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Submissive Women Rarely Make History

Taking a break from writing for writers and putting on my ‘other’ hat. Women these days have made good progress in developing assertive behavior–but some still need a little help. And women aren’t the only ones who need to learn how to be assertive. Men often struggle with this as well. My offering today is lessons I’ve learned, and taught, regarding assertive behavior.

Several years ago when I owned and ran InterActions, a private practice psychotherapy center where I provided individual, couple, family and group therapy, one of the most meaningful groups I led was Assertiveness For Women. In these group sessions we talked about the benefit of assertive behavior versus the damaging one-down position of passivity, and the one-upmanship of aggressiveness. The damaging behavior of passivity and aggressiveness, as it relates to relationships, still damage people today.

Passive Behavior is being afraid to speak up, while aggressive people interrupt others while they are talking. When I am assertive I speak openly about what I need, what I expect, what I want, in clear, non-threatening language, and in an conversational tone. When someone interrupts me, or corrects me in front of others, I speak up in a non-threatening manner, letting them know I am still speaking and would like to finish my thoughts.

When I relate to others in an assertive manner, I show respect for the other person by the use of good eye contact. My expression matches my words. A passive person averts their eyes, and an aggressive person glares, trying to intimidate the other. When someone criticizes me, I ask for clarification and ask if the attack is a disguised request for a behavior change. If I can make that behavior change, I do. If I cannot, we negotiate.

A passive person will hurt themselves to avoid hurting someone else. An aggressive person protects themselves by hurting others, while an assertive person addresses the issue directly and in clear language, without attacking the other. I refuse to allow an aggressive person’s behavior to harm me by standing up for myself. I’ve been known to say, “I don’t speak that way to others, and will not allow others to use that voice speaking to me.”

Tips for Behaving More Assertively
If you want to be more assertive, but aren’t sure how, here are some tips to get you started. But remember, the best way to become more assertive is through practice. Visit the Role Playing and Sample Situations section of this course for some test cases and try practicing with friends, family, or counselors.

Speak up when you have an idea or opinion.
This is one of the biggest steps toward being more assertive and can be easier than you think. It may be as simple as raising your hand in class when you know the answer to a question, suggesting a change to your boss or coworkers, or offering an opinion at a party (even if it’s just your opinion of a new movie or book.)

Stand up for your opinions and stick to them.
It can be a little harder to express opinions and stick to them when you know that others may disagree, but try to avoid being influenced by others’ opinions just out of the desire to fit in. You may change your mind when someone presents a rational argument that makes you see things in a new light, but you shouldn’t feel a need to change your mind just because you’re afraid of what others may think. Like as not, you’ll gain more respect for standing up for yourself than you will for not taking a stand.

Make requests and ask for favors.
Most people find it hard to ask for help when they need it, but people don’t always offer without being asked. As long as your requests are reasonable (for example, “Would you mind holding the door while I carry my suitcase to the car?” as opposed to “Would you mind carrying my suitcase to the car while I hang out and watch TV?”) most people are willing to help out. If your requests are reasonable (meaning, would you agree or respond kindly if someone asked the same of you?), don’t feel bad about asking.

Refuse requests if they are unreasonable.
It’s perfectly appropriate to turn down requests if they are unreasonable or if you don’t have the time or resources. For example, if someone asks you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable or you think is wrong, it’s fine to simply say no (“I’m sorry but I don’t feel right doing that” or “I’m sorry but I can’t help you with that.”) It’s also fine to turn down someone if you feel overwhelmed. If you are concerned that you aren’t being fair to others, ask if their favors are fair to you (would you ask the same of them? would you expect them to say yes every time?) You can always offer to help in the future or help in another way (“I’m sorry but I don’t have time to help you with that today, but I could help you tomorrow” or “I won’t write your report for you, but I’d be happy to talk to you about it and read it over when you’re done.”) As long as you don’t turn down every request that comes your way, you shouldn’t feel guilty.

Accept both compliments and feedback.
Accepting compliments seems easy, but people often make little of them because they are embarrassed (“Oh it was nothing” or “It’s not a big deal”.) But don’t make less of your accomplishments. It’s fine to simply say “thank you” when people give you compliments — just don’t chime in and begin complimenting yourself or you’ll lose their admiration pretty quickly! (“You’re right, I AM great!”) Similarly, be prepared to accept feedback from others that may not always be positive. While no one needs to accept unwarranted or insulting advice, if someone gives you helpful advice in the right context, try to accept it graciously and act upon it. Accepting feedback (and learning from it) will often earn you respect and future compliments.

Question rules or traditions that don’t make sense or don’t seem fair.
Just because something ‘has always been that way’ doesn’t mean it’s fair. If you feel a tradition or rule is unfair to you or others, don’t be afraid to speak up and question why that rule exists. Rather than break a rule or law, find out the reasoning behind it. If you still think it’s wrong, talk to friends or coworkers, work with counselors and legislators, and see if there is a way to change it. While some rules are less flexible and should be respected (for example, a family’s decision not to allow cigarette smoking in their house or the state laws about drunk driving), others may be open to debate (for example, why a public place doesn’t have wheelchair access or your school computers aren’t compatible with assistive technology.)

Insist that your rights be respected.
While you want to choose your battles carefully (the right to equal pay in the workplace is probably more important than your right to wear your Hawaiian T-shirt to work on Fridays), you do have basic rights that you should feel comfortable standing up for. Some of these rights may be guaranteed you under law, such as your medical, employment, and educational rights. Other rights may involve basic courtesy – such as the right to be treated fairly, equally, and politely by friends, coworkers, and family.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well said, Sylvia. There is such a difference between an individual being assertive and/or aggressive. I saw both behaviors in large doses during my tenure in law offices and it seems some people have trouble distinguishing the difference in these behaviors.

    Betty Gordon

    June 2, 2010
  2. For sure, Betty! And often, a passive person swings like a pendulum to aggression before coming back to the middle with assertiveness. Thanks for stopping by!


    June 3, 2010
  3. Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

    May 22, 2011
  4. HI Sylvia,
    What insightful observations regarding strength, individuality and assertiveness. I’m also interested in men who have been ridiculed for choosing to be a stay at home father because it was in the best interest of the family, or who chose a traditionally female occupation, such as nursing. In general, I think those who deviate from the norm suffer in some way. Thanks for enlightening us on these issues.
    Claire Applewhite

    June 7, 2011
    • And thanks for stopping by, Claire! Yep, it is indeed a process we all work on — and will for a long time to come, I fear. And also — one of the most boring things I can think of is to be “NORMAL.” I love to meet folks who are comfortable enough with themselves to step outside that when it fits for them!

      June 23, 2011
  5. There are issues about which I have always felt strongly. A man who is chivalrous will open doors for women and remove his hat in a lady’s presence; such actions should be done as a sign of respect and not of condescension. My wife use to yell at me for “ruining’ fairy tales for my daughter. I told her that Esmeralda from The Hunchback was a bimbo because she fell in love with a handsome man who treated her badly. Likewise, I told her that the princess should make her own way in the world without a prince to take her to “happily ever after.” My little princess is now entering George Washington University and hopes to be a senator. As a result of my views, I struggle with female characters. I am now working on a novel set in medieval times. I want my women to be strong because of my own perceptions and expectations, but I want them to be realistic. This is often a conundrum.

    June 23, 2011
    • Oh, boy, what a fortunate daughter you have! I congratulate you and her both! AND, I do believe we have always had strong women–and of course many of them show their strength in different ways. Perhaps look for and magnify those in your characters. (Which you likely already do!) And regarding fairy tales– I think we benefit from taking a whole new look behind fairy tales. There is much below the surface. One of my favorite books is Women Who Run With the Wolves–love how the author digs below the fluff of the fairy tale and reveal it from a whole different direction and lesson. The tales weren’t written just to entertain. Lots to learn with a deeper look! Thanks much for visiting and commenting, Allan!

      June 23, 2011

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