What is the difference in being assertive vs. being aggressive?

Posted by John Harrison on July 28, 2016 in Personal Growth 750 words.

being assertive vs. being aggressive

This article is part of the series identifying and challenging behaviors that are getting in the way of positive change.

Have you ever been told “you need to be more assertive?” But what does that mean? How do you know if in your attempt to be more assertive, you won’t be coming across to people as aggressive?

Being assertive is necessary to get what you want and need.  But if you’re worried about how you’ll come across to others, you’ll probably come across as passive. Well, that’s frustrating. The last thing you want to do is either piss people off or remain stuck in passivity.

So how can you know the difference between being assertive and being aggressive? How can you be more assertive and not worry that you’re being pushy or rude?


What is Being Aggressive?

Aggressive behavior implies that there is a winner and a loser dependent on that behavior. It’s a dynamic where the sole outcome and interest in the person being aggressive is to gain an advantage. At it’s worst aggressiveness has the intent to hurt, or dominate another person.  People who are being aggressive are simply “being assholes”.

People who display aggressive behavior:

  • Are inconsiderate to others, their feelings, and their space
  • Do not care about what happens to other people and only care about what they want
  • Do not consider the consequences of their actions
  • Feel that they are more deserving than anyone else
  • Do not listen to others when they are trying to communicate

Being aggressive is appropriate when:

  • you are playing sports
  • you are in combat
  • you are disarming someone trying to harm you
  • participating in an activity where “winning” is the main goal

Being aggressive is not appropriate when:

  • you are in a relationship or marriage
  • you are raising children
  • you are dealing with family and people you care about
  • you are in a “team” environment


What is Being Assertive?

Being assertive is pursuing what you want while respecting those people and circumstances around you and your actions.  Being assertive means that you recognize yourself as same as others.  Not better than, not less than.  When you are assertive you are not putting yourself out, nor are you putting anyone else out. Some examples of being assertive:

  • Ask for what you want
  • Don’t assume people know what you want
  • Hold people accountable for their actions
  • Establish clear boundaries in your relationship
  • Communicate your intentions clearly and with respect
  • Focus on your intent being from a place of consideration for yourself and others
  • Allow yourself to receive what you are asking for

People sitting

Why People Struggle with Being Assertive.

So why is there so much confusion with being assertive vs. being aggressive? Much of this has to do with what we learned at a young age.

  • We were taught to not offend other people even at the sake of our own needs
  • We were shamed into feeling selfish and rude when we asked for what we wanted
  • We learned that people will only like us when we didn’t hurt their feelings
  • We were taught that it was crucial that other people, and family members, shouldn’t be bothered with what we wanted
  • We played the “peacekeeper” or “fixer” role in our families where other people’s wants and needs were more important than ours


How to Be More Assertive.

See yourself as “important”

If you don’t see yourself as “important enough”, why should you expect to get what you need? Becoming fully aware that you are “same as” in comparison to everyone else is absolutely necessary. You are not “less than” anyone else and you are not “better than” anyone else.  Some people need to shed their roles as “fixers” and “peacekeepers”.

Be ok with other people not being ok.

When you are assertive, some people may not like the changes you are making.  Since shame is an important element in keeping people passive, people who do not like your assertiveness may try and shame you.  The truth is that you can’t make everybody happy and you can’t be responsible for their feelings.  That’s their job.

Trust yourself.

Trust your gut.  Most people who struggle with being assertive are worried that they will be seen as aggressive.  This is unlikely.  The fear that they will all of the sudden be this heartless and cruel person is an illusion.  Check your intent.  If you’re coming from a place of care, compassion, and integrity, you’re doing the right thing.  Value yourself.  Value what you want and need.  You deserve to take care of yourself.

About the Author

John Harrison

John Harrison is a licensed health counselor and coach. He works with individuals and couples to help them get unstuck. He helps empower them in getting what they want out of life and assists struggling souls done tolerating their old ways of navigating their world.


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