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How to set boundaries and take charge of your happiness

Do you have trouble speaking up and expressing yourself? Do you find yourself at times shying away from conflict? Do you tend to agree with others or say ‘yes’ to things to please them, even if it means sacrificing your wants and needs?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, you likely struggle with assertiveness!

Unfortunately, I think assertiveness tends to be perceived with a negative lens. I sometimes believe assertive and aggressive behaviours are mistaken for each other, which causes us to shy away from this. In reality, these two communication styles are very different (and I will cover that today!)

As we enter the holiday season, your ability to be assertive might be more difficult than usual. With the hustle and bustle of the holidays, you might lose sight of your own needs and shy away from conflict for the sake of others- especially if you’re surrounded by family and friends. For some people, the holidays are a time of immense joy, and happiness; but for others, it can be a time of stress, loneliness, and sadness. For example, you might be anxious or stressed by the thought of dealing with comments from family members/friends about your weight, your relationship status, or how little/how much you eat at holiday gatherings.

The good thing is, assertiveness is a skill that can be learned, and you don’t need to sit through or accept uncomfortable comments or situations that come your way this holiday season. There is a way to be effectively assertive whilst also being gracious and having self-respect!  My goal today is to shed some light on what assertiveness is (and what it isn’t) and to give you the tools you need to develop and strengthen this skill so that you can navigate different experiences and potential challenges this holiday season!

What is assertiveness?

The truth is, being assertive is so much more than saying NO.

The definition of ‘assertive’ in the Collins Dictionary is as follows: “someone who states their needs and opinions clearly, so people take notice.” 

Being assertive is a skill. It’s about…

  • Confidently expressing your ideas, opinions, beliefs, and desires
  • Expressing yourself to achieve your goals or meet your needs
  • Respecting and standing up for yourself while also being aware of other people’s opinions, rights, needs, etc., and being open to resolving conflict.

One common concern individuals have about being around family and friends during the holidays is the potential for conflict in conversations about a certain subject matter, for example, politics. 

Here are two great examples of assertive responses (courtesy of psychologist Valeria Sabater!) that you can try that are graceful and respectful: 

“I don’t want to talk about this right now. We’re celebrating, so this isn’t the best time to do so”.

Or

“I see you’d like to talk about some things that’ll only separate us. We’re not here to argue, we’re here to have a good time”.

These responses can help you to de-escalate a situation while also effectively and assertively expressing your needs without being passive or aggressive! 

What assertiveness IS NOT

As you can see from the examples above, being assertive isn’t about being a bully. It’s not about being selfish or neglecting the needs and opinions of others. It’s not about disrespecting others or violating their needs to get your point across. In fact, all of what I have just listed indicates aggressive communication or behaviour, NOT assertiveness. Let’s talk more about the differences between these two and how passive communication also comes into play.

The difference between an ASSERTIVE, PASSIVE, and AGGRESSIVE person

When we’re talking about forms of communication, we can think of this on a continuum:

PASSIVE → ASSERTIVE → AGGRESSIVE

The passive person is afraid to speak up or is “too nice.” They agree with others to avoid confrontation or conflict; they don’t want to hurt others, even if it means hurting themselves in the process. This person also likely struggles with personal boundaries and might feel powerless.

The assertive person speaks honestly, directly, and openly. They have good intentions and reach their goals or meet their needs without hurting or disrespecting others. They value themselves and respect others. They are empathic and helpful. They set healthy boundaries.

The aggressive person speaks loudly and might interrupt others or be “explosive.” They have rigid boundaries to avoid getting hurt; this could mean hurting others if it means avoiding being hurt themselves. They value ‘self’ more than others and don’t respect differences. They want to be in control.

Ultimately, assertiveness is the healthy balance or middle ground among these three communication styles!

Benefits of being assertive

Behaving assertively can help you (source):

  • Gain self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Gain a sense of empowerment
  • Understand and recognize your feelings
  • Earn respect from others
  • Improve communication
  • Create win-win situations
  • Improve your decision-making skills
  • Create honest relationships
  • Effectively express your feelings when communicating with others about issues! When you express your feelings, you are actively using your voice for COURAGE, and engaging in open communication with others!
  • Control anger and stress
  • Improve coping skills

In talking about the benefits of being assertive, I feel it is equally important to point out the drawbacks of being passive

The internal conflict that can be created by passive behavior can lead to:

  • Stress
  • Resentment
  • Seething anger
  • Feelings of victimization (you might feel like you don’t have control over everyday situations, feel vulnerable, helpless and disoriented!)
  • Desire to exact revenge
  • Doubting or questioning our own judgment

Put simply, by communicating passively you are engaging in a form of self-betrayal that can lead to internal conflict and negatively impact your mental wellness!

How trauma can impact your comfortability with assertiveness

The bottom line is, assertiveness is a form of communication, and trauma impacts how we communicate. Sometimes, when we’re in trauma survival mode, we revert to people-pleasing or saying ‘yes’. This can be due to fear of rejection or judgement from others. Learned helplessness, feeling hopeless and powerless can also lead to problems getting heard or having needs met; if these show up for you as a result of trauma, you might find it especially difficult to be assertive. 

Trauma can also impact the aggressive communicator. If you grew up in an environment where modelled behaviours involved expressing your needs in harsh or threatening ways, you might have adopted this style of communication as an adult. On the opposite side of this, if you grew up witnessing primarily passive communication, you might have developed core beliefs that being aggressive was the only way to get what you want, because your childhood experiences reinforced that other communication styles didn’t work at that time.

Being assertive means advocating for your own rights and needs, which is something people who have experienced trauma might not have the tools to do or perceive as important. If you grew up being taught to prioritize others or had to please others as a way to survive, being assertive can be scary and uncomfortable. BUT, remember this is a SKILL that can be developed! 

HOW can you be more assertive?

  1. Use “I” statements: for example, instead of “you’re wrong,” say “I disagree”
  2. Practice saying no: you can start small! It can be as simple as saying no to helping a friend when you have prioritized something else- remember, you might struggle with feelings of guilt at first but this is part of the process!
  3. Adjust your body language: you can speak volumes without saying anything at all. Be conscious of your body and use it confidently to express yourself. 
  4. Plan responses ahead of time or practice with someone you trust

In considering your environment during the holidays, it can also be helpful to be conscious of potential situations and conflicts that might arise in order to acknowledge what you will/won’t tolerate prior to attending a gathering- be it a work Christmas party, a family dinner, or an outing with friends. 

For you, being assertive might be saying ‘no’ to attending a gathering altogether- and that’s OK! The most important thing to consider this season (and always) is YOU and YOUR mental wellness. 

I want to close today by reminding you that regardless of your disposition around the holidays, whether it is a joyous occasion or a period of loneliness, you have the tools you need to navigate ANY situation. 

As with any skill that you want to develop or strengthen, being assertive takes practice! At first, you might be met with resistance or negativity from others, especially loved ones. Remember, you cannot control the reactions of others. So long as you are expressing yourself in a way that is respectful of yourself and others, KEEP ON IT. 

I encourage you to reflect this holiday season on how you communicate with others. Do you currently align with a passive, assertive or aggressive communication style? What are some examples of assertive responses you can utilize with family and/or friends as needed during the holidays? I’d love to hear from you. 

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Katie MacNeill

A Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) and promoter of health and mental wellness. Born and raised in Mississauga, she currently lives in Niagara with her sweet rescue dog Bailey. Katie is a sushi enthusiast, avid camper and loves to play board games. 

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