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Module One
What is Assertiveness?
What is Assertiveness 2
Myths about Assertiveness 2
The effects of being unassertive 3
How do we become unassertive 3
What stops us from being assertive? 5
How assertive are you? 6
Module summary 8
About this module 9
This information provided in this document is for information purposes only. Please refer to the
full disclaimer and copyright statements available at www.cci.health.gov.au regarding the
information on this website before making use of such information.
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What is Assertiveness?
We have all heard people say “You need to be more assertive!But what exactly is
assertiveness? Assertiveness is a communication style. It is being able to express your
feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and opinions in an open manner that doesn’t violate the rights of
others. Other communication styles you may have heard of include being aggressive, which
is a style that violates the rights of others, and being passive where we violate our own
rights. You have probably also heard of passive-aggressive. This is where someone is
essentially being aggressive but in a passive or indirect way. For example, someone may be
angry but they don’t act in an overtly aggressive way by yelling or hitting, instead they may
sulk or slam a door.
Myths about Assertiveness
There are a number of myths about assertiveness. Some people use these as support for
why they shouldn’t try and be more assertive. It is worth having a look at these in more
detail. In Module 3, “Thinking in a more assertive way”, we will be taking a further look at
ways of thinking that stop us from being assertive, and then look at how we can go about
changing this thinking.
Myth 1: “Assertiveness is basically the same as being aggressive”.
Debunking the myth: Some people who are aggressive think they are being assertive
because they are stating what their needs are. It is true that both assertive and aggressive
communication involves stating your needs; however there are very important differences
between stating your needs assertively and stating them aggressively. There are differences
in the words used, the tone taken, and the body language used. We will discuss these
differences in more detail in the section on the verbal and non-verbal characteristics of each
of the communication styles.
Aggressive: Violates
rights of others. Own
needs have priority.
Assertive: Respects
both own needs and
needs of others.
rights. Others needs
given priority.
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Myth 2: “If I am assertive I will get what I want”.
Debunking the myth: Being assertive does not mean that you always get what you want.
In fact being assertive is not a guarantee of any outcome at all. Being assertive is about
expressing yourself in a way that respects both your needs and the needs of others.
Sometimes this means you get what you want, sometimes you won’t get what you want at
all and sometimes you will come to a mutually satisfactory compromise.
Myth 3: “If I am assertive I have to be assertive in every situation”
Debunking the myth: Understanding how to be assertive provides you with the choice of
when to be assertive. It does not mean you have to be assertive in every situation. You may
come to the realisation in certain situations that being assertive is not the most helpful way
to behave. For example, if you are in a bar and someone begins to be very aggressive or
violent, then being assertive may place you at risk as the other person is not being rational.
In this case you may make the decision that a passive approach is the most beneficial.
Learning to be assertive is about providing yourself with a choice!
The Effects of Being Unassertive
The main effect of not being assertive is that it can lead to low self esteem. If we
communicate in a passive manner we are not saying what we really feel or think. This means
we can end up agreeing with and fulfilling other people’s needs or wants rather than our
own. This can result in a lack of purpose, and a feeling of not being in control of our own
If we never express ourselves openly and conceal our thoughts and feelings this can make us
feel tense, stressed, anxious or resentful. It can also lead to unhealthy and uncomfortable
relationships. We will feel like the people closest to us don’t really know us.
Lack of assertiveness is very common in social phobia. People with social phobia tend to
think that other people are being judgmental and critical about them and will avoid social
situations because of this. If you think you have social phobia please have a look at our social
phobia modules (“Shy no more”) on the website.
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If we constantly communicate in an aggressive manner we will eventually lose friends and
people will lose respect for us. Again this can lead to low self esteem.
There is a large amount of research examining the negative impact of lacking assertiveness
that is, being either passive or aggressive. People who are more assertive tend to be less
depressed and have better health outcomes. Less assertive people have a greater likelihood
of substance abuse.
How do we Become Unassertive?
Assertiveness is a learned behaviour and thinking style. We are all born assertive. Think of a
baby. Babies cry when they want something, they express emotion freely. Then gradually
they adapt their behaviour to fit in with responses they receive from the environment, that
is, responses they receive from family, peers, work mates, authority figures etc. For
example, if your family or peer group dealt with conflict by yelling and arguing, then you may
have learned to deal with conflict in that way. Or if your family taught you that you should
always please others before yourself, then you may find it hard to be assertive about your
needs. Or if your family or peer group believe that you shouldn’t express negative emotion,
and ignore or ridicule you if you do, then you will quickly learn not to express negative
Some questions that can be useful to ask yourself when you are thinking about how you may
have learned to become unassertive are:
o How did your family handle conflict?
o What did they do when they disagreed with somebody or were upset with people?
o How did your parents teach you to deal with conflict?
o What were their messages?
o In what ways did you learn to get what you wanted without asking for it directly?
(e.g., crying, yelling, making threats etc.)
o Do you still use these ways to get what you want today?
As you can see from the examples above, there are often good and valid reasons why we
become unassertive. As children and teenagers we learn to behave in a way that works for
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us at the time. If we were assertive to aggressive parents or friends it may have got us into
trouble, so we learned to stay under the radar. Or we may have learned to be aggressive to
survive. And it is likely that the family members and friends that we learned this from also
learned their behaviour from someone else.
It is important that you don’t blame yourself or your family for your lack of assertiveness. It
can be more helpful to think of it as a vicious cycle that you and your family have been
caught in. Now you have decided to break the cycle and learn a new assertive way of
thinking and behaving. This means that you will not pass on these unhelpful ways of behaving
to your family and friends.
What stops us from being assertive?
A number of factors can stop us from being assertive:
Self-defeating beliefs. We might have unrealistic beliefs and negative self statements
about being assertive, our ability to be assertive, or the things that might happen if we are
assertive. This is often a major cause of acting non-assertively. Examples of such beliefs are:
o It is uncaring, rude and selfish to say what you want.
o If I assert myself I will upset the other person and ruin our relationship
o It will be terribly embarrassing if I say what I think.
Module 3 “Thinking in a more assertive way” has more examples of these unhelpful beliefs,
and teaches us how to think in a more assertive manner.
Skills deficit: It may be that we just don’t have the verbal and nonverbal skills to be
assertive. We may watch other people being assertive and admire their behaviour but have
no real idea how to be like that ourselves. We will be examining specific assertiveness
techniques in Module 4 “Behaving in a more assertive way”.
Anxiety and stress: It may be that we know how to be assertive but we get so anxious
that we find we can’t carry out the behaviour. We may be so stressed that it becomes
difficult to think and act clearly. We need to learn how to manage our anxiety and reduce
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the physical stress in our bodies. Module 5 in these assertiveness modules is called
“Reducing physical tension” and will introduce some exercises to lower the physical tension
in your body.
If you tend to worry a lot you can tackle this with the modules on worry and anxiety
(“What? Me worry!?”) on the website. If you have anxiety that is extreme enough to result
in panic attacks please look at our modules on panic (“Panic Stations”).
Situation Evaluation: It may be that we can’t really tell which behaviours to use in which
situations. There are three main mistakes people can make with evaluating situations. We
might mistake firm assertion for aggression; we might mistake nonassertion for politeness;
or we might mistake nonassertion for being helpful. You will learn some techniques for
dealing with these mistakes in Module 3 “Thinking in a more assertive way”.
Cultural and Generational Influences: There can also be strong cultural and
generational influences on our behaviour. For example, in some cultures assertiveness is not
as valued as in Western society. If you are from one of these cultures it is important to
weight up the pros and cons about being assertive in particular situations. You may find that
the pros of living by your cultural values outweigh the pros of being assertive. Older
generations may also find it difficult to be assertive. Men were once taught that it was weak
to express their emotions and women were taught that it was aggressive to state their
needs or opinions. Lifelong beliefs such as these can be difficult to change but they can
How assertive are you?
It can be difficult to know how assertive we are. In some situations we may feel very capable
of being assertive but in other situations we may find ourselves not really expressing how
we felt or thought, and feeling upset or frustrated with ourselves. This next exercise can
help you determine how assertive you are and help you work out in which situations you
would like to be more assertive. Down the left side we have a list of different situations that
require assertiveness. Across the top are different groups of people. You work across cell
by cell and rate each combination of situations and groups of people. For example, someone
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may find giving compliments to strangers relatively easy and rate themselves at 0 in this cell,
but have a lot of difficulty giving compliments to authority figures such as their boss and so
rate this cell at 4.
Exercise. Rating your assertiveness in different situations
Fill in each cell using a scale from 0 to 5. A rating of “0” means you can assert yourself with no
problem. A rating of 5 means that you cannot assert yourself at all in this situation.
of the
Friends of
or spouse
Saying No
your opinion
Asking for help
Stating your
right and
Being criticised
Starting and
keeping a
Keep a copy of your responses to this exercise as you will use it in Module 10 when you
create your own assertiveness plan. You will also be able to complete it again once you have
finished all the modules to see if you have improved your assertiveness.
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Module Summary
Assertiveness is a way of communicating that expresses your needs, opinions and
emotions while respecting the rights of others. It is different to aggressive behaviour
which violates the rights of others and passive behaviour where we violate our own
Even if we are assertive in most situations there can still be certain situations in
which we find it difficult to be assertive.
Unassertive behaviour can lead to low self esteem.
We are all born assertive but as we grow we learn different patterns of
Our environment can make it difficult for us to be assertive.
Sometimes we hold unhelpful beliefs and assumptions about ourselves, other people
and the world that can make it difficult for us to be assertive.
The next module introduces the
characteristics of aggressive,
assertive and passive
communication. Each style has its
own benefits and costs.
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Fiona Michel (MPsych
Dr Anthea Fursland (PhD
Centre for Clinical Interventions
Centre for Clinical Interventions
1Master of Psychology (Clinical Psychology) 2Doctor of Philosophy (Clinical Psychology)
We would also like to thank Paula Nathan for her contribution to these modules
The concepts and strategies in the modules have been developed from evidence based psychological
practice, primarily Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of psychotherapy that is based
on the theory that unhelpful negative emotions and behaviours are strongly influenced by
problematic cognitions (thoughts). This can be found in the following:
Beck, A.T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B.F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New
Clark, D. M. (1986). A cognitive approach to panic. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 24, 461-470.
Clark, D. M. & Wells, A. (1995). A cognitive model of social phobia. In R. Heimberg, M. Liebowitz,
These are some of the professional references used to create this module:
Alberti, R. & Emmons, M. (1974). Your Perfect Right. Impact, San Luis Obispo, California.
Back, R & Back, K. (1986). Assertiveness at Work A Practical guide to Handling Awkward Situations.
McGraw Hill, London.
Gambrill, E.D. & Richey, L.A. (1975). An assertion inventory for use in assessment and research.
Behavior Therapy, 6, 550-561.
Holland, S. & Ward, C. (1980). Assertiveness: A Practical Approach. Winslow Press, Bicester.
Linehan, M. (1979). Structured cognitive-behavioural treatment of assertion problems. In Kendall &
Hollon, Cognitive Behavioural Interventions (pp205-240). Academic Press.
McKay, M & Fanning, P. (1995). Self esteem, third edition. St Martin’s Paperbacks, California.
Powell, T. (2000). The Mental Health Handbook (revised edition). Speechmark Publishing, Wesleyan
University Press.
Smith, M.J. (1975). When I Say No I Feel Guilty. Dial, New York.
Wolpe, J. (1973). The Practice of Behavior Therapy. Pergamon Press, New York.
This module forms part of:
Michel, F. (2008). Assert Yourself. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.
ISBN: 0-9757995-5-X Created: November, 2008
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