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  • Kerry Johnson

The Role of Assertiveness in our Mental Health



What is assertiveness, and is it relevant for our mental health? The answer to this is, yes! It’s very important! I encourage all my clients to be assertive.


Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without appearing aggressive. In the field of psychology and psychotherapy, we might assess a client’s level of assertiveness to help them to better communicate their wants and needs. This should encourage healthier relationships in their personal and professional lives, and therefore hopefully improve their mental health. Assertiveness is a balancing act, and that is the balance between being able to ask for what you need in an effective way, that avoids coming across as rude or aggressive.


There’s a way for us to ask for the things we need, but many of us are too quick to put other people’s needs before our own. Many of us have been taught that it is always wrong to put ourselves first, and it can be distressing for many of us to upset someone. While it is a good human trait to care about people’s feelings, through never putting our own needs first we may become resentful towards others and become less content in our lives. We can become deluded and think that we should wait hopelessly for those dream opportunities to fall on our lap without ever needing to ask for anything or ‘assert’ ourselves. While it is important to be a nice person, that trait alone is not always enough to achieve all our goals and dreams. Meanwhile, while we wait for good things to come to us, all of those mean and less considerate people seem to always get their way!


Learning to say no, is an essential part of assertiveness. No is a complete sentence. When you say yes to something you don’t want to do or do not have the mental capacity for, you are accepting that responsibility and telling those around you that you are ok with this. This will cause you and others harm in the long run. Often, we feel like we can’t say no without having a valid reason when actually, we don’t need to justify anything – we just don’t want to do it. That is enough of a valid reason.


It’s the same with friendships. I see clients who have issues within their friendships, and they don’t fully understand what a healthy friendship is! My idea of a healthy friendship involves being assertive, I ensure that I am always kind and thoughtful towards my friends and that I fully support them to the best of my abilities, but if they were to take advantage of my kindness or do something to upset me, I can assertively confront them about this.


But if you’re someone that struggles with confrontation then this may be a difficult concept for you. Confrontation doesn’t have to be aggressive or end in a heated argument. It can be a healthy debate where both of your voices can be heard. You should be able to say how you feel and be met with respect.


I will create a metaphorical example, where a client sees me to express her upset over a friend who has cancelled on their plans last minute.


Client: I was so angry she cancelled on me; she always does this!


Counsellor (Me): Can you tell me a bit about what this is bringing up in you and how this is making you feel?


Client: She always lets me down; it makes me feel unimportant. I’m a low priority for her, other people and other things are more important to her than I am. I feel angry and upset.


No one should feel like a low priority to a true friend. It’s important to know where you stand with your friends, as it helps you to assess how much of your energy you should give to that friendship.


Counsellor: Have you ever told your friend you feel like this? Does she know cancelling on you makes you feel this way?


The likely answer to this is no. Just because someone cancels on you it doesn’t make you less important, it might just mean they don’t realise their actions make you feel this way. It could be that your friendship is incredibly important to them, but they just don’t associate cancelling a coffee date with the feeling of being ‘less important.’


Counsellor: What are your fears around confronting your friend?


Client: She might abandon me; she might hate me for confronting her and then never want to see me again.


Of course, I have already explained that confrontation does not need to be aggressive. If you speak to someone with respect, in a calm tone of voice, then you are simply explaining your point of view and confronting the issue at hand, rather than confronting the entire person.

In this instance, my imaginary client has no evidence that her friend would abandon her. Her fears of abandonment began way before her relationship with this friend, perhaps as far back as childhood. It could also be that during her childhood, she was never allowed to express her opinion, therefore never given permission to be assertive, and express her point of view.

I’m going to give this metaphorical client a happy ending to her story, she leaves the session and then goes away and calmly tells her friend how upset she gets when people cancel on her.


Client: I was really upset when you cancelled on me the other day. I always feel this way when you cancel, and it makes me feel like I’m not important to you. I know you probably don’t intend to make me feel that way but that is just the way it makes me feel.


Here, my client has been honest with how she feels without being aggressive. She does not accuse the friend of having bad intent but makes her feelings clear. She gives the friend a chance to explain herself and repair the relationship.


Friend: I had no idea you felt that way! The only reason I keep cancelling is that I’ve been so busy, I didn’t realise it was having this effect on you. I promise I won’t cancel on you again unless it’s a real emergency.


If the friend didn’t listen to or care about my client’s opinion, I would question how much of a ‘friend’ this person really was, and how much of a positive influence she was within my client’s life. I need my client to have healthy friendships for her own mental wellbeing, as an unhealthy friendship can be worse than having no friendship at all.

There used to be a lot more conversation around assertiveness. Many businesses even used to provide assertiveness training to their staff, but then it was often seen as a low priority when budgets became smaller.


While assertiveness is key for our mental health, for some people assertiveness is a threat. For example, if you are a business who maintain their authority and power over staff through scare tactics and infiltrating fear, then having more assertive staff could threaten this. This is something I call bully culture.


Assertive people are less likely to tolerate a relationship or workplace that maintains itself through bullying, and these people are more likely to seek employment and relationships with people who show them better levels of respect and human decency. Assertive people don’t necessarily have a problem with authority and clear management structures but they will, however, expect to be treated with human decency and respect! They will prefer a workplace that values their views and ideas, and in return, these businesses can then benefit from a more innovative service and business dynamic.


But why is it that some people are naturally more assertive than others?


While some people are of course more aggressive and some are too people-pleasing, some people are lucky enough to have found the balance. This might be because they have good levels of self-esteem and self-worth. Working on self-esteem is crucial in therapy! If you have low self-esteem then you are less likely to feel deserving of respect, therefore less able to be assertive. You may then be more susceptible to being mistreated and then potentially more likely to suffer from mental health issues or feel unhappy.


If we don’t have our self-worth, then how can we command this from others? We are all worthy of being respected and treated with consideration, but not all of us believe this. Perhaps we were brought up in a household where we were not taught that we were worthy. Some of us are told for example, that we are only worthy if we achieve things, and therefore our worth is based on what we do rather than who we are. We may then believe that being a nice and respectful person is not enough in itself to be deserving of other people’s respect. Of course, this is not true, we are all worthy of being shown the same level of respect that we show to others. Sadly, there will always be those people who don’t share this perspective, and they are the people we need to protect ourselves from and therefore assert ourselves with.


If you think that you would benefit from being more assertive, it might be helpful to explore the reasons why you find it hard to ask for what you need. It is difficult to push yourself out of your comfort zone and become better at confrontation, so before you do this, it might be helpful to explore some of the deeper issues that are holding you back from being assertive. Once you do this, you hopefully will start to see great improvements in your life and finally, start to get what you want!


References

Dickson, A. (1982). A Woman in Your Own Right: Assertiveness and You. London: Quartet Books.



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