Recently I was chatting with someone on the subway about assertiveness and how difficult it is to be assertive. As we chatted, it hit me how so many people are unassertive because they are afraid of being too aggressive. Which humorously, if we are shying away from assertive behavior because of concerns about being overly rude or aggressive, then we probably have nothing to worry about! We most likely have an exaggerated sense of aggression, thus our internal monitor won't allow us to become super aggressive. Instead, what we consider aggressive behavior, someone else considers mildly assertive. The irony of perspective.
And in speaking with people, it seems quite a number of us share this fear, as well as a confusion about what being assertive actually entails. The dictionary states: "Assertiveness — Assertive (As*sert-ive), a. Positive; affirming confidently; affirmative; peremptory." It seems the trip-up for many of us centers on that word "confidently." In our Rambo-esque popular culture, we have developed the idea that confidence is best displayed as swaggering aggressiveness. A sort of ego-centric, hero-filled eclair drizzled with a nice icing of daredevil mayhem and individualistic flair. Confidence is actually — from a Buddhist perspective — much more mundane and basic. It's a state of being, not a display of behaviors. It simply exists instead of being fabricated. It's an energy, not a compilation of effects. If you are confident it simply permeates everything you do in the areas where you are confident. In areas where you are not confident, anxiety permeates what you do. And everyone is confident in some areas and not so confident in other areas. Thus, like so much in life, confidence is a spectrum of self-belief that moves up and down as we go through our day. And it fuels how assertive we will be in a given situation or as a general state of being.
When I chat with people and ask them to share with me someone in their own life who they feel is very assertive, they tend to describe someone who is borderline aggressive. And usually, they might say "I would like to be like them, but I don't want to be them because they can be kind of hard to deal with." LOL! Then why want to be "like them"!?! Innately we seem to know that aggressive people may get what they want, but also lose out in other areas. And we know that unassertive people may lose out by not jumping at opportunities or by being taken advantage by overly-aggressive people. Yet we still seem confused by a murky, grey area of where assertiveness leaves off and aggression begins.
This is my guideline that I share with people on assertiveness, which I learned from an assertiveness course (oh so very many years ago)…
Assertiveness is about creating healthy boundaries — for yourself and for others. It's not so much about "seizing and taking" as respecting your needs as well as the needs of everyone else involved. It's not about "me first and we'll get to the rest of you at a later date." It's not about "I need this and this and this…" And it's not about manipulating a situation, angry outbursts, combating or arguing.
Instead it's about discussing, understanding and making one's needs known. Assertiveness can be very quite and unassuming. Interestingly it's also about listening to our intuitive voice that says, "I should say something." Assertiveness is about understanding what makes us happy and unhappy and respecting ourselves enough to let others know those things. In doing that we also take into consideration the give and take needed in relationships. Thus part of assertiveness is weighing the pros and cons and finding tactful ways to make our needs known and let others know where we have drawn our line in the sand. And it's about understanding when we are being taken advantage of and being willing to say something or take action to set things right. And ultimately, when faced with repeated disrespect, the assertive person is willing to say "No more, you have to go. Not because I dislike you, but because you refuse to provide me with the basic level of respect that I require."
Aggressive behavior is jumping ahead in the checkout line at the grocery store. We may even rationalize our actions because we only have a few items or because we are in a hurry. Assertive behavior is saying, "Excuse me, I was already in line. The back of the line is over there."