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What is Assertiveness?

The first step in being assertive is to understand what assertiveness is. One way to describe assertiveness is look at examples of assertive behaviour. It is sometimes a willingness to speak up. More importantly, an assertive person has an essential belief in him or herself and is willing to validate his or her own truth by speaking up.

Assertiveness is not aggression. Because of the way we train men in our culture, men are taught that to be strong is to be a man. Many people express strength as aggression. It appears the more aggressive they are, the more strength they have. Many women working male-dominated arenas adopt this attitude as well. However, when you look at assertiveness – which is really a beautiful thing – it validates your heart strength, your own internal sense of who you are.

Here are some extraordinary examples of assertiveness overcoming strength.

India’s Mahatma Gandhi became a leader during the complex struggle against Great Britain for home rule. In 1919, Gandhi launched his movement of passive resistance against Great Britain. Gandhi's advocacy of non-violence, known as ahimsa (non-violence), was the expression of a way of life implicit in the Hindu religion. By the Indian practice of non-violence, Gandhi held, Great Britain too would eventually consider violence useless and would leave India.

This philosophy spread through India, gaining millions of followers and sparking a series of demonstrations. The massacre of Indians at Amritsar by British soldiers in 1920 did nothing to deter the followers. When the British government failed to comply, Gandhi proclaimed an organised campaign of non-cooperation. Indians in public office resigned, government agencies such as courts of law were boycotted, and Indian children were withdrawn from government schools. Through India, streets were blocked by squatting Indians who refused to rise even when beaten by police. Gandhi became the international symbol of a free India.

Gandhi provides us with an example of someone who was physically weak, but morally strong. He stood up and said what he believed in such a way that others joined in. A classic case.

Perhaps another example is Mother Theresa’s effort during the war between Israel and Lebanon. During the war, the front extended across an orphanage and both sides were prepared to bomb this orphanage to gain ground. Mother Theresa appealed to each side separately to hold a cease-fire, so she could rescue the children.

The Red Cross would support her with trucks. Both sides refused, because they stood to lose too much, and thought that national security was in jeopardy. She tried publicly, and both the Lebanese and Israeli armies rejected her offer; then she announced over radio and to the world’s press that she was going in. She gave them three days notice and then penetrated a war zone. Until the trucks were actually moving, the artillery shells continued to fall, but when the convoy got out in the middle of the war zone, miraculously, the artillery shells stopped. The soldiers sat down on both sides and there was a day of cease-fire.

Mother Theresa evacuated the children and the war recommenced. Once again, an example of assertiveness being something which is really beautiful, immensely powerful and yet not requiring physical strength in any way.

Assertiveness comes from speaking up for what you believe in. Assertiveness is the process of validating yourself by saying, “my morals, my beliefs, my opinions, my standards are worth defending”. You don’t have to make others wrong to be entitled to have your own opinion. Do not allow yourself to feel lessened because your opinion is different to that of somebody else. Assertiveness actually validates other people as well as ourselves. But, we do not have to sell out to make others feel better.

Assertiveness also recognises that somebody who disagrees with you is entitled to do that, and the disagreement does not lessen the strength of our own conviction. You don’t have to convince the other person for your position to be valid.

The lack of assertiveness in most people comes from a fundamental lack of self-esteem. This lack of belief in yourself may be the result of some kind of traumatic experience earlier in your life. Maybe your opinion was trampled on, or you have been made to feel less because of your opinion. Somebody in an authority position, probably a parent, has belittled you or made you small or made you wrong for your opinion, effort or result. We tend to pull our heads in a little bit and come to the conclusion that we run great risks if we expose ourselves.

People who lack assertiveness recognise that standing up for themselves, or stating their opinion, or saying what they want makes them vulnerable. It is actually the vulnerability that is the problem. One of the keys to building assertiveness is to do lots of self-image work.