Four Myths of Assertiveness
Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.
In one of the earliest books on assertiveness training, Cotler and Guerra (1976) describe four common “myths”, which underlie recurring themes in the belief systems of non-assertive individuals. These can be viewed as myths, misconceptions, irrational beliefs, assumptions or demands, etc., which determine feelings and behaviour in anticipation of, or in response to, challenging interpersonal situations. Assertiveness training may involve developing an awareness of such myths, watching out for signs of them in yourself or even others, challenging them directly, and replacing them with more flexible, adaptive, rational, balanced, and constructive, alternative beliefs.
1. The Myth of Anxiety
The myth of anxiety is incredibly common, almost universal. It is essentially the belief that one must not become anxious, the fear of anxiety itself. However, it can take several forms. One may fear becoming anxious because the very sensations that accompany it are perceived as dangerous, horrible, or overwhelming. In addition to this, one may fear that anxiety should come through in one’s body language or behaviour and be witnessed by others. This fear of being seen to be anxious is often experienced as shame or embarrassment. The fear may be that physiological symptoms of anxiety, such as blushing, sweating, or trembling, may be observed by other people. Moreover, it may also be feared that anxiety will lead to mistakes in speech or behaviour, e.g., stammering, losing concentration, forgetting what you want to say, stumbling over words, etc. There are really a cluster of myths here that assume anxiety is somehow dangerous or shameful, and that it is therefore abnormal to be anxious. People generally keep their anxieties a secret, of course, which means that we all tend to greatly underestimate how common such fears actually are. In fact, some degree of anxiety in social situations is so common as to be the norm, especially when the situation is perceived as unfamiliar, demanding, problematic, etc. Anxiety is the body’s way of protecting against perceived threats but it can, unfortunately, create more problems in social settings, so that fear of embarrassment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because it causes avoidance or mistakes. Learning to accept sensations of anxiety as normal, harmless, and nothing to be ashamed of, will gradually reduce their impact on your behaviour, and ultimately leads to a reduction in anxiety itself in most situations. By contrast, trying to “fight” anxiety tends to make it worse. Accept your anxiety as normal, forgive yourself for making mistakes, and you will allow yourself the freedom to learn and develop more confidence.
2. The Myth of Modesty
This myth holds that it’s wrong to give or receive praise, or to praise oneself. People often assume it’s crass, arrogant or unseemly, to “blow your own trumpet.” Sometimes that’s true. However, praise and compliments function as what psychologists call social “reinforcement”, and they’re quite important to the modification and management of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. The person who refuses to say anything remotely positive about themselves, or to take justifiable pride in their achievements, is like a company that refuses to pay its employees. Most people need these small symbolic rewards more than they realise and the absence of praise or reinforcement can lead to dwindling motivation. Moreover, discounting or overlooking one’s positive qualities often leads to a distorted self-concept, where weaknesses are recognised but not strengths. Having such an unbalanced view of oneself is a recipe for future problems. Learning to accept reasonable praise and to speak positively of oneself is central to healthy, assertive behaviour. Likewise, learning to praise other people, where appropriate, will obviously tend to improve relationships.
3. The Myth of the Good Friend
This myth assumes that a good friend would be able to read your mind and instinctively know what you want, without any effort to communicate on your part. “I shouldn’t have to tell you that something’s wrong!” “If you were a good friend, you would know what’s bothering me.” However, people are not telepathic and no matter how well they know you, it’s unreasonable to expect them to read your mind. On the contrary, you should assume that assertive communication will probably (with some exceptions) require some degree of courage and effort on your own part. You don’t have a right to expect people to intuitively know what’s wrong. However, they do have a right to expect you to tell them if you want them to know something. Hence, there’s no point becoming angry, frustrated, or blaming others if they don’t live up to such impossibly high standards. In a way, the “good friend” myth is simply an excuse for avoiding being assertive. It would be better to accept that some work is involved in making others, even your best friends, understand what you want to communicate to them.
4. The Myth of Obligation
This myth assumes that it’s wrong to say “no” to requests because you have a duty, an obligation, to do certain things. You undoubtedly have some obligations in life, but perhaps not as many as you may think. Are these real obligations or just imaginary ones? Are you imposing unreasonable or rigid demands on yourself or others? You have a right to refuse inappropriate or unreasonable requests. Likewise, other people have an equal right to refuse your own requests sometimes. You’re not in this world to live up to their expectations and they’re not in this world to live up to yours. People are often tortured by the fact that they assume they “must” or “should” do certain things, which are, in fact, not commandments written in stone. This is especially true when obligations turn into absolute or rigid demands. For example, you might have a duty to your boss to do your job properly, but you’re not absolutely obliged to do so if you think the workload is unreasonable or excessive. There may be consequences to refusing other people’s demands but the decision is yours to make. It’s your choice and not something that can be dismissed as just something you “have to” do, whether you like it or not. There’s always an alternative, even if it’s not a very comfortable one. A strong sense of “obligation” tends to be a theme with non-assertive individuals, who often place unrealistic demands on themselves and others. It’s usually helpful to replace this “duty” orientated mind-set with one that’s more based upon the notion of “rights”, an extension of your basic human rights. You may have a duty to be polite to others, to some extent, but you may also have a right, a “perfect right”, to tell them when you strongly object to their behaviour. It’s often necessary in assertiveness training, to focus on rights and elaborate them, in order to counter-balance an overly-rigidified sense of duty, commonly expressed in such phrases as “I must…”, “have to…”, “should…”, “need to…”, etc. Of course, other people probably have the same basic rights that you do. The central principle of assertiveness training is your perfect right to communicate assertively in appropriate ways, and other people have a perfect right to be assertive in appropriate ways with you too.
Cotler, S.B. & Guerra, J.J. (1976). Assertion Training: A Humanistic -Behavioral Guide to Self-Dignity. Champaign: Research Press.