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Assertiveness in Women: A Double-Edged Sword?

The final blog in our Women’s Series focuses on assertiveness in women. Yes, we’ve likely all seen the memes on Facebook that poke fun at how assertive men are leaders and how assertive women are seen as bossy/bitchy. These memes do have some uncomfortable truths about double standards associated with them though, namely that when it comes to sharing opinions and being taken seriously. There seems to be a significant discrepancy in how genders are perceived and treated. This week we will focus on the advantages as well as potential drawbacks of women behaving assertively.  

To begin, why does it seem like some women seem to struggle with asserting themselves?  

Little Girls Play Nice 

The differences start really early. Little girls are socialized differently from boys. They are taught to care more about the good of the group and feelings of others rather than sharing their own opinion or getting what they want. This might work in some situations, but not all. This is seen the choice of toys they are given, messages on how a “young lady” should act, and with statements such as “wait until your father gets home,” indicating that the mother needs the dad for backup to handle punishments and boundaries. Sometimes girls learn from this to defer to others, even to their own detriment. This selfless and reserved focus can become so entrenched that it sticks into adulthood, and women find themselves uncomfortable with sharing their opinions, wants, and needs with other people, because they are so used to not communicating them.  

What Assertiveness Is and Isn’t 

Assertiveness entails clear, honest, and respectful communication. It is directly expressing your opinion or desire without sugarcoating, apologizing, or beating around the bush. People who are assertive are often thought of as competent and confident…but not cocky. Assertiveness is NOT belittling someone, micromanaging, condescending, name-calling, micro-aggression, or being blatantly disrespectful 

People may find it easier to be assertive at work than in their intimate relationships or vice versa. They may find the separation from a certain image of themselves from others makes speaking up less awkward or intimidating. That’s ok. The important part is to start looking inward at how you communicate with others and identify if there are any specific areas you may want to work on. 

Sometimes women have trouble asking for what they want in relationships, whether that’s related to commitment, sex, or otherwise. Other times it may be difficulty in using boundaries with friends or family. Or, a lack of assertiveness may lead to difficulties in moving forward in the workplace, feeling stuck in your job or being passed over or pushed around by people that may have a “stronger backbone.” Women deserve to have their needs acknowledged and attended to in all realms… but needs can’t be met if they aren’t made known! Assertiveness can help.

Tips for Being Assertive 

A large component of being assertive is truly believing that you deserve to “sit at the table,” and that what you have to say matters. This seems simple enough, but sometimes this entails undoing a lot of unhelpful programming you might have been subjected to. You might have to undo” or reframe unhelpful beliefs like: no one cares what I have to say.

Working to value yourself, your opinion, and what you stand for can absolutely help with assertiveness. Learning to be assertive can be a process, and there may be some truth to the old adage “fake it till you make it.” Some people may find it helpful to practice being assertive in low risk situations, like with already supportive friends or family. Here are some tips to exercise some of your assertiveness muscles!

practice being assertive
  • Stand up straight
  • Make eye contact
  • Don’t fidget
  • Don’t use filler language
  • Do NOT apologize before giving your opinion
  • Put your hands on your hips beforehand (it actually raises testosterone levels)

Assertiveness doesn’t always entail asking for something, it can also be disagreeing with other people along with many other things. Here are some examples of assertive language that you may want to try to adopt for yourself.

Assertive language
  • I understand what you’re saying. I disagree and think…
  • Would you please XYZ
  • Here is what I can commit to
  • That was not my understanding of… 
  • I don’t appreciate that
  • This is what I meant… 
  • I’m going to need time to think about that
  • Please don’t do that again
  • That behavior was not ok, and I am not ok with being treated that way

The Double-Edged Sword 

Some people are intimidated by strong women. Remember, that says more about them than it does about you. And unfortunately, there has been a substantial amount of research done that suggests that women in the working world do not get as many brownie points for being assertive. In fact, sometimes it’s actually detrimental to their advancement. If you’re interested in learning more about this dynamic, you can read the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. It is not the end all be all” book about assertiveness in women, but it does provide some useful information and tips that you may be able to incorporate in your life if you deem them relevant for youOne study showcases how business women who are assertive are not perceived as likeable as men who are assertive…and likability matters, because it is needed for women to advance (which isn’t so much the case for men).

So, what does this mean? 

One key thing to remember is that just because you are assertive it does not mean that you will get your way, but you may feel better about yourself in the process and that Matters. Women often have to be very intentional about their words, phrasing and actions. Working harder to strike a balance between being assertive while also being nice. It isn’t fair that there are extra sets of rules for some people in some settings, but it’s better to be aware that something might be working for or against you.

Read the type of setting that you’re in. Sometimes you may have to pick your battles and that can be so frustrating. Make sure you have an outlet to channel your emotions. Decide what actions are best in the short and long run for you. Can you make changes within the relationships and environment that you are in? Do you need to exit some of these situations to better manage your stress, confidence and quality of life? Are there groups of strong and positive women in your area? Joining a positive support group/system can make a world of difference in your quality of life.

Extra Support 

If you feel like you struggle to be assertive and it is negatively affecting your life, counseling can help. At Angelus we have a strong core group of women therapists who understand what it is like to find that balance between strong enough but not too much. Find which therapist may be the ideal fit for you by exploring our staff bios or calling in and asking questions. We are here to help and understand that making that ‘right’ connection with your therapist is an important part of the treatment process. Make an appointment with Angelus today to start exploring some of the underlying things that may be keeping you from truly expressing yourself authentically. It can be a tough, but ultimately counseling is a freeing and rewarding process.

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services