Anita Upadhyay, a 26-year-old media professional from Mumbai, was told by her friends that she needed to be more assertive with her toxic in-laws and fight for what she wanted. When she took their advice, she found herself yelling back at her in-laws and fighting with them, "leading to more problems at home," she recalls. When she discussed this with her therapist, she was told that this wasn't the right way to negotiate what she wanted. "My therapist told me that this wasn't assertiveness, but aggression and that assertiveness actually meant something else," she says, adding that she realised that she could be calm, composed and still be assertive.
Upadhyay's case isn't the only one. Assertiveness is a word that has long been confused with aggression, selfishness or even blatant rudeness. This, it turns out, is a misinterpretation of the term. Dr Nivedita Chalill, a counsellor and arts-based therapist, the founder of ARTH, an initiative that promotes mental health through counselling and art-based therapy, reiterates this. "It is unfair to what the word means and what it has the potential to do in a world that sees war, conflict and oppression," she says.
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Part of the reason is the way we perceive the very term. While the Cambridge dictionary defines an assertive person "as someone who behaves confidently and is not afraid to say what they want or believe," the current narrative around the term is too skewed towards the self. "If you notice, assertiveness is spoken about usually in the context of self alone, of one's goals and ambitions, or losses and power, which I feel is limiting," believes Chalill.
Rashi Goyal, a counselling psychologist and founder of The Empty Chair Counselling Centre, sees assertiveness as the individual's ability to stand up for themselves to achieve what is best for them without being too anxious or nervous about it. "Assertiveness is asking for what you think you desire and are capable of," she says, adding that while it comes naturally for some people, others struggle with something as basic as saying no. "Sometimes it takes a lot of courage for some to raise their voice against something they feel is wrong. Just a simple and firm NO is a very subtle way of displaying assertiveness," she says.
While being assertive is hard for many of us, the mental health benefits it offers may be worth it. Since assertiveness means taking a stand for ourselves and controlling our own behaviour, it is said to reduce stress and improve self-esteem, points out Goyal. "This, in turn, will keep our mental health in check," she adds.
Of course, getting there can be easier said than done. Chalill looks to culture for examples of assertive behaviour. "Bring to mind the beautiful story where Jesus prevents the stoning of a woman who has been accused (of adultery)," she says, pointing out that the story is an example of being able to stand for what you believe in, even in the presence of intense anger, hostility and seeming moral outrage. "It's an incredible example of expressing your truth with absolute confidence, irrespective of what the situation seems to demand, and something we all could aspire towards."
According to Chalill, while many of us hope to cultivate assertiveness as an outer trait, it is necessary to see it as a combination of both inner views and outer behaviour. Both need to be worked on and will develop over time. "The inner component that grounds assertive behaviour is based on an awareness of who you are, your abilities and the values you represent. So the deeper understanding is like the roots that keep you nourished and grounded, while the assertive behaviour is like the leaves and the shoots that are visible to all," she says. She speaks to assertiveness as a reflection of our own ethics and understanding of how we need to be in the world. "We can't be passive in the face of suffering, nor can we be violent in our ways of seeking change and growth. We need to be able to ask for what we need from our families, workplaces and communities. But we can also take the responsibility to express these needs lovingly, persistently and skilfully," she adds.
Myths and Facts about assertiveness
Courtesy: Natasha Bhatia, counselling psychologist, Department of mental health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Hospital Mumbai
Myth: Assertiveness is the same as persuasion.
Fact: The goal of persuasion is to convince an individual to agree with our beliefs or bring them to alignment with our views. The purpose of assertiveness, however, is to communicate one's point of view confidently without any intention of changing the other person's mind.
Myth: Being assertive means raising your voice and overpowering an individual while speaking to them
Fact: Assertiveness seldom requires an individual to raise their voice or overpower others. Assertive communication requires an individual to be articulate, clear, and confident about the views they put across.
Myth: Assertiveness means never respecting another individual's views.
Fact: While it is essential to communicate your beliefs in several situations, constantly being disrespectful of another individual's views crosses the line from assertiveness to aggression.
Myth: Assertiveness means always getting your way in a situation
Fact: Assertiveness can often mean arriving at a mutually agreeable compromise.
Myth: One must be assertive in every situation
Fact: As crucial as it is, sometimes it can be in our best interest to walk away from a situation instead of establishing assertiveness.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist