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John W. Travis, M.D. & Regina Sara Ryan
  Home  > Personal Wellness  > Assertive Communication

Assertive Communication

Assertiveness basically means the ability to express your thoughts and feelings in a way that clearly states your needs and keeps open the lines of communication with the other. By blocking our feelings, we may create tensions that collect in different parts of our bodies. Eventually they may surface as illness of some sort.

The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune. Our nervous system isn't just a fiction; it's a part of our physical body, and our soul exists in space and is inside us, like the teeth in our mouth.
It can't be forever violated with impunity.
—Boris Pasternak

As you listen to people talk, you can become aware of how often they assume it is natural and preferable to suppress rather than express their real feelings or the truth:

  • I was furious, but I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing me blow up."
  • "Just swallow your pride!" (Which usually means your anger.)
  • "What a strong woman - she never cried, even at the funeral."
  • "No matter how tough things get - keep smiling!"

We tell ourselves that we don't want to hurt other people's feelings. Our friend might be insulted if we were to admit, "I really don't want to go out tonight." So, instead, we smile and say "Sure," or "I'd love to," while inside we churn with anger or sadness or frustration.

It takes a great deal of effort to continually walk the fence, trying to please all the people, all the time. But that's what we must do to remain "nice guys" or "sweethearts." We have to swallow hard, breathe lightly, walk on tiptoe, and maybe end up with stomach ulcers, or arthritis, or cancer. The body will allow just so much repressed emotion to collect. Then it will have its way.

Our reluctance to be assertive often stems from confusing this type of communication with aggression, but they are simply not the same. If someone is talking near your seat in a movie theater, the aggressive response is, "Shut up!" The assertive response is, "I can't hear the film. Would you please be quiet?" The first one is hostile. The second is firm but respectful - and probably does the job much more effectively. Hostility breeds hostility. Firmness with respect leaves the other intact.

Taking care of your own needs, taking charge of yourself (or letting others take charge, as appropriate), expressing an unpopular opinion, saying no when that is what you mean, are among your privileges as a human being. To refrain from doing so in situations of importance to you may undermine your peace of mind, your self-esteem, and your body's natural inclinations towards equilibrium.

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