Before addressing how to increase assertiveness, it is helpful to clarify what we are talking about. Assertiveness is the middle ground between aggressiveness (attempting to dominate others) and passiveness (allowing yourself to be dominated).
There are three elements of assertiveness.
- Worth of Others
- Putting Behavior in Context
The first element is to have a healthy sense of self-worth. The degree to which you believe you are worth something is the degree to which you will believe that what you need is important. The second element is recognition of the worth of all people. Not the relative worth, but the fact that each person is worth something, simply because they exist. Worth is not dependent on appearance, behavior, or achievement. It is based simply on one’s existence. I am, therefore, I have worth. The third element of assertiveness is the ability to see behavior in context.
If we are able to look past the immediacy of behavior, both the behavior of others and ourselves, we will be able to see the true, intended message of that behavior. We will be able to avoid having messages filtered through the experiences of our lives and those of others.
The first two elements of assertiveness, self-worth and the worth of others, are not skills. They arise from our sense of identity, which in turn arises from the accumulation of life experience. In other words, learning to recognize the worth in ourselves and others is not a quick fix. It is something that must be addressed continually over time. The core beliefs that have formed your identity were put in place, piece by piece, over years. There is a simple mathematical way to understand the construction of core beliefs. The equation is this:
Strength of Belief = (Repetition x Relevance) x Time
Messages about ourselves and the world need to not only be repeated but they also need to be relevant to us. Without either of these factors, it doesn’t matter how much time has passed, the belief or value is weak and fragile. For example, if you were repeatedly told that you were short your whole life, when in fact you are of above-average height, the relevance of this information is missing. There is considerable evidence around you at all times that you are not short but actually tall. Therefore, the repetition of the message over a great deal of time does not lead to a core belief or aspect of your identity.
Here is another example: Your grade 4 teacher reads one of your papers out loud to the class, pointing out all of your spelling mistakes and laughing along with your classmates. On the surface, this would appear to be an experience that would be part of the foundation of an unhealthy core belief about your self worth. However, if this only occurred one time (let’s say it was a substitute teacher), then the repetition variable and the time variable are both close to zero. Thus, even though the teacher’s actions are sending a message about the self that is incredibly relevant and meaningful, it is just a blip on the radar. The brain can take the message, put it in context and file it away.
The same equation applies to beliefs about the worth of others. For example, if you are repeatedly told, over a period of 20 years, by your father that your responsibility in life is to get more than others and let them know it, then all three variables in the equation have a high value and thus the belief that the needs of others are unimportant and that the only way to be happy is to win are entrenched.
It is important to realize that this equation is not just a philosophy, but rather a model of the way that the brain takes in new information and creates neural networks. It is the way the brain learns and the way in which learned behavior becomes automatically reflexive over time. It is the way that learned reflexes become so automatic that they seem to be instinctive.
Thus, to recognize the falsehoods upon which they are based is a lengthy process that must not only identify the fallacies but also replace them with accurate messages. In doing so, the same equation must be followed.
Strength of Belief = (Repetition X Relevance) X Time
It is not enough to stand in front of a mirror, telling yourself that you are a good person. You need to prove it to yourself. It is not enough to tell yourself that you can trust your partner, you need to prove it to yourself. If we only participate in daily affirmation, we are missing one of the vital variables in the equation: Relevance. Fortunately, this is easily remedied.
Instead of saying to yourself, “I’m a good person”, just add some evidence to the end of your statement. “I know I’m a good person because I go out of my way to care for others. I know I’m a good person because I feel guilty when I behave badly. If I was a bad person, I wouldn’t care.” This is just a simple example but it illustrates the point. This message has relevance, (or salience in scientific terms) for your life. It is not an abstract statement. It is exhibit A in the case for your worth as a person. Repetition of this highly relevant statement over time will result in the formation of a new, strong belief.
The final element, putting behavior in context, is a skill. It involves developing the ability to think critically, to see how the past has not only influenced the present but actually created it. When someone really wants your parking spot that you have been waiting for, there is more than one possible explanation. To brainstorm a few:
He is a big jerk.
She doesn’t care about anyone but herself.
She is in a big hurry.
He is stressed out and didn’t even see me waiting.
They are in a rush to go see their dying mother in the hospital.
He was raised to get what they could when they could get it.
They are product of their environment.
She didn’t know I was waiting for the spot.
Each one of these explanations for the other person’s behavior carries with it a different emotional reaction. Often we choose the explanation that is least flattering to the other person. This is a mental shortcut that requires very little thought and deliberation but it also leads to more negative feelings and thoughts. Thus, we are contributing to the strengthening of a negative core belief, following the formula listed above.
When we are experiencing stress, it is the least effective time to engage in critical thinking. However, when the time has passed and your nervous system has returned to a normal level, take the time to re-evaluate what happened with an open mind. Consider all of the possibilities, even the outlandish ones (i.e. He is actually from another planet and this is his first time in a parking lot. Of course he doesn’t know the unwritten rules governing parking lot etiquette.)
To summarize, by changing your core beliefs about yourself and others in the same way that they were built in the first place and by learning to consider all possible explanations for your behavior and that of others, you are on your way to being able to accurately identify what you need, when you need it, and what you need to do to get it. The best part is that you will be able to do all of this while simultaneously building the self-esteem of those around you as well as your own.
Have fun asserting yourself.
If you would like help in working through this process. Please give me a call 604-300-2633 or send me an email