improving your assertiveness skills has a number of benefits, including decreasing stress and anxiety, feeling more confident, forming healthier relationships, and being capable of getting your needs met. In other words, assertiveness can lead to a healthier, happier, more authentic you.

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