Do you ever feel like the people in your life push you around? Like your voice and opinions don’t matter? Or that other people frequently take advantage of you?
Well, here’s the cold, hard truth:
Unless you’re comfortable with being assertive, you’ll just end up being a doormat. This applies to every relationship you have: with your significant other, with your coworkers and bosses, and even in general social situations.
To make matters worse, many men struggle with being assertive. They didn’t have good assertive role models growing up, and they fear exploding with aggressiveness or anger.
But asserting yourself has nothing to do with being aggressive or angry. In fact, it’s the complete opposite.
In today’s show, you’ll discover how to assert yourself effectively, why toxic shame and trauma makes being assertive tougher, and how being assertive improves every relationship you enter.
After listening to this episode, you’ll walk away with the confidence and strategies to ensure that you’re seen, heard, and respected—without having to resort to being a brute or being aggressive.
Show highlights include:
- Why others take advantage of you (and how to put an end to it today) (2:03)
- The biggest misconception about assertiveness which instantly make you more assertive and attractive (2:46)
- The weird way being assertive means you respect the other person involved (and how this helps you be more assertive if you’re not naturally assertive) (4:03)
- How reading this sleazy-sounding book can help you naturally become more assertive (6:52)
- Why growing up in a well-meaning Christian family makes you an easy target for hawks who want to take advantage of you (8:54)
- Dealing with an unreasonable demand from someone in your life? Here’s why standing your ground prevents you from being a doormat (11:28)
- True story: How the assertive “3 C” system can land you a free flight to France (17:24)
- The “Early Method” for eliminating nervousness before asserting yourself so tension dissipates instead of builds (25:52)
- 7 actionable techniques for becoming more assertive, especially if you shy away from conflict (and how to apply them in real conversations) (33:50)
- The “I statement” secret for handling conflict without attacking the other person (34:35)
Does your neediness, fear, or insecurity sabotage your success with women? Do you feel you may be unlovable? For more than 15 years, I’ve helped thousands of people find confidence, fulfillment, and loving relationships. And I can help you, too. I’m therapist and life coach David Tian, Ph.D. I invite you to check out my free Masterclasses on dating and relationships at https://www.davidtianphd.com/masterclass/ now.
For more about David Tian, go here: https://www.davidtianphd.com/about/
Emotional Mastery is David Tian’s step-by-step system to transform, regulate, and control your emotions… so that you can master yourself, your interactions with others, and your relationships… and live a life worth living. Learn more here:
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Note: Scroll Below for Transcription
Welcome to the Masculine Psychology Podcast, where we answer key questions in relationships, attraction, success, and fulfillment. Now, here’s your host, world-renowned therapist and life coach, David Tian.
David: Welcome to the Masculine Psychology podcast. I’m David Tian, your host. In this episode, we’re diving deep into the world of assertiveness and tackling a topic that’s close to the heart for many of us, the balance between standing our ground and still keeping our cool.
In the last episode, we started with listener questions about disrespect and how to handle disrespect, and I explained how it comes down to knowing your values and your standards so that you can draw your boundaries, and then it becomes an issue of how to assert your boundaries. In this episode, we’re going to take that a step further and get into actually how to assert yourself effectively and skillfully. [00:57.2]
But it’s what we covered in the previous episode on disrespect that sheds light on when we should assert ourselves, because you won’t know when you ought to assert yourself if you don’t know where your boundaries are, and you won’t know where your boundaries are or where to draw your boundaries if you don’t know what’s most important to you, if you don’t know what your values are and you don’t know or you haven’t set your standards for what you expect from others or the people that you want in your life.
So, here’s the big promise for this episode—by the end of this episode, you’re going to have a much clearer understanding of how to assert yourself effectively. This means no more being pushed around or feeling like your voice doesn’t matter. Instead, you’ll walk away with the confidence and strategies to ensure that you’re seen, heard and respected without having to resort to being a brute or being aggressive. [01:50.4]
Unless you’re good at being assertive and comfortable with being assertive, you’ll just end up being a doormat, and whether that’s in personal relationships or at work with colleagues or your boss, or in social situations, you won’t be able to enforce your personal boundaries. You might find yourself constantly in situations where others take advantage of you or where you feel overlooked or constantly ignored, and that’s a path that leads to an unhappy, unfulfilled life.
But before we get into the how-to techniques of assertiveness, far more important is actually the psychology that supports the effective implementation, the mindset that’s required to pull off the techniques successfully. The first order of business is to actually undo false ideas before we get into the right ideas in a way already. Undoing false ideas requires the right ideas.
So, what’s the first false idea or the biggest misconception, let’s say, about assertiveness? And it’s this very prevalent myth that being assertive means being aggressive. I’ve heard it a lot. These people say, if you’re assertive, you’re just picking a fight, or being assertive is rude. Let’s break this down and let’s try to do it definitively once and for all. [03:09.5]
Being assertive does not mean being aggressive. Aggression is about invading. It’s about moving into somebody else’s territory or crossing their boundaries. Assertiveness is about defending your boundaries from being violated, from being attacked. Now, if you’re new to asserting your own boundaries, if you’re new to practicing assertiveness, it might be hard to tell the difference, especially if you’re the one who’s trying to be assertive. It might feel for you very confrontational or unkind, and we’ll get to the reasons why it feels that way for you.
But if you’re new to it, just realize that you’re new to it and that’s why it feels that way. You are not a good expert judge of the difference yet. But, thankfully, you have this podcast episode and other resources that I’ll be mentioning to help you learn how to be assertive and to practice being assertive more skillfully and becoming more effective at it. [04:04.0]
Being assertive isn’t about creating conflict for its own sake. It’s about addressing it head on in a manner that’s respectful to all parties involved. Assertiveness at its core is about being open, honest and respectful in your communication. It’s actually about mutual respect. When you’re assertive, you’re coming from a place where you value your own rights and opinions and needs, while also taking into account the rights, opinions and needs of others. It’s not like you’re pushing people down. You’re just ensuring that you’re not being pushed down yourself, and when you’re assertive of your own boundaries, you’re actually respecting the other person.
What you’re implying as you assert your own boundaries is that you’re taking responsibility for your own actions and thoughts and feelings, and you choose not to take responsibility for the feelings, thoughts and actions of the other adults, and that’s what healthy boundaries are, which I covered in the previous episode. [05:03.8]
What healthy boundaries imply to the other person is that you respect them enough to allow them to take responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings and actions, because when you take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and actions, you actually treat them as if they can’t do it themselves, because you’re stepping in and taking that responsibility for them. This is what psychologists call infantilizing. You’re in treating them like an infant, like they’re incapable of taking responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings and actions
When you assert your own boundaries, in other words, you take responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings and actions, and not taking responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and actions, you’re actually treating them with greater respect than if you did not assert yourself.
For those of you who have not been raised with role models for assertiveness or who have had their boundaries violated a lot in their childhood—for example, maybe you were made to feel responsible for how your parents felt, and this is quite common, especially in conservative, traditional societies—then this way of looking at assertiveness might be really new and very foreign. [06:16.8]
But in this episode, I’m inviting you to reimagine what assertiveness can look like in your life and what it actually means. Strip away your old misconceptions and embrace the power of respectful communication. Stick with me in this episode and we’re going to break this down even further giving you actionable techniques to implement in your day to day life. As we go deeper, we’re going to uncover just why it’s so tough for so many people to naturally embrace healthy assertiveness, even when they know, theoretically or intellectually, how important it is. [06:52.6]
There’s a great book that I highly recommend to everyone. It’s Manuel J. Smith’s classic book, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, which, when I first saw that title, seemed a little bit too salesy or maybe sleazy, but it actually is a pretty deep psychology text at the beginning and then a very actionable, practical set of strategies for the majority of the book, the rest of the book, so I highly recommend it to everyone, and I’m going to be drawing on it a bit here as we get a little bit deeper at this stage.
Okay, so why is it so hard for so many people to serve themselves naturally? First reason, the environment that we grow up in plays a massive role in how we develop our ability to be assertive. Think back to your childhood or your adolescence. Were there people in your life who demonstrated healthy assertiveness, people that you saw regularly? Did you have any healthy role models for assertiveness? I’m not talking about the overbearing uncle, or the aggressive manager. I mean those people who had the knack for standing up for themselves and for others without causing unnecessary conflict or pain. [08:02.6]
If you’re struggling to think of anyone, you’re not alone. Most people grow up without having genuinely assertive role models, which makes it so much harder to even visualize what healthy assertiveness looks like, let alone practice it. Looking back at my own childhood, and I think it’s true even now that my parents are, relatively speaking, people pleasers, and a big reason why they are is because my dad is a pastor of a Christian church and he has been my whole life. My mother has a full-time job and has had one for decades, and is now relatively senior in her company, almost C-suite, but she too is ordained as a Christian minister. So, even now, about once a month, she gives guest sermons at various other churches, as well as preaches at my father’s church. [08:54.3]
Everywhere they go, they try to make a good impression so as to give other people a good impression of what Christians are. They’re trying to . . . what’s the term? Be a good witness, and this is something that I was trained to do in my teens and 20s, and this made us, relatively speaking, kind of like “turn the other cheek” Christians. In an ideal world, this would be how Christians are. I mean, it’s very kind and caring, and it’s a good society to be in, and I see this with the way that my parents, when they come to visit me in Taiwan, talk to the taxi drivers, always striking up conversations and witnessing to them or for them as Christians and so forth.
But growing up, this was, especially as we immigrated to a Western country, America and then Canada, this was not a great opening strategy because it often invited those who were hawks, doves and hawks, those who would take advantage, like the wolves, take advantage of a dove. This would kind of signal to people like that, that we would be pushovers and easily taken advantage of. [09:56.7]
Then add on to that the fact that my parents, for many years, maybe decades, did not speak English well, and even now, my father, because his work is Chinese-centric, he’s using Chinese 95 percent of the time in his life, even though he lives in Canada. His English isn’t that great, so it’s actually easy for people to verbally bully them, because they are not even following exactly what’s happening in the conversation.
But I am fortunate to have had many experiences that I can look back on where they stood their ground and asserted themselves, and when I share these with clients, it’s like a lightbulb moment for many of them. It’s like an a-ha moment, where just like when we learn what good parenting would look like, which is an important step in, and getting clarity and a better perspective or a bigger perspective, so to hear, hopefully, as I share one or two examples, this can become a kind of corrective in terms of knowledge and understanding of what it could have been like or should have been like for you, so that now you can provide that for the parts of you that back then didn’t get it. [11:03.2]
This is also with a caveat that my parents generally asserted themselves only as a last resort and that, most of the time, they modeled being kind of pushovers of the sort or the Christian “turn the other cheek” variety, and that’s something that I’ll share how I had to overcome that and train myself out of that. But for the big moments, and there were quite a few and I’ll just give you one example, let’s just get to the example.
I remember distinctly in the seventh grade, moving to a new school, and in the school, they had this uniform policy for the PE, the physical education class, and the school colors were dark blue and light blue, so it was really simple uniform, but I recall that we had to pay something like double the price for the light blue tee-shirt with the logo on the back, the school logo somewhere on the shirt, and it was double or triple how much it would cost to get the same colored tee-shirt at the local Sears or Kmart. [12:04.8]
The same with the shorts. They were very simple, relatively cheaply-made shorts that had the small school logo on them somewhere, and we were forced to buy them from the school at a very high markup price, and my parents at the parents-teacher conference meeting, one on one with a PE teacher, I recall, they asked me to wait in the hall at one point.
Of course, I’m in the hall and it’s nighttime, so there’s nothing else going on and I’m listening in on what’s going on in there, and they, in their broken English, are debating with a gym teacher who is this very stern, kind of intimidating, physically-big men, and they go back and forth for quite a while. Eventually, I don’t remember the details of how they got there, but they came out of the meeting having won and telling me that I could wear the shirt and shorts that they got from me that I’m perfectly happy with that don’t have the school logo. [13:01.2]
In fact, I recall wearing my non-school logo outfit and the other kids saying, “Hey, how come? David, how come you got to wear your own shirt and shorts that are the same color? It’s the same light blue top, dark blue shorts,” but I got out of it and I felt quite proud of my parents letting me do that.
Even more, I noticed the gym teacher while he was really hard on everyone else with the whistle and he was kind of like the drill sergeant type of gym teacher, after that parent-teacher conference with my parents where they won that concession and I could wear my own non-branded unmarked gym outfits, he totally just backed off me and that actually helped me to flourish.
I remember getting top male track, and his wife was my homeroom teacher and she was really awesome and she loved me, so I remember she was beaming when I went up to get the trophy and he was the one who presented it and he did not have a smile, and I could tell he was like, Grr, I have to give it to this guy. But because he backed off me, I was able to perform actually in a much less pressure-filled environment and I did quite well. [14:09.3]
So, I got to see my parents who were easily bullied with their English facility and being immigrants, and I remember in this school, I was in the seventh grade, the only Asian kid in the whole class, and then in the eighth grade, this Japanese kid joined our class so it was the two of us. But I bonded really well with all the other kids. The kids were super nice, so it wasn’t a racism thing. But I’m just bringing this up to point out that my parents were definitely at a disadvantage verbally and would have been easily bullied, but they stood their ground and it actually turned out really well, and I learned my lesson that when there is an unreasonable demand, the right thing to do is to stand your ground and question it and I recall my parents were just asking the why question. [14:54.0]
There was one more incident that really stuck in my mind and it stayed with me for decades, when they took me to buy my first saxophone. I was in the seventh grade. I joined the school, the same French immersion school. I joined it late. Literally, I missed the first day of class, that’s it, and on the first day of class, in the band class, they all got to pick their instruments that first day, and if you pick an instrument that the school had arranged, because they had gone to the major instrument supplier in town and had reserved X number of instruments to make a balanced band, so by the time I showed up, the only instrument available is was the trombone.
Nothing against trombones, especially now, I appreciate the sound, but back then my heart was set on saxophone for various reasons, and my parents found out that if I had my own personal instrument that I didn’t have to rent it through the school, then I could play it obviously, in the class. They graciously went out to buy a student-level sax, the cheapest saxophone available, and they love this brand Yamaha because we’ve been buying Yamaha pianos that my sisters and I were forced to practice and play on since we were five years old and they liked this brand. [16:00.5]
We went to the music store and they had this huge argument with eventually the manager. It got escalated to the manager. I recall we were halfway out the door. Literally, the front door was open. I think I might have even been standing out on the street. The door was opened, my parents kept insisting that there was a warranty that comes with all Yamaha instruments and the store people all said no.
The manager said, “No, there is no warranty with the saxophone,” and just as we were about to leave, and I remember being a little bit embarrassed about how much attention they were drawing to this, they were very insistent on it and everyone in the store, as I recall, were looking at us, and some stock guy came from the back in the room behind and was waving this piece of paper. “I found it. I found the warranty,” and then the manager looked at it and said, “There is indeed a warranty.”
Then we came back in and my parents made up with this guy and he must have apologized or whatever, and we bought the saxophone and there was indeed a warranty. Another lesson there that you hold your ground all the way to the end, and if you know that you’re right, even if everyone else thinks you’re wrong, but you’re sure that you’re right, you stay with it, and these were lessons that were drummed into me at 11 years old. [17:15.8]
There’s so many other examples I could bring up, but on these, what seemed like bigger issues for them, they held their ground and my older sister actually also was a great model for me. When she was in sophomore year at Penn, she went to do a summer abroad in France and she took Air France. At this time you were allowed to smoke there was a smoking section on the plane and she had bought a non-smoking ticket, and the smoke, of course, as we now understand, would waft all the way through this cabin and the fact that there’s a smoking non-smoking section is completely useless.
Anyway, she wrote a strong letter to the airline and Air France responded with a free flight anywhere in the world in return for her. At that time, I was used to sitting in smoky jazz clubs, to just listen to jazz, because back then you could smoke pretty much anywhere and I thought, Wow, all you’ve got to do is sit through this flight with some smoke and you get a free flight anywhere in the world. Damn, how did you do this? [18:17.5]
She showed me this three-step structure that she followed and I still remember it. It’s the three C’s for this, and maybe you could benefit from this. You start with compliments. You keep on the praise, make them feel good, compliments. Then complaint, so you chart out your grievances, and then compensation where you tell them what you would accept as compensation, so you give them something. You don’t have to make them do the extra work of coming up with some kind of compensation. You tell them what makes you satisfied.
Many years later, I rented a car from Dollar Rent a Car from LAX, and as I pulled out of the airport, picked up the car and drove out. The tire blew and it was kind of a disaster because this was the time before there were cell phones. That was like walking on the highway at 10:00 p.m. to look for one of those call boxes, which was like a nightmare. [19:06.8]
Anyway, I wrote a strongly-worded letter and the three C’s, and they gave me a year’s worth of free rental car vouchers, which has made me happy. Anyway, I didn’t realize that this was in any way unusual, because I was surrounded, this was my first peer group, my family, but also at the church that I went to, there were plenty of people who asserted themselves in this way. I think a lot of immigrants had to just to not get bullied and so this sort of asserting yourself didn’t strike me as unusual until much later in life when I realized that a lot of people didn’t have these role models.
But lest you think I am bragging here, I’m hopefully sharing this so that in some way you can see that these are corrective experiences that they can be for you if you see that this is how it could have gone, and this will help motivate you to go to therapy so that you can get the corrective emotional experience for the parts of you that are holding on to the fact that you had a role model, but in the other direction in the wrong direction, role models that were disempowering. [20:07.8]
If your therapist isn’t disagreeable enough in the world to be able to model this for you, reach out to me. Maybe I have some vacancies in my client schedule and I can help in that regard, but whether it’s with me or with someone else, it’s important that you do get how it should have gone so that you can understand how you can do that. Stand up for your inner child parts that needed it back then and you can let them feel that you’re here now and they’re safe, and you’re going to protect them and you’re going to defend them against aggression.
But these were a few of these bigger things that involved money, or that involve direct confrontation, but in the day-to-day things, like I said, my parents modeled kind of turning the other cheek, being a pushover. [20:53.8]
Another thing that I’m realizing now, in Confucianism, there’s a saying, actually, straight out of Daoism, so this is Daoism, ancient Chinese philosophy, which is those who speak do not know, those who know do not speak. This teaching is inscribed in these ancient foundational texts of ancient civilization.
Even now, when I am working with Asian clients or speaking in Asian contexts, I have to tell them how odd it is for them to hear that in the West, in the education systems and classrooms, you are marked on your participation. It doesn’t even matter the contents and the quality of your participation. You’re actually marked and how often, how frequently you raise your hand and speak, which boggles the mind of Asian people.
Especially I remember explaining this to my classmates in Beijing University, Tsing Hua University, in this university in China, where it was like if you don’t have anything interesting to say, or special or unique, or original or creative, then why would you interrupt the professor to speak or why would you put yourself out there? [21:59.6]
My parents did not give a damn that on my report cards all the way through until about the ninth grade, when I started personally caring about that part of the grade, the participation part, they did not care at all when the teacher gave me an F or whatever on participation, because they saw it as a useless thing, a useless metric to measure.
This hurt me later on because I was not supported in speaking up in many contexts in the church, in the family and the extended family, gatherings and that sort of thing. It was more like kids should be seen and not heard, and that was their approach that they still take even now. I recall years, where I remember my heart rate just skyrocketing and beating so hard in my chest, I could feel it even without touching my chest. I was just feeling a boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, as I was about to raise my hand to participate in a university classroom. Of course, the bigger the class, the more nervous I am, and I didn’t master this for the first few years. [23:00.6]
Even in grad school, when it was a smaller seminar, I knew everyone by their first name, it was still that I had these techniques that helped me overcome that initial anxiety, and I found that if I could just raise my hand as early as I can in the class and ask a very simple question, even a procedural one, like just checking on the date that such and such a thing is due or whatever, and I got over that initial stage fright or whatever you might call it, then the rest of the class was a lot easier for me to participate in because I got my first jab in there.
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These are techniques that even though I was shown role-modeled and, at that point, had many years of practice asserting myself even in these more innocuous these day-to-day kind of mundane daily life situations of having to speak up, I still had in my mind stuff riding on how well I participated, making sure the professor thought well of me because he’s going to grade my paper and that will determine my overall grade, etc., the letters of recommendation all that. So, in my mind, there’s a lot riding on how well I participated, so of course, there would be this nervousness, and I allowed for that and I just worked around it. [25:02.1]
My point being here is while you’re doing the therapeutic work to get to know, so if I were to able to go back to that 20-something-year-old David, not only are these techniques helpful, and so you’re getting some strategies to cope with this nervousness, but I would approach it with the therapeutic technique, the therapeutic process of getting to know those parts that are holding all of those expectations and going deeper. But I didn’t have that back then and it was still okay. I still was able to cope with the situation well enough and get my goals, and that even just getting to that level is a part of the therapeutic process. But there is a deeper level, which I will get to in the next episode. I’m planning to anyway.
While I had great role models for asserting myself in these more rare moments, in the day-to-day mundane of raising my hand in the classroom, I still had all of that nervousness to overcome. But practicing overcoming that was very useful later in life when I had to assert myself, and I maybe didn’t speak up early enough and now the tension builds. [26:12.3]
And that’s an experience, right, when I think I’m going to raise my hand in the first five minutes of class, and then I pass that window and I don’t take action? Then it’s like an hour into class and now the pressure is building, and now that it gets harder and harder, doesn’t it? Like this, at the beginning, when you’re practicing assertiveness, it will take courage and it will take practice, and it will take you stepping up to the challenge. There’s no way around that.
But you can make it easier through the therapeutic process of removing the obstacles around stepping up for yourself for asserting your own boundaries, and facing directly the fears that you might not even be aware of that go unchallenged, and that’s a big part of the therapeutic process. [26:55.6]
If your therapist is not taking you through this, again, maybe I can help, so you can reach out to us at email@example.com and see if there are any openings or if any of my coaching groups have any openings. But, again, whether it’s with me or with someone else, I really hope that you get this help with the underlying therapeutic reasons why assertiveness is so hard, and I pointed out a lot of it has to do with the underlying toxic shame.
Now let’s get into it a little deeper about how trauma and toxic shame make it much harder than it needs to be to be assertive. Past trauma can cast a long shadow over our lives. For anyone who has experienced abuse or very severe trauma or negative encounters, maybe the very idea of standing up for yourself can generate fear or anxiety and then that flight-or-fight response gets twisted, and then standing up for yourself seems like a threat to survival rather than a way to protect yourself. [27:58.8]
In more extreme cases, this can actually result in a kind of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness means that they’ve faced so many uncontrollable harmful situations that they feel utterly powerless, no matter the context. The default setting becomes to not resist, not assert, and tragically, to not protect themselves. Breaking out of this mindset requires not just awareness, but often professional intervention and a lot of self-compassion.
Now, this next one is a big one, toxic shame. It’s the insidious feeling that eats away at our self-worth. Those grappling with toxic shame feel deep down that their needs, opinions, and even feelings are somehow less valid or less significant than those of others. [28:53.0]
Imagine thinking that every time you want to set a boundary or ask for a favor, or just even express a different opinion, there’s this nagging voice that says, “Who do you think you are? Why would anyone care about what you want or feel? Aren’t you being too selfish or demanding?” It’s like wearing an invisible straitjacket that holds you back from voicing your needs or from asserting yourself.
This is more than just everyday guilt. We all feel guilty from time to time. This is when we go against our internal standards. Maybe we snapped at someone undeservedly or maybe we forgot an important date. But toxic shame goes much deeper. It’s a core belief that there’s something inherently wrong with you, not with what you’ve done or your behavior, but you as in your very being, that you are what is wrong.
For someone carrying this burden of shame, assertiveness often feels like an overreach. It feels as if merely asking for respect is demanding too much, so it’s not just a matter of deciding to be assertive one day and then, voila, you’re suddenly transformed. Many of us carry baggage, some visible and some very deep even beyond our own conscious awareness, and that makes this whole journey tougher. [30:15.7]
But here’s the kicker: recognizing these barriers is the first step to dismantling them. By understanding the roots of our hesitation, we can begin to address them, heal them, and learn how to stand firm with grace and respect.
Okay, so far, we’ve talked about the lack of role models, past trauma, and how toxic shame can make assertiveness feel like climbing Mount Everest in flip flops. But let’s go even deeper. Some of us break into cold sweats at just the thought of confrontation. For conflict-averse individuals, every potential clash feels like a high-stakes poker game that they’re doomed to lose. Their natural reaction is to fold their cards and walk away, regardless of what they’re giving up in the process. [31:03.7]
But confrontation doesn’t have to be the explosion at the end of a drama-filled movie. It can be as subtle as a calm but firm “Hey, that’s not cool with me,” or an even more subtle “Nah.” But toxic shame amplifies, for many people, the emotional cost of even such minimal confrontations, making them seem like battles rather than basic human interactions.
Now, here’s the other side of the toxic-shame coin: the debilitating fear of rejection. This isn’t about getting turned down for a date or a job. It’s a pervasive, all-encompassing fear that any assertion of your needs or boundaries will lead to immediate and irrevocable rejection. When your self-worth is hanging by a thread, the risk of someone cutting it feels too great to bear for so many people, so you silence yourself. You don’t rock the boat. You let people step all over your boundaries because, hey, at least they’re still with you, right? Wrong. The cost of this fear is your authentic self and that’s too high a price to pay. [32:12.8]
So, how do we break out of this straitjacket of shame and fear? The key is in a therapeutic process where you discover, you cherish and you protect the most vulnerable parts of your inner self. Imagine an inner child part of yours holding on to all this pain, confusion and shame, and this isn’t some New Age psychobabble. It’s a powerful metaphor grounded in psychology and empirical research. It’s about learning to be the guardian of your emotional world, a protector of your own wellbeing.
This vulnerable inner child part is not weak. He’s resilient, he’s creative, and he’s full of potential. But he’s been taught to hide, to minimize himself to avoid more pain. What would happen if you could reach out to him, offer him compassion and help him realize his worth? Your healthy adult self needs to be now the new better parent that your inner child never had. [33:14.8]
When you give yourself the compassion, the acceptance, the appreciation that you’ve been seeking from outside, that’s when the healing begins. It’s an ongoing, often challenging journey. It might involve therapy, self-reflection, and a lot of uncomfortable self-confrontation. But it’s worth it and you have no choice. You’ll reach a point where confrontation is no longer a battle but an act of integrity. You’ll see that asserting your boundaries isn’t rejection-seeking but an invitation for mutual respect.
Now let’s get into some actionable techniques to make all this theory a lived reality for you. If assertiveness and how to assert yourself is something you want to dive deeper into, I’ve got an entire four-plus-hour module in my course Rock Solid Relationships that walks you through assertiveness and how to do it. I’m going to pull just a few techniques from that section and share them with you here. [34:15.1]
Okay, so let’s start with “I” statements. By the way, before I go any further, I highly recommend the book, if I mentioned this already, Manuel J. Smith’s classic, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. Everyone should get that. That’s like one of the required texts for Rock Solid Relationships and I’m going to be drawing on some of his terminology here as well.
Okay, so let’s start with “I” statements. One of the simplest, most profound shifts you can make in your communication style is the use of “I” statements. This isn’t some grammar lesson. This is about taking ownership of your feelings without laying blame on others. Instead of saying, “You’re always ignoring me,” which sounds like an attack, switch to an “I” statement, like “I feel ignored when you’re on your phone during our talks.” Do you see the difference? [35:00.5]
The second approach, the “I” statement invites a conversation, but the first one, because you’re already kind of blaming the other person, “You’re always ignoring me,” and it’s an interpretation of the facts of what’s happening, the first one guarantees a defensive response.
By using “I” statements, you’re sharing how you feel, what’s happening for you, rather than dictating what the other person is doing wrong. When you say I feel X when you’re doing Y, that is a statement that has to be true from your perspective. They can’t argue with that, you’re just sharing your perspective, versus you are always doing X and X is wrong. Do you see the difference?
Here’s an example in a relationship. Let’s say you’re with your partner and you notice they’re scrolling through their phone when you’re trying to have a connective or deep conversation. The old you might have said, “You never listen to me,” and escalate the tension. But, hey, we’re evolving, right? So, you opt for an “I” statement instead. You say, “I feel unheard when you’re on your phone while I’m talking,” and this feels less like an accusation and more like you’re just sharing your reality. Now your partner is far more likely to engage with you rather than going on the defensive, because you’re simply sharing your perspective. [36:14.5]
Okay, so the next one I want to share is negative inquiry and this might sound a bit masochistic, but it’s not. This isn’t about asking people to roast you. Negative inquiry is about actively seeking out criticism, especially in close relationships. It’s the idea that you encourage honesty, even when or maybe especially when it’s not entirely positive.
For example, asking, “Is there something I’ve been doing that bothers you?” and genuinely being open to the response. It’s about making space for the other person’s feelings and finding ways to communicate more effectively. This isn’t a hunt for flaws. It’s a quest for understanding. [36:51.3]
Now, let’s say you’ve been noticing some distance from your partner, like they’re not as affectionate as usual. Instead of stewing in uncertainty or jumping to conclusions, you initiate a negative inquiry. You ask, “Is there something I’ve done that’s been creating distance between us?” Boom, you’ve just made room for an honest conversation, and at first, it might sting a bit, but it’s better than making up stories in your own head. Remember, this isn’t about fishing for insults. It’s about striving for clarity and it’s about inviting the other person to share their reality so that you have something to work with, rather than coming at them with an accusation.
Now, this third one is a tool for vulnerability. It’s called self-disclosure, and self-disclosure means, in this context, sharing how you genuinely feel or admitting when you’re in the wrong. It’s about dropping the facade, the protective armor that we sometimes wear, and saying, for instance, “Hey, I messed up,” or “This situation makes me feel uneasy.” This isn’t about self-deprecation but authentic self-expression. By showing our authentic selves, we invite others to do the same, building deeper and more genuine connections. [38:01.0]
This one is really big. Here’s an example. Imagine you had a stressful week and you’ve been a bit snappy. Instead of carrying that tension and letting it affect your intimate relationship, let’s say you opt instead for self-disclosure and you say something like, “I’ve been under a lot of stress recently and I realized I’ve been taking it out on you. That’s not fair to you and I apologize.” Instead of waiting for your partner to call you out, you own up instead to your own state of mind and behavior, and this creates a safer space for your partner to be honest about their feelings, too and it strengthens the emotional connection between the two of you.
There’s a lot more to be said about each of these techniques, including giving more and more examples. I do that actually in my Rock Solid Relationships course. But, hopefully, this is an effective summary of these techniques.
Now, I know it’s easy to hear these techniques and think, Okay, sounds straightforward, but let me tell you, these are simple to understand, but they’re not always easy to implement, especially if you’re just starting on your journey towards assertiveness. They actually require self-awareness. They require courage and a desire for genuine connection instead of superficial interactions. And these aren’t just techniques. They’re relational philosophies that can enrich your life and deepen your relationships. [39:16.8]
Remember, being assertive isn’t about being an aggressive bulldozer. It’s about standing firm, while also nurturing the soil around you, so to speak, allowing both you and your relationships to flourish. For many of us, our default setting might be to become defensive or to shy away from confronting issues head on, but by leaning into techniques like this, we’re choosing a more empowered path. We’re opting for authentic dialogue over miscommunication. It’s about coming from a place of understanding and wanting to be understood.
Okay, so before we end here, I want to give you a few more techniques. There’s another one called broken record, so let’s dive in. Let’s say that you’re in a relationship and perhaps you’ve had this ongoing issue where your partner keeps forgetting to consult you on plans, and you’ve talked about it before, but it keeps happening. [40:06.1]
Now you can use the broken record technique. Each time this thing comes up, you calmly repeat, “I’d like you to consult me before making plans for the both of us.” No accusations, no yelling. If they bring up another issue, keep steering it back to the original issue you want to focus on. “That’s another discussion, but right now, I’d like you to consult me before making plans for the both of us,” and just like a broken record, you stay consistent until your message gets across.
Here’s another one. It’s called fogging. Imagine your partner criticizes you like this. “You’re always so focused on work. You never make time for me.” Instead of getting defensive, which is often the knee-jerk reaction, you can employ fogging, which means that you acknowledge any truth in the statement they’ve just said, without getting defensive, something like this: “You’re right. I have been focused on work a lot lately.” When you do that, when you agree with whatever is agreeable in what they’ve said, the atmosphere instantly lightens and you can have a more constructive discussion about the issue. It’s a lot like this kind of conversational Aikido. [41:11.4]
Here’s another one. It’s really simple. It’s just saying no, the two-letter word that so many people fear, or if you want to soften it, you can say, “Nah.” Let’s say your partner wants to go to a social event, but you’re wiped out from a stressful week. Now, the old you might have reluctantly said yes to avoid disappointing them and that would be letting your boundaries get violated.
But this is where the magic of saying no comes in. You simply say nah or no, or you can give an explanation, which is often a stronger kind of “because,” so maybe “No, I can’t make it tonight because I’m really drained and need some time to recharge.” No sugarcoating. No elaborate lies. Just a straightforward no, and then if you want to, you can add a “because.” And guess what? The world doesn’t end. Your relationship doesn’t crumble, I guarantee you. [41:59.4]
Finally, I’ll give you one more, the staircase. The staircase is particularly useful if you find assertiveness very difficult to practice at the start. You can start instead by taking small manageable steps. In the context of an intimate relationship, this might mean beginning with less consequential issues, like choosing a restaurant or picking a movie. Once you’re comfortable there, you can escalate to more important matters, like discussing finances or working out long-term plans, and step by step just like ascending a staircase, you become more at ease with asserting yourself, starting small and then working your way up to the bigger stuff.
Okay, so this isn’t about tricking or manipulating anyone. These techniques for assertiveness are about showing up authentically in your relationships. They’re about honoring yourself and, by extension, teaching others how to treat you, teaching others how to honor you as well. This is about being the kind of person who can negotiate the complexities of human interactions without losing yourself in the process. [43:03.2]
A quick story from a client named Douglas. He was raised with a very strict father who used to rage against him, and he would be desperate for his father’s approval and love and attention even, and that was the case through all of his schooling. He was sent to a boarding school for a period of time and felt very alone because his other sibling was not sent to a boarding school.
He did become an achiever as a result of trying to win his dad’s approval. But then when he came to work with me in his 30s, he brought a lot of anger and resentment, and even in his, at that time, current relationship interactions with his parents and his extended family and family overall, they were violating his boundaries constantly.
We worked together to practice asserting himself and it was very difficult at first, because there was so much repressed anger and resentment underneath all that. He had to process that, deal with that, heal the parts that were holding all of the pain and hurt and sadness, as well as the anger, and be there for them and reparent them. [44:06.2]
Then once he was well on his way in that process, that inner process, then allowed his outer relationships with the outer world with other people to go along much smoother and it was much easier for him to be assertive and to maintain his boundaries in a calm and even loving way, and that’s what can come from embracing the therapeutic process.
Let’s take a moment to sit with the heaviness of what it’s like to not be assertive in your life. Imagine this, you’re at work, your boss keeps piling tasks on you. You want to say you’re overwhelmed, but you don’t. Then you go home and your partner wants you to deal with something, but you just can’t muster the energy, so you feel cornered, trapped, unable to speak what’s true for you.
This is what a lack of assertiveness does in your life. It turns you into, bit by bit, a shadow of yourself. You start to feel like you’re a spectator in your own life, being pulled like a puppet here and there watching other people make choices for you, and what’s worse is you start to believe that you deserve this treatment. [45:07.8]
Not being assertive robs you of your agency, your personal agency. You’re like a puppet, like I said, with strings pulled by everyone but you. You begin to feel bitterness and resentment like Douglas did, and not just toward others, but towards yourself, for allowing it to happen. Your self-esteem plummets. You feel unseen, unheard, invalidated. It’s a vicious cycle and it will keep spiraling down until you can step in and break it
So, let’s flip that narrative, shall we? Imagine a world instead, where you’ve mastered the art of assertiveness, you walk into your workplace and the air shifts instead. Your colleagues know that you’re someone who values their time and energy, and guess what? They respect you for it.
When your boss tries to overload you, you confidently express your limits. “I can’t take on another project right now without compromising the quality of my work. Or you could point to the list of things that you’ve got on your plate already and you can ask your boss, “Which of these items should I replace it with?” and then your boss not only listens, but also starts to consider how to allocate his resources more efficiently, and, boom, you’ve just turned a potential pitfall into a win-win for everyone involved. [46:15.7]
But the real magic happens in your personal relationships. Picture coming home to your partner, and there’s an ease to your interactions, a mutual respect that wasn’t there before. When issues come up, you’re not afraid to address them. You’re able to say, “Hey, I’ve had a tough day and I need some time alone to recharge,” and because you’ve been confidently assertive and respectful, and transparent and straightforward, your partner understands. You don’t have to get defensive or justify yourself. You’re able to be vulnerable, because you’ve established strong boundaries, and that makes your connection even deeper, more authentic, more fulfilling.
In those dreams that you’ve shelved because you’re too busy meeting other people’s expectations, now they’re back on the table. Because you’ve learned to say no to what doesn’t align with your values, you’ve made room to say yes to what truly matters. You enroll in that cooking class you’ve always wanted to take or you start that side business, or you book that solo trip you’ve been dreaming about, and suddenly, you’re not just surviving or living anymore. You’re now thriving. [47:17.8]
And that is the power of assertiveness. You reclaim your life. You become the author of your own story, not a footnote in someone else’s. The beautiful thing is the more you practice assertiveness, the more it reinforces itself. You become bolder, clearer, and more in tune with your desires. It’s a virtuous cycle, but it starts with that first step, that first “no” or “nah,” that first “I feel”, that first acknowledgement of your own worth.
Let’s make a pact today, right here right now as you’re listening. Let’s commit to stepping into our full potential to stop being passive bystanders in our own lives. The tools are now in your hands, and now it’s time to use them. [48:01.0]
Alright, thank you for being here and diving deep into this crucial topic of assertiveness and shame. As always, it’s about progress, not perfection, whatever the heck that means. Keep practicing, keep asserting and keep growing.
Thank you so much for listening. It’s been a blast. If this has helped you in any way, please share it with anyone else you think could benefit from it. Let me know what you thought of this episode. Hit a like. Send me a comment. Send me a message. I love to get feedback.
Thank you so much for listening. I look forward to welcoming you to the next episode. Until then David Tian, signing out. [48:32.2]
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