You have a right to be first (sometimes), to make mistakes, to be emotional, to express your feelings, to have your own reasons, to stop others and ask questions, to ask for help, to ask for reasonable changes, to have your work acknowledged, to be alone, to say "no" or "I don't have time," and so on.
STEP ONE: Realize where changes are needed and believe in
Many people recognize they are being taken advantage of and/or have difficulty saying "no." Others do not see themselves as unassertive but do feel depressed or unfulfilled, have lots of physical ailments, have complaints about work but assume the boss or teacher has the right to demand whatever he/she wants, etc. Nothing will change until the victim recognizes his/her rights are being denied and he/she decides to correct the situation.
Keeping a diary may help you assess how intimidated, compliant, passive or timid you are or how demanding, whiny, bitchy or aggressive others are. Almost everyone can cite instances or circumstances in which he/she has been outspoken or aggressive. These instances may be used to deny we are unassertive in any way. However, many of us are weak in some ways--we can't say "no" to a friend asking a favor, we can't give or take a compliment, we let a spouse or children control our lives, we won't speak up in class or disagree with others in a public meeting, we are ashamed to ask for help, we are afraid of offending others, and so on.
Ask yourself if you want to continue being weak. One may need to deal with the anxiety associated with changing, to reconcile the conflicts within your value system, to assess the repercussions of being assertive, and to prepare others for the changes they will see in your behavior or attitude.
Talk to others about the appropriateness of being assertive in a specific situation that concerns you. If you are still scared even though it is appropriate, use desensitization or role-playing to reduce the anxiety.
Consider where your values--your "shoulds"--come from. Children are bombarded with rules: Don't be selfish, don't make mistakes, don't be emotional, don't tell people if you don't like them, don't be so unreasonable, don't question people, don't interrupt, don't trouble others with your problems, don't complain, don't upset others, don't brag, don't be anti-social, do what people ask you to do, help people who need help, and on and on. Do any of these instructions sound familiar? They help produce submissive children--and adults.
There are probably good reasons for many of these rules-for-kids but as adults we need not blindly follow rules. Indeed, every one of these injunctions should be broken under certain conditions: You have a right to be first (sometimes), to make mistakes, to be emotional, to express your feelings, to have your own reasons, to stop others and ask questions, to ask for help, to ask for reasonable changes, to have your work acknowledged, to be alone, to say "no" or "I don't have time," and so on. The old feelings deep inside of us may still have powerful control over us.
We can change, however. Besides recognizing we have outgrown our unthinking submissiveness, we can further reduce our ambivalence about being assertive by recognizing the harm done by unassertiveness:
- (1) you cheat yourself and lose self-respect because you are dominated and can't change things,
- (2) you are forced to be dishonest, concealing your true feelings,
- (3) inequality and submissiveness threatens, if not destroys, love and respect,
- (4) a relationship based on your being a doormat, a slave, a "yes-person," a cute show piece or a source of income is oppressive and immoral,
- (5) since you must hide your true feeling, you may resort to subtle manipulation to get what you want and this creates resentment, and
- (6) your compliance rewards your oppressor. On the positive side, assertiveness leads to more self-respect and happiness. Build up your courage by reviewing all the reasons for changing.
Finally, there are obviously situations in which demanding immediate justice may not be wise, e.g. if you can get fired, if it would cause an unwanted divorce, if you might be assaulted, etc. Even in these more extreme cases, perhaps well planned or very gradual changes would be tolerated. Under any circumstances, discuss the reasons for becoming assertive with the other people involved so they will understand and approve (if possible) or at least respect you for being considerate of them, others, and yourself.