Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.
When most people think of assertiveness training they probably think of role-play exercises and verbal strategies, methods for developing skill in the external behaviour, or action, of self-assertion. To some extent they may consider that overcoming feelings of anxiety, and possibly anger, is an important ingredient.
It’s true that early approaches to assertiveness, which many people trace to Andrew Salter’s work in the 1940s, tended to focus on a combination of feelings and behaviour. However, by the 1970s, assertiveness trainers had found it necessary to place increasing emphasis upon the thoughts and beliefs that underlie assertiveness and its opposite. In parallel to changes going throughout the field of behaviour therapy, assertiveness training came to incorporate a three-dimensional focus, distinguishing between thoughts, actions, and feelings. Change in any one of these three “response systems” has been found to bring about corresponding changes in the others, of course. However, they are not perfectly “in synch” or correlated. Changing one’s thoughts and beliefs to be more assertive, for instance, sometimes leads to a reduction in anxious feelings and increased assertiveness in speech and behaviour. However, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes the ”knock on” effect is only partial and incomplete. Likewise, some people have more difficulty in one of these dimensions than in others. So a good approach to assertiveness training will assess all three dimensions and focus on the area most in need of improvement, although monitoring things to make sure all three dimensions are functioning properly.
We use the terms “affect”, “behaviour” and “cognition” in psychotherapy to refer to feelings, actions, and thoughts, which happens to, conveniently, lead to the acronym: ABC.
A = Affect. (Feelings)
One’s feelings, including both emotions and the bodily sensations that accompany them, are an obvious target for change. Some people lack assertiveness mainly because they feel so anxious. They may be perfectly capable of knowing what to say and do, but are simply paralysed by anxiety, or find themselves stammering, or avoiding confrontation. Learning to manage your anxiety, either by reducing the feelings or accepting and enduring them, can liberate you to behave in more assertive ways. Anxiety is often managed directly by using relaxation techniques.
B = Behaviour. (Actions)
When people think of being assertive, they tend to think of acting assertive, and saying assertive things. Behaviour includes the things you do, or avoid doing, what you do and say, and how you do and say it. Body language, eye contact, facial expression, gestures, rate of speech, and tone of voice are important as well as the words you use. Behaviour is often trained directly by imitating (modelling) other people, role-play exercises, mental rehearsal techniques, or learning skills and employing them in progressive steps and stages, or using a trial-and-error approach.
C = Cognition. (Thoughts)
Thoughts and beliefs are probably the most neglected element. It soon became apparent that people can relax to counter anxiety, and learn what to say and do to be assertive, but may still have beliefs that hold them back. Obviously unhelpful beliefs are those which involve negative predictions about how other people are likely to respond and your own ability to cope, e.g., “If I try to assert myself, something bad is bound to happen, and I won’t be able to cope.” In other words, over-estimating the social danger, of humiliation, etc., and under-estimating your own resources and ability to cope. Other negative beliefs may involve unrealistic demands (“should”, “must”, or “have to” statements) about what should happen or how other people should respond, e.g., “People have to respect me!” Another problem area involves your “core beliefs” about yourself, including your self-concept or self-image. Low self-esteem or negative beliefs about your own self-worth are likely to get in the way of attempts to be more assertive.
On the other hand, attempts to dispute these negative ways of thinking, and to replace them with more realistic and constructive perspectives tend to help assertiveness. This can be done by weighing-up the evidence for and against a belief repeatedly, or by considering the pros and cons of holding it, and comparing it against a more helpful alternative belief. However, the most powerful way to change your own beliefs is usually through action, by making experiments of living to test out your assumptions and prove to yourself that you can cope, nothing catastrophic will happen, and that you’re a stronger person than you may have realised. Action speaks louder than words. As the writer Goethe said, “In the beginning was the deed.”
In the field of assertiveness training, people have found it particularly relevant to replace rigid “demands” about your own and other people’s behaviour with a perspective based on mutual “rights”. For instance, someone who is quite perfectionistic might act as though they believe,
I must get things 100% correct at all times.
Curiously, most people apply rigid demands according to a “double-standard”, whereby the same rules they live by don’t necessarily apply to other people. Anxious people are often too hard on themselves, whereas angry people are often unfair on others. People in assertiveness training tend to find it more helpful, and less stressful, to adopt a more flexible philosophy or rule, e.g.,
I have a right to make mistakes sometimes… and the same applies to other people too.
Likewise, “People must show me respect”, which is a rule bound to be violated, could be better expressed as, “I have a right to be shown respect, and so do other people”, which seems to create less extreme frustration when the right is not met. However, perhaps the best example would be:
I have a right to assert myself, and so does everyone else.
Which, arguably, sums up the cognitive (thoughts and beliefs) dimension of assertiveness training and therapy quite well.