How to be assertive

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Hi my name is Sharvari, I’m 19 years old and I’m on a gap year, which I like to call, ‘my year of self-discovery’. This piece is about how to assert yourself when communicating and how to value your needs by saying ‘no’ sometimes.

Communicating assertively

“Yes I’ll go out with you on Saturday.”, “Yes, I’ll get it done for Monday.”, “Yes I’ll cook dinner.” 

Yes, yes, yes, YES!

How many times have you said ‘yes’ and secretly meant ‘no’? How many times have you dreaded going out because you’re so exhausted, but have done it anyway? How many times have you made commitments, like adding on an extra shift at work, when you’re already burnt out?

We live in a world where the word ‘yes’ is overused to the point where I feel we’ve almost forgotten how to say no. I was, and still sometimes am, like that; I’d constantly be way in over my head to the point where treading water became my life. I’d feel paralysed by my commitments and I’d be in a constant cycle of stress which would lead to burn out. I didn’t know how to say no, to make requests, I was oblivious to where my boundaries or limits even were.

And then I had a severe breakdown and ended up taking treatment where I learnt about assertiveness and it was like a key to living a second life. 

Styles of communication, using a cup of tea

Imagine someone gave you a cold cup of tea. A passive person (what I was like before) would probably drink it and, on top of that, thank the person and say something like “That was a really nice cup of tea,” (not sarcastically btw). Opposite to that, an aggressive person’s reaction might be, “Fuck! This tea is really shit get me another one!”. Contrary to popular belief, an assertive person would not have the same reaction as an aggressive one because they’re not the same thing! An assertive person’s reaction might be “Thanks for tea but it’s cold, could you get me another one please?”. 

The difference here is that the assertive person is respecting BOTH people’s needs.

An example of when I used assertiveness 

Recently, one of my friends was going through a hard time and messaged me to call and talk about it. Normally I’d be more than willing but that day I was already feeling very low and drained myself. I very nearly picked up the phone but I stopped myself when I recognised my own emotional state and that I’d be crossing my boundary by taking on her pain while I was experiencing my own. So, I messaged her back saying that I wasn’t in the best head space to talk at the moment but would reply the next day. 

I’m very glad I did that because I wouldn’t have been able to help her in the best way if I had picked up and I would feel even more exhausted, so by saying no to her request I was actually respecting both of our needs. Notice that I said no to her REQUEST. I wasn’t saying no to her, only to what she was asking me to do. 

I think that we often don’t want to say no because we feel like we’re rejecting the other person, that we’re hurting their feelings, that we may make them feel like we don’t value them, and for those same reasons we don’t like hearing ‘no’ either. But if we make it clear to ourselves that when saying and receiving no it is never to do with us as people and only to do with the request, then we can more easily say no and will be less crushed when we hear it too.

Being assertive with ourselves 

Assertiveness isn’t only about how we communicate with others, it’s also to do with how we talk to ourselves. After all, how can we expect ourselves to be assertive with others when we can’t do the same with ourselves? It can be as simple as recognising when you’re getting tired while revising and giving yourself a break instead of pushing through. Or, before doing something ask yourself: is this really something I want to do? E.g., if you don’t want to go out then don’t go out. Respect your needs and wants because when you don’t, you’re telling yourself that you’re not important and that something else is more important than you.

I learnt this lesson when I was really struggling with my mental health and was getting really burnt out when I was working. I really wanted to tell my manager to reduce my number of shifts, but was too scared of getting fired; I was letting my job be more important than my health. When I finally did tell her she was very understanding and immediately reduced my hours. 

I realise that I was very privileged in this situation to have an understanding manager and be in a position where it wouldn’t affect me too much financially if I reduced my hours, but the point I’m trying to make is that we must try to honour our needs and assertively communicate them because who can better take care of us than ourselves? 

With assertiveness comes power 

While getting treatment I learnt that I have many rights; the right to have an opinion, the right to speak up, the right to be heard and the right to change my mind. We all have choices and with that comes power. When we embrace this and communicate our needs assertively, we’re on a path to living a more authentic life.

Learn more about how to set boundaries in relationships.

Next Steps

  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • The Self-Esteem Team (SET) run workshops in schools across the UK to help tackle young people's issues with body image, self-worth and mental health.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Holly Turner

Updated on 17-Feb-2022

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