A lot of people know how to be passive or aggressive, but many find difficulties with the middle ground. When people on the passive side hear "be assertive" they might feel a sense of shame or guilt.
Assertive might even sound aggressive to some people. Rude even. And unnatural. For people on the more aggressive side, assertive might seem silly, like too much work, or weak.
An abusive household or high school bullies might have left a sour taste in your mouth and you might feel the need to bulldoze your way through life. However, assertiveness skills will give you the confidence you need to receive respect and make interactions smoother.
Why do we become passive?
When you've been severely emotionally wounded, it can be challenging to speak up for yourself, your rights and needs, or negotiate with confidence. We often fall back assuming that people will just give us what we deserve, but that's not the case. Even good people can't mind read, and if they could, as adults it is up to us to look out for ourselves in the form of being assertive. Passiveness or aggressive behavior can make people take advantage of us, or feel uneasy. To cope they may even turn to extreme dislike or disrespect. Just think of interactions as moving parts on a board game. You don't need to do anything too forced, but there are mild to major consequences to how you move forward in most situations.
Assertiveness is also a critical DBT skill in maintaining healthy relationships for the long-run. And peace of mind, too. Without the skill, you will feel as though everything is out of your control and be left with passive or aggressive patterns that destroy trust and intimacy. Assertiveness can be learned by using a simple script. Scripts help by giving you the structure to what you want to say and keeping you focused. People with emotion dysregulation who've dealt with unhealthy parental styles in their childhood weren't always given the tools of assertiveness over passiveness or aggressiveness. Now it's up to them to practice the skill to develop assertiveness for themselves and take control of their life. Scripts give you the advantage of developing a statement in advance, practicing it by yourself or with someone you trust, and finally, delivering it when you feel comfortable enough.
There are four basic components to an assertive statement, although two are optional.
Assertiveness Skill Number 1 - I Think
"I think," is the first stage to assertiveness that focuses on the facts and your understanding of what's going on.
It doesn't include judgments or assumptions about the other person's motives. It should not in any way attack. Sometimes when we are uncomfortable we can project or blame the other person in fear of looking vulnerable or flawed. But remember that that is falling back on aggressiveness. Sometimes we might also be fearful of hurting the other person's feelings so we don't really get to the heart of the matter in conflicts. But that is passiveness. To use "I think" effectively, focus on yourself and your own feelings, but aim at honesty instead of what is the most friendly. You are not responsible for the emotional swings of anyone else.
When we've dealt with childhood emotional and even physical abuse, it is hard to see that boundary. You might have had to be a mini parent to your caretakers and your own emotions might have never been valued. You might even pick people who mimic this same toxic style of relating to you, so you have to also practice observing whether or not interactions feel one-sided where you are the only participant looking out for the other person's emotions. When you practice "I think," observe the other person's reactions without holding yourself accountable.
"I Think" Scripts
"It's been lovely, though I think it's getting late."
"I think you are nervous, you are staring at me and not saying much."
"I think we haven't spent much time together lately."
"You've billed me for a repair I didn't authorize."
"I think what I said was reasonable."
"I don't think that's a good idea"/ "I don't think this is a good idea."
"I think I should leave."
"I think you should leave."
"Looking back in the past, I think this is a repeated habit of yours."
"I think you've been late for the majority of our meetings."
"I think there is another way to say that."
"I think I'm ready to leave."
"You seem to get offended easily."
"That is perhaps what you think, but. . ."
"I find that impolite."
It is best to keep your voice cool and even. These statements are firm but they aren't emotion-driven. It is not your responsibility to coddle people who cannot manage someone being assertive.
Assertiveness Skill Number 2 - "I Feel" (Optional)
Telling someone how you feel can be intimidating. After all, if you already suffer from emotional wounds, chances are, people have used your feelings against you.
Luckily, this assertive statement is optional. You might only want to use this skill with people you trust.
We might also feel people won't know how to deal with our feelings. Maybe we've had unsupportive friends or family in our lives. Maybe we've been ostracized by society. The first thing to remember is that it is okay to feel.
As humans, we feel constantly and it is our right to express our feelings even if hurtful people like to dismiss them. I find that being vulnerable always helps, however, even if people are initially insensitive. When even strangers see the human in you it reminds them that you are like them.
The "I feel" assertive statement is also known as the "I" statement. It's about you and your particular feelings. Start the sentence with an "I" if you'd like to convey info without judgment. It makes things less personal to the other person while getting them to listen closer. The purpose of this skill is to give a non-judgemental description of your emotions.
"I Feel" Scripts
"I feel scared."
"I feel left out."
"I feel lonely."
"I feel we could try again."
"I'm ready/"I'm not ready."
"Lately, I feel sad about us."
"I feel exhausted."
"I feel rejected."
"I feel responsible."
"I feel bad."
"I feel nervous when X happens. . ."
"I feel like some space is good."
"I feel stressed when you do that."
"I feel we need to get to know each other better."
"I feel confused."
"I feel hopeful about us."
"I feel sad about that."
"I feel like you need X."
"I don't feel you need X."
"I feel we need to go our separate ways."
"I feel neglected."
"I feel abandoned."
"I feel intimidated when you say X"
Each example, though expressing a range of feelings, never makes the person feel wrong or bad. If you do make them feel that way you run the risk of them getting defensive, shutting down, or becoming unwilling to give you anything. Accusations, judgments, and blame often start with the word "you," so they are called "you statements." Avoid those!
You're hurting me.
You don't care.
You're acting strange.
You're always late.
You're ruining our business.
Sometimes "you" statements are needed as the last resort however when you've burnt through all the assertiveness you possibly can and the person still doesn't have awareness. You should also be mindful that sometimes sneaky people will dress up "you" statements to look like "I" statements. This unsavory business is usually obvious because the sentence starts with, "I feel that you. . ."
"I feel that you don't care."
"I feel that you were embarrassed by me."
"I feel that you manipulate me."
Avoid these dressed up "you" statements, too. A more assertive and respectful approach would be to ask, "Do you care?" "Are you embarrassed by me?" and "Are you trying to manipulate me?"
Assertiveness Skill Number 3 - "I Want"
The assertiveness skill of "I want" is the fruit, bread, jam, and butter of DBT assertiveness skills. It is the core of bettering rocky relationships and getting the respect you deserve and need.
If you've done all the other pieces to assertiveness, "I want" usually shouldn't be faced with much backlash or even resistance. Nonetheless, there are steps to getting what you want. Heed carefully.
Step 1: Ask for behavior, not attitudinal change. It's wasteful trying to demand others to watch what they believe or feel just because it bothers you. Beliefs and feelings are typically involuntary control. Everyone has their own thought patterns but you can ask someone to change how they act and what they do.
Step 2: Ask for one change at a time. It's hard enough changing one behavior. Don't give a laundry list; overwhelm leads to shutting down or running away, then nothing is resolved.
Step 3: Ask for something that can be changed now. "The next time we go out to my mom's I want you to. . ." is a poor "I want" statement because it'll be long forgotten.
Step 4: Be specific and concrete. "Vague requests like "be warmer" will leave the person stranded for answers and overwhelmed. Describe what new behavior you expect, saying when and where you'd want it to occur. Ex: "Can you please turn the light off when you're leaving the house?" "Would you mind our cat's having a play date each Wednesday at around six-thirty?" "Would you mind checking in now and then in the afternoon?"
Assertiveness Skill Number 4 - "Self-care solution" (optional)
Just asking for things isn't always enough. People make an effort when there is an end reward or little to no pressure. Sometimes you need to give people encouragement and incentives before they're motivated to do something for you. DBT experts find that the encouragement that works best is something called Self-care solution. This is simply telling the other person what you'll do to take care of yourself if they don't comply with your request. The purpose is to take the pressure off them and show you're not helpless. It comes across less needy and makes them feel motivated to help you.
"Could you drop off Nicole at 6, I'll cancel my appointment to do it if you can't."
"I'm getting another cat so Skittles will be less lonely, in the meantime Smudge is invited over to play with her."
"My mom's coming soon, but just for this moment, do you think you could watch Tim?"
"I have another thing in the works, but I was wondering if you could help me out until then?"
Even easier to remember are the "If yous." These are for firmer demands.
If you can't leave for the party on time, I'll take my own car.
If you can't help with the cleaning, I'll hire a maid and we'll divide that expense.
If you can't keep the noise down, I'll call the police to help you.
If you can't stop harassing me, I'll have to ask you to leave.
"If yous" might seem harsh, but self-care solutions aren't designed to attack or hurt the other person. They are there to protect your rights and for you to take care of your own needs.
Putting it All Together
Being effective at assertiveness is being able to mesh the different scripts fluidly together. Here are 2 examples. The first one is taken from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook.
I think: It's been three years since we've had a cost-of-living raise, and prices have increased more than 10 percent in that time.
I feel: I feel left out, because the company's doing well and I'm not participating in that.
I want: I'd like a 10 percent cost-of-living adjustment soon so my income can keep pace with inflation.
Self-care: If we can't work this out, I'm going to have to look for something else so I can better support my family.
I think: It's only the second date, however, I think you'd like us to be more intimate than I like. I think we both had different things in mind.
I feel: I feel a bit disrespected that there is no dinner or anything planned other than what you wanted.
I want: I want to relax and get something to eat or talk some more.
Self-care: If you don't feel you can be on the same page, I can go home.
With two fictional scenarios, the task is to think about how you can be assertive, pulling from what you've learned about each phrase. Remember not to attack or blame or be passive, but to state your views, feelings, needs/wants, and self-care clearly with an even tone or have it written in a reasonable voice.
You are Marsha, who has just learned the surrogate mother of your child is eating unhealthy greasy fast food every day. She has told you this herself and even showed pictures, laughing. When it's not oily chicken it's candy. She hasn't drunk anything alcoholic but you made it clear in the agreement that you'd like the surrogate to have a healthy fruit and veggie-based diet while carrying your baby. You have two options, to not pay her the full amount after the delivery or to have healthy but tasty meals delivered to her door daily. You are in a sticky place because it's not like you can ask the doctors to reinsert the baby into another surrogate. You also don't want to stress the surrogate or get on her bad side as she still needs to deliver you a healthy baby.