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The road to assertiveness

By Dr Erlend Slettevold

Do you keep feeling like you are being treated unfairly, taken for granted or walked over by others not matter how hard you are trying to be good to them? If so, you are not alone. This is a problem many people report these days and it can become a quite confusing one sometimes. You might ask the question: why is it that no matter how much I do for other people, they still seem to expect more of me, not appreciate me, or keep criticising me. Answering this can be difficult but one potential reason for it happening can be that you are not making your own needs heard and seen. In other words, that you find it difficult to be effective. If that is the case, then others might end up treating you in ways that feel unfair. One way to start changing this is to start practicing being more assertive. I will demonstrate what I mean by assertiveness in the following example:

You are at a restaurant with your friends and the waiter serves you something that you didn’t order and that you don’t like. In this case you have a few choices for how to react and I will list them here.

Choice 1. Pretend like everything is fine.

People who respond in this way are typically worried about causing trouble for others in one way or another. By pretending like all is well they are prioritising others’ feelings over their own. Sounds kind of heroic, doesn’t it? Think about it this way: The waiters and your friends probably want you to have a good experience from the meal, so even if you leave them blissfully ignorant about how you will probably not enjoy your meal, you have not done them any favours. You are also likely to feel resentful or frustrated with the waiter in the time following. In the end nobody wins.

Choice 2. Unleash your anger at the waiter and leave.

People who tent to act in line with choice 1 may do so because they feel that choice 2 would be the alternative. Choice 2 is likely to leave you, the waiter and your friends upset. It may be seen as a selfish choice, even though it is not likely to lead to a good outcome for you either. You will not enjoy the meal you came for, and the waiter will not be given a chance to correct their mistake. Again, nobody wins.

Choice 3 (The assertive choice). Let the waiter know what has happened and that you would like to be served what you ordered.

This requires you to be honest with yourself about how you feel and then communicate this to others. In other words, it requires you to be assertive. This can seem scary to some, for various reasons, such as a fear of judgement, rejection, or even being yelled at. However, what is likely to happen in this case is that others see and hear what your needs are and that they have not been met. They are then more likely to accommodate you than had you made either of the other choices. The waiter is likely to correct their mistake and your friends to congratulate you for speaking up and making sure you get an enjoyable experience of the meal. Everybody wins.

But what if they don’t, you might ask? Well, firstly, the waiter is then the one in the wrong, not doing their job, and you should not eat there anyway. Secondly, if your friends have a problem with you making sure you get what you ordered, they may have gotten so used to you having no personal needs that they need a few reminders before they realise that you do. And when they do, they will probably respect you more for it.

So how to start practicing being more assertive? I have listed three steps you can take to get started below.

1. Have a think about past situations where you have acted as if everything was fine while in fact you were feeling unfairly treated or frustrated. It might be useful to write some of these down. Include what happened, who it happened with, and how you felt at the time and in the time following. This will help you look out for such situations in the following steps.