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Four Rules to Make Life Easier: Assertiveness, Relationships and Control

(3 minute read)

A lot of people — not just those who come to counselling — have trouble with being assertive. And indeed, it’s a hard skill to learn if you didn’t watch it in action when you were growing up. And if you don’t know what it looks like, it’s hard to know even if you’re lacking it. So here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do your relationships have a lot of conflict, anxiety or resentment? For example, do you find yourself resenting colleagues or family members who offload their work onto you?

  • Do you often get angry at subordinates who do their work shoddily?

  • Do you feel worried that people will ask you to do things you don’t want to do?

  • Do you get angry at your child more than you’d like?

  • Do you say ‘yes’ to things and wish you hadn’t?

  • Do you and your romantic partner have arguments where one of you is trying to make the other one change?

  • Do you feel on edge with others, worried about your ability to handle situations?

  • If you can see an area of conflict coming up, do you spend a lot of time thinking about how to handle it, and worry that it will end badly?

  • Do you avoid situations entirely, rather than deal with the problems that might arise? Do you ghost people rather than tell them that you’re upset with them?

  • Do you need to live up to expectations of others and feel that their approval is very important to you? And as a result, find yourself doing things that you don’t want to do?

  • Do you feel helpless in the face of the requests of others?

If you’re finding yourself saying “yes” to much of the above, you may well have limited assertiveness skills. If so, don’t blame yourself. And more importantly, don’t despair: these skills can be learned.

Many people think that being assertive is similar to being aggressive, and shy away from the idea of learning assertiveness for fear that it’s going to make them nasty and mean, and that all their friends and family members will abandon them. Nothing could be further from the truth. People who are assertive have LESS conflict with others, feel less resentful and engender less resentment in others. They have better, more satisfying relationships.

Here are four changes that happen to your thinking that are key to becoming assertive.

  1. Recognition that you have complete control over your own behavior. You may feel that you have no options in a situation, but the truth is, if you’re willing to endure the consequences, no one can make you do anything. You can quit an impossible job if you’re willing to be poor for a while; refuse to spend time with in-laws if you’re willing to endure your spouse’s anger or sadness; leave a marriage if you’re willing to be alone. Remembering that you have a choice in everything is empowering, and can make you feel less sad, frustrated or helpless.

  2. Recognition that you have no control over other people’s behavior. Just as other people cannot make you do anything, you cannot make anyone else do what you want. That may sound depressing, but in a curious way it can also be liberating. When you give up trying to control another person, you are also freed from the responsibility of their behavior. Your spouse, child (once they’re physically big enough), colleagues, parents, friends, etc. all get to choose what they will do. You may dislike their choices, and if so, you then have the opportunity to modify your own behavior in response. You can’t stop your mother-in-law from criticizing your parenting skills, but she can’t force you to invite her to your apartment. You can’t stop your teenager from being rude to you, but you don’t have to provide an allowance, buy clothes or take him on holiday. You can now give up that frustrating feeling of “If only I handled this better, that person would change.”

  3. Understanding that you have the right to ask others to change. Just because you can’t control another person’s behavior doesn’t mean that you can’t ask. In fact, you can ask for anything. We’re social creatures, and in general we try to get along which means you have a reasonable chance of getting your request met. If the other person declines to accommodate you, you have a decision to make as to whether to modify your own behavior. You can explain to your mother-in-law that her criticisms make you feel bad and ask her to stop. And you can tell your teenager that their rudeness makes you angry and that you would like him to stop. Just make it clear that you’re not demanding, not trying to control their behavior, not telling them that they’re wrong — you’re simply asking for something that would make you happier.

  4. Understanding that others have the right to ask you to change. Everyone gets lots of requests, and it’s easy to feel put upon, or even pushed around by all the demands. Keeping in mind that you retain the power over your own actions, you can choose to accommodate, or not. You don’t have to justify your actions, or get into an argument over whether you should or shouldn’t do something. You also have the right to change your mind. Interestingly, when we feel that it’s our own decision to change our behavior, we can become more willing to accommodate others rather than less, because it no longer feels that we’re being forced.

It’s not easy to become assertive — it’s not something you can switch on at will. But it is possible. One good place to start would be with Randy Paterson’s excellent book, The Assertiveness Workbook. There are also assertiveness workshops in many cities including Hong Kong. And if none of those work, a counsellor can help you explore what’s getting in your way.

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