Saying “No” to someone and voicing my opinion have been struggles for years. Not wanting to get in trouble or make others unhappy, I went along with whatever people desired. My own feelings and desires did not matter. After awhile, I did not even know who I was or what I wanted. All that I knew was I needed to be obedient, good, and sweet.
Yet, there were some times when listening to others created complicated situations. Teasing increased, “friends” manipulated me into doing whatever they wanted, and I lost sight of my identity. However, standing up for myself by not agreeing with my peers or setting boundaries seemed impossible.
One day, a theater friend made a joke about me that was humorous but also frightening. She stated, “You know, I think that if you asked Anna Rose to kill someone, she would say, ‘Only if I can do it nicely and without hurting them.'”
This offhand comment really impacted me. Although I would never murder someone, I realized that I was compromising my values and dignity trying to be kind. Serving people is nice, but I am not a waitress and maid for my friends. Laughing when someone berates me is not sweet but disrespecting my worth as a human. Hanging out with the “bad kids” in hopes of being a positive influence can start with great intentions but end up leaving you in a worse place.
Not until I began eating disorder treatment did I finally address a fact that people had been telling me for years: I needed to be more assertive.
That word – “assertive” – is terrifying. I used to link it with aggressive, unkind, and selfish. Sure, being pushed around was miserable, but never caring about the feelings and opinions of others seemed worse. Thus, I just smiled and nodded when people told me to stand up for myself more often. It was a nice idea but one that would never work with my life.
Therapists and dietitians in day programming and residential convinced me gently that compassionate and kind assertiveness was possible. Not only could I learn to love others, but I could also begin to treat myself with that same love and respect.
Assertiveness is not the same as aggressiveness. Someone who is assertive does not back down from doing the right thing and clearly states any needs. Someone who is aggressive enforces others to obey orders and demands any needs. Someone who lacks assertiveness obeys whoever is in charge without questioning and suffers from lack of stating any needs. There is certainly people who fall between all of these categories. But these are the three main ways people deal with assertiveness or aggressiveness.
Here are some more examples of kind assertiveness vs. aggressiveness vs. passiveness:
Someone insults you.
- Assertive – You firmly but calmly say, “Do not talk to me like that.”
- Aggressive – You think of the worst insult to them and say it.
- Passive – You act like it is not a big deal or feel like you deserve it.
Some friends are going out to eat. They ask your opinion of what restruant.
- Assertive – You state your favorite diner and then help them make a final choice that everyone likes.
- Aggressive – You insist on going to your favorite place.
- Passive – You shrug your shoulders and end up going somewhere that you hate.
An co-worker decides to skip work last minute and calls you up in hopes of you taking his place. You already have plans for the day.
- Assertive – Decide what you want to do based on your job and your plans. If you say no, you do not feel guilty because you did nothing wrong.
- Aggressive – You tell your co-worker that this is their problem, so they need to deal with it.
- Passive – You hate canceling your plans but pick up their shift, labeling it as “no problem.”
An unpleasant person asks you on a date.
- Assertive – You turn her down tactfully without feeling the need to defend your decision. However, you compliment something about her.
- Aggressive – You say “No!” and refuse to communicate with her later.
- Passive – After hemming and hawing in an attempt to get out of the situation, you agree.
Your friend who always is asking for money needs to borrow $25.
- Assertive – You state that you do not feel comfortable with that but invite him over to dinner or another kind gesture if you think that he is in trouble financially.
- Aggressive – You blow up and demand he returns all of the cash you have lent him.
- Passive – You hand over the money.
These scenarios are not perfect and can look different depending on the people involved. However, I hope that they helped you see the difference between assertive and aggressive. I am slowly but surely coming to realize it myself. I can be kind and assertive at the same time; they are not contradictory but compatible.