You Need Help: How to Be More Assertive (or, When to Clap Back at Men)

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.


Q:

My girlfriend and I were out with some of her friends, including one her friends’ boyfriends. He likes to make controversial and even assrude statements. That evening, he said he saw a picture of her in high school and said (in so many words), it’s good she does yoga now because she was fat then.

There was this awkward silence and I just said something like “that was rude.” But I feel guilty that I didn’t say something more. I was just so shocked in the moment that I couldn’t come up with a good comeback. I wish I’d said “you’re one to talk” or “why are you such an asshole?” But I didn’t. I’m not assertive at all, and am almost never around people like that so am not used to having to be assertive. My GF was extremely hurt by the comment but says she’s okay that I didn’t say more. Even if she is, I feel awful that I let him get away with saying that (in front of at least five other people).

We’re going to see much less of this guy, but how can I learn to become more assertive in my life? I’d like to think that if anyone — let’s be real, it would probably be another cis white dude — ever says something like that again to her (or to me, or one of my friends), that I could stand up to him. How can I work on this?

A:

Friend,

This is a great question! I love this question! I love it because I, too, struggle with being assertive and it’s something I’ve been working on a lot lately so I love to talk about strategies for being more assertive and why being assertive doesn’t come naturally to me. I love it because we’re at a place in our culture where cis white men are being encouraged and empowered to speak over women, people of color, and queer and trans people; and we all have to learn how to push back against that. And I love it because what’s motivating you most here is love, and that speaks highly of your character!

I was recently reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking and let me tell you the most horrifying thing inside that book. Cain visited Harvard Business School to do some research and chat with students and she discovered the main teaching of the MBA program is: Speak confidently (even if you don’t know what you’re talking about) and convince other people to follow your orders (even if you don’t know what you’re doing). That’s how the most prestigious business school in the country measures success, and has done for decades. Obviously most of these students are men, and many go on to run the business and political institutions that shape our broader culture.

Robert Wright cites an adjacent study in Why Buddhism Is True that’s even more jarring; the dudes in these classes, they know they don’t know what they’re talking about until they say it out loud, but then as soon as they hear the words come out of their mouths, they become immediately convinced they’re absolutely correct.

Right and of course we can see that kind of thing playing out in our lives on a daily basis, in personal interactions and global observations, but I find it helpful to take the nebulous idea of the patriarchy out of the ether and indict it with cold, hard facts.

I, personally, am not naturally assertive because I grew up in a really politically conservative, really religious town where I was taught not to disrespect people in authority (men), my elders (men), and that my job in all social settings was to “keep the peace,” no matter how many knots I had to tie myself in to do so. I found out at an early age that speaking up for myself or for others upset people, let people down, made them not like me anymore, made them not want to hang out with me anymore. I learned to associate all difficult conversations as a social threat, which, to most humans, feels as dire as a physical threat. That makes sense in terms of evolutionary biology — in a hunter-gatherer village, getting kicked out of your social group meant starving to death or getting eaten by a predator; natural selection hard-wired our brains to fear making our peers uncomfortable! And most women are never explicitly taught to overcome that fear!

All of which is to say: It makes perfect sense that you struggle with being assertive, and, frankly, it’s admirable as all heck that you stood up to this bully at all. The world and your own reptile brain have been inundating you with messages to not do that for your whole entire life. And you did it anyway!


And now, here are five tips to help you learn how to be more assertive on a more regular basis.

1. Know Your Boundaries

Before you’re forced into another impromptu conflict, spend some time thinking about your boundaries: professionally, personally, and with regard to the people in your life you feel compelled to protect. What kinds of things are you not going to allow people to say to you? How are you not going to allow people to talk to you? What tone just isn’t going to fly with you? Being assertive doesn’t mean walking around coiled like a rattlesnake ready to lash out at anyone who frustrates you. Being assertive starts with knowing what respect looks like to you, learning to believe you deserve that level of respect, and committing to push back when anyone violates the boundaries you’ve already made clear in your own mind.

2. Understand Your Fears

Most people don’t like conflict, but we dislike it for different reasons so it affects us physically, emotionally, and mentally in different ways. How does the stress of conflict manifest itself in your life? Does it make your blood pressure shoot up, make your palms sweaty, make you feel short of breath? Does it make you want to fight or flee or does it make you freeze up? And why? What’s your history with conflict? Did you grow up steeped in it? Did you grow up being taught to avoid it? Being assertive often means inviting conflict into your life. Think about how you handle conflict and unpack why you handle it that way — and I promise it will become less intimidating to you. Understanding your fears is one of the best ways to disarm them.

3. Exercise Your “I”

I’m not a person who easily snaps or claps back aggressively. When I do, I have been pushed to my absolute breaking point. And yes, it feels good in the moment to unleash all my pent-up frustration and let a person know how out of line their actions are. Sadly, in the long run, it always makes me feel worse. And double sadly, it doesn’t really accomplish anything. When you’re standing up to people who are being disrespectful to you or to the people in your life, it’s always best to frame it around yourself. “I feel this way because of this thing you said.” “I feel really frustrated/angry/bothered/hurt because of this action of yours.” This is being assertive while also giving you the best shot at getting the other person to apologize and reform their behavior.

There are times when this option isn’t the best one, when someone has repeatedly violated your boundaries and you don’t care about maintaining the relationship anymore, or in situations where you’re not interested in hearing “I’m sorry” or giving a person the opportunity to change. And that’s absolutely okay, too.

4. Choose Your Battles

The most important thing about being assertive is: BE SAFE. Physically, be safe. Emotionally, be safe. Confronting some people in some ways at some times in some places can be dangerous for you, so assess every situation before you go blasting into it.

Also, sometimes, being assertive is more of a headache than its worth. If your boss is acting like a jerk and you know it and your co-workers know it and you just want to get home because it’s Friday afternoon and you want two full days of peace and quiet, maybe it’s not the time to bring your boss’ actions up to him or her. Is it going to force you to stay even later, or are they going to require a bunch of emotional labor, or will it flood your weekend with anxiety for how they might lash out on Monday? Skip it. Is your drunk uncle saying stupid political garbage at Thanksgiving dinner? Will speaking up actually change his mind or is he just looking for attention and a fight? Skip it. You don’t have to be assertive every time you have the opportunity to do so. Weigh the costs and choose what’s best for you and your emotions and your relationships and your mental health.

Also, if you’re speaking up on behalf of someone else, like your girlfriend, make sure that’s a thing she’s comfortable with. (I love it when my girlfriend stands up for me; she gets a little anxious when I push back for her.)

5. Practice

If you really think about it, I’ll bet you can come up with some ways that you’d like to be more assertive in your daily life. Think through all of these things we’ve talked about here, come up with a plan about how to implement your assertiveness, and practice. It can be the smallest things: asking your co-workers to wash their dishes, saying no to a needy friend’s constant requests, speaking up about the pub you want to go to when you’re out in a group. Teach yourself to be assertive in pre-planned ways and being assertive on the spot will become a lot easier for you.

I will leave you with the wise words of Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore: “Really Hagrid, if you are holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time.”

And these ones: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Just remember to stop short of getting blasted off an Astronomy tower.

love,
Heather

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 842 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. as a certified Assertive Person, i feel compelled to add that wit is actually not that useful in these kinds of situations, because a lot of people (rude men) take it as like… an invitation to a game. like ooh, it’s time to start one-upping each other with snappy comebacks, when really you just want them to stop doing [x obnoxious behavior]. i have caused actual, lasting change in the dudes around me by just making eye contact and saying, flatly, “That’s not funny.” don’t feel guilty, telling him that his comment was rude is exactly the most effective thing to do! hold the line.

  2. This is great advice for a variety of things I need to be assertive about! Definitely will help me think about how to quit my job that is actively terrible for my mental health.

  3. I love this!

    I am also a nonassertive person trying to become more assertive: I’ve always kept pretty quiet (to the detriment of both myself and others). for me personally the tipping point was the trump election when people (especially POC) started saying very strongly that people need to stop not-talking about these things!

    anyway, one piece of advice I have (some people may disagree with me here) is that you don’t always have to 100% fully have the best understanding of what you’re discussing in order to be able to argue it? like Heather said, a lot of very vocal people are not necessarily right: they’re just good at saying things more confidently and loudly than other people. Obviously you want to kind of know what you’re talking about, but – I have a slight anxious perfectionist streak, which in the past has made me unwilling to engage in conversations because I don’t understand every single nuanced subpoint of an issue. And I don’t think that should stop people? The person you’re talking to likely knows less than you do and has less concrete arguments than you would think.

  4. Extra points for references to both Susan Cain and Dumbledore!!

    I – when I take a step back – have been finding it fascinating to sort of watch my own fluctuating assertiveness in different situations. I definitely pick my battles; based on likely effectiveness and emotional drain etc. But I’m starting to realise that on some level I actually make the decision of whether or not I’m going to call out the issue, before I consciously consider it. And I’ve only noticed this, really, because my general level of assertiveness has changed with my living circumstances.

    In school etc, I used to take on the role of vocal defender, on behalf of various friends who asked me to address issues when they felt that their mental health would be at too great a risk if they faced bigots personally/alone. More recently, I’ve surprised myself by my lack of (outward) reaction towards racist, homophobic & otherwise bigoted persons in a residential college setting. I’d never intended to suddenly be less assertive, but it’s interesting. I’m wondering about factors: maybe because it’s residential it feels like I’d be less able to get away, or maybe I’m actually better motivated to speak for others/a group than just for myself. Maybe it’s because the comments have been less extreme than what I’m used to after my awful school…. Dunno. Still considering how I want to move on from here.

  5. Great question and great response. I find myself getting more assertive over time, although sometimes I’m just too tired to bother. One thing I will always call people out on is derogatory use of the word gay. So far I’ve only received apologies not arguments and I like to think the people would not repeat the offense, even if I’m not around.

    I agree with the comment about not using humour in these situations, it may seem easier to raise something in a funny way but can deflect the strength of the argument.

    I recommend ‘Year of Yes, by Shonda Rhimes – I found this book inspired in places. Plus she has a chapter called ‘Yes to No, Yes to Difficult Conversations’ which is very relevant to standing up for yourself.

  6. This is a constant struggle of mine too. This is great advice.

    How do you deal with friends and family thinking you’re being bitchy when you’re actually trying to be assertive? I feel like I have this reputation within my family that I’m crabby and unfun because I speak out when someone does or says something uncool. Also, I live in the Midwest, where everybody hates confrontation anyway, so it makes it extra hard.

  7. This is great advice – I think “that was rude” was a perfectly good response, too. When I want someone to stop some on obnoxious behavior, like a commenter above I usually don’t go for snappy. I try to channel like, “disappointed mom” or “tough teacher”.

    -“Why would you say something like that?”
    -“Wow. how would you feel if someone said that about you?”
    -“that was inappropriate”
    -“Please stop”
    -“I’m sure you didn’t mean that how it sounded”
    -“I don’t think that’s funny”

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