Does Assertiveness Raise Self-Esteem?
Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.
Early behaviour therapists often argued that changing one’s behaviour could often lead to changes in thoughts and feelings. One of the most important and generalised beliefs relating to social situations is, of course, one’s self-image or self-concept, the beliefs one has about oneself. In particular, one’s sense of self-worth or self-esteem, the value one places on oneself, is bound to influence social interactions.
A fundamental question for assertiveness training, therefore, is whether becoming more assertive tends to help increase self-esteem, as early behaviour therapists claimed. This specific question was addressed by the clinical psychologist Lawrence Percell in a 1977 article entitled ‘Assertive behavior training and the enhancement of self-esteem’.
Percell and his colleagues carried out a research study in which 100 clients (50 men, 50 women) were given questionnaires to assess both their assertive behaviour and self-acceptance (and self-esteem). They report a significant positive correlation between these two measures. In other words, people who were more assertive tended to have higher self-esteem, and vice versa. Self-esteem and assertive behaviour tend to go together.
This naturally led to the next question: Can training in assertiveness increase self-esteem? Percell and his colleagues carried out a follow-up study to test this out. Twenty-four clients were divided into two groups. The experimental group (n=12) received eight sessions of group assertiveness training. A second (control) group (n=12) received eight sessions of discussion about assertiveness, without any practical skills training. (We know that practical skills training, unsurprisingly, is one of the most important ingredients in generating assertive behaviour.) Participants completed questionnaires to measure their assertiveness, self-esteem, and anxiety levels. Percell found that training in assertiveness did increase ratings of self-esteem, and it also reduced feelings of anxiety. As expected, the comparison (control) group, who received no active treatment, did not report changes on any of the three measures. Similar results were found by another researcher called Henderson, whose 1976 study also found that assertiveness training led to increased ratings of self-acceptance, self-regard, and self-actualisation. Hence, Percell concludes, “clinical and empirical data suggest that with continued practice the assertive person will come to an enhanced sense of self-worth.”
So if assertive people tend to have higher self-esteem and training in assertiveness can increase self-esteem, how does it work? Percell suggested that assertiveness training tends to increase self-esteem in three different ways.
Research has tended to show that client’s expectations about therapy influence the way they respond, which should come as no surprise. Percell rightly notes that most clients are naturally encouraged by their therapist to expect that behaving more assertively will increase their self-esteem, and this tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Expectation alone, however, tends to achieve little unless it is combined with something practical. It’s likely that people who expect assertiveness to raise their self-esteem are more likely to interpret their progress as evidence of self-worth and to be on the lookout for signs of improvement that otherwise might be overlooked.
Andrew Salter, sometimes regarded as the founder of modern assertiveness training, said, “of course, there’s the tremendous self-reinforcement of how much better you feel when you behave assertively.” Likewise, clients often say that assertiveness is “addictive”, by which they mean that it is “self-reinforcing”, in the language of psychologists. The more assertive you become, the more you will be rewarded by your achievements, and that makes you want to assert yourself more often. However, success (“reinforcement”) tends to make people feel good about themselves, and to believe that they can do more, and this may raise self-esteem.
According to theories of self-perception developed by behavioural psychologists, people often develop an image of themselves based upon their observation of their own behaviour. In the same way that we observe other people and arrive at conclusions about their character we may arrive at conclusions about ourselves based on what we notice ourselves actually saying and doing. When people see themselves “acting as if” they are confident and assertive, they may gradually come to perceive themselves as an assertive person in general, i.e., as a strong and confident person. Changing your behaviour succesfully tends to lead to positive changes in your self-image.
Percell is probably correct that expecting to improve your self-esteem, being rewarded by success, and perceiving your assertive behaviour as evidence that you are a stronger person, all tend to lead to improvements in self-image and self-esteem. Another way of putting this, more common in modern cognitive therapy, would be to say that people with low self-esteem often have deep-seated negative assumptions about their inability to cope with difficult social situations and the risk of other people responding negatively. This often takes the form of an implicit prediction along the lines of: “If I try to assert myself, then something awful is bound to happen and I won’t know what to do or say in response!” Learning assertiveness skills and rehearsing them, mentally or in role-play exercises, taking things in gradual steps and stages, and monitoring the evidence realistically, can lead to what used to be called a “corrective experience.” In other words, you may treat your negative assumptions as hypotheses and put them to the test using what cognitive therapists call a “behavioural experiment”, in order to disprove them.
Disconfirming negative assumptions about being assertive in social situations tends to lead to the development of more realistic expectations, e.g., “If I try to assert myself, nothing catastrophic will happen, and even if it doesn’t work, I’ll still survive” or “This is harmless and I can cope.” These changes in predicted outcomes will tend to change one’s other beliefs in a postive direction as well, because beliefs are inter-twined, and may lead to improvements in self-esteem. If I believe that “I can do this and nothing bad will happen” then I’m likely to see myself as a more capable and assertive person in general.
Percell, Lawrence P. (1977). ‘Assertive behavior training and the enhancement of self-esteem’ in Alberti, R.E. (ed.) Assertiveness: Innovations, Applications, Issues.