Assertion or aggression?

UNIVERSE WITHIN by Gwen Randall-Young

Portrait of Gwen Randall-Young
To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.
– Robert Louis Stevenson

Recently, a reader asked me how one finds a balance between being kind and nice and being assertive. It is an interesting question because it assumes one cannot be assertive and nice at the same time. Interesting too, as over the years I have worked with many people, especially women, who think that being assertive is harsh.

First, let’s clarify a couple of things. There is a big difference between being assertive and being aggressive. Aggression often comes as a result of holding things in and not being assertive early on, which causes frustration, resentment or anger to build. When one finally decides to assert, it comes out as aggression.

Another difference is that assertion is saying something about oneself: “I am not comfortable with this.” “I don’t want to be spoken to that way.” “I just can’t do what you are asking right now.” “I am not satisfied with the quality of this work.”

Aggression is an attack on the other person. “You’re so lazy.” “You never help with anything.” “You’re useless.” “You just don’t get it. “Why can’t you just get your act together!”

Those who are not comfortable with healthy assertion may feel that way because they have been pleasers. They go out of their way to accommodate others because that makes them feel liked and valued. Others may take advantage of this and become overly demanding or they may not reciprocate. Resentment may begin to build, but the pleaser is afraid to say “no” and won’t set boundaries for fear others will be upset or think less of them. This puts them in a real quandary, which happens when we are not being true to ourselves – when our gut says “no” but our mouth says “yes.” It can take courage to align our words and actions with our inner truth.

Being assertive is being kind to ourselves. It is also more honest because we are not pretending to be okay with something we don’t really feel good about. I would rather someone tell me “no” than say “yes” and then resent me for it.

Sometimes, we have to assert ourselves in a stronger way: “I will not stay in a relationship where I am being lied to.” “If we cannot resolve this ourselves, I will have no choice but to take legal action.” The listener may well not like what we are saying. Strong assertion may create conflict. That does not make us a bad person. I remember from Sunday school the story about Jesus knocking over the tables of the moneychangers. Was that nice or kind? No. He made a point because he knew reasoning would not work.

This is about having the courage of our convictions. It is about valuing ourselves enough to not allow anyone to abuse or mistreat us. We also have to be careful to not project our feelings onto others. If someone declines your invitation to go to a movie, telling them they are a bad friend or they are selfish is not being assertive. Others must also be free to assert themselves with us.

The balance comes in honouring our time and energy and being sure to take care of ourselves.

It is not about being nice; it is about being real.

Gwen Randall-Young is an author and psychotherapist in private practice. For articles and information about her books, “Deep Powerful Change” hypnosis CDs and “Creating Effective Relationships” series, visit

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