You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Clear is kind.” This idiom exists for a reason. Most people appreciate when others state their needs, expectations, and opinions in a clear and assertive way. To people-pleasers, however, direct communication can feel terrifying. This is because people pleasers are so used to passive communication that assertive communication feels aggressive.
As a therapist for anxious millennials, I help recovering people-pleasers learn how to advocate for themselves and what they truly want. We do this by working through how to set boundaries, foster self-compassion, work through scary feelings, and communicate in a clearer and more assertive way. Learning how to balance people-pleasing and assertive communication is often the most difficult task my clients are faced with. It’s also one of the most important. Here’s why – and tips for how you can start being more assertive in your own life.
First of all, what are passive, assertive, and aggressive communication styles, and how do they differ?
Passive communication is when you avoid saying what you truly think and feel. If you find yourself frequently “beating around the bush” in order to get a point across, you’re probably a passive communicator. Usually this style of communication comes from extreme discomfort around authentic self-expression. It can look like:
If you’re a people-pleaser, you probably use passive communication a lot. It can feel like a thoughtful or gentle way to communicate with people and avoid conflict. However, in reality, it often leads to confusion and problems in the future. It can result in feeling anxious and exhausted around other people, because you’re constantly trying to say what you think they want to hear. Ironically, if you bend over backwards in an attempt to avoid other people’s rejection or judgment, you’re more likely to have fewer authentic and loving relationships.
Assertive communication helps you advocate for your needs, express yourself, and maintain a respectful attitude in the process. Mutual respect is a hallmark of assertive communication. This style of communication tends to lower stress and anxiety levels and improve mental health in the long term. It can look like:
This style of communication often puts others at ease because they know what to expect from you and they understand what their role is in their relationship with you. However, it can feel scary for recovering people-pleasers because they’re used to passive, indirect communication.
Aggressive communication is a way of communicating that belittles, bullies, or degrades others. It can look like:
Very few people respond well to aggressive communication. It makes everyone feel shitty, erodes trust, and leaves no room for mutual respect. Many people-pleasers assume that being more assertive will come off as aggressive. They mistake clear and direct language for being mean or rude. However, assertive and aggressive communication are not the same. Someone using aggressive communication doesn’t state their needs clearly and directly. Instead, they actively belittle or bully others to get what they want.
People-pleasers forego their own needs in favor of someone else’s comfort. They’re afraid that if they tell someone how they really feel, they’ll be rejected. So instead, they often skirt around hard conversations or dilute important issues because they’re worried others will become angry with them. At the root of most people-pleasing is a deep fear of abandonment and an even deeper fear of not being able to handle negative emotions.
When you practice assertive communication, you begin to learn that…
People who practice assertive communication have healthier relationships, higher self-esteem, and less depression and anxiety. Plus, they start to engage in relationships that allow them to authentically honor and express their true selves. What could be better than that?
Here are six ways to work toward assertive communication when you’re a recovering people-pleaser.
In order to change your communication style, you have to first develop self-awareness of your current communication style. Check in with yourself during moments of discomfort. Start to notice when you don’t speak up. What does it feel like in your body? What do you wish you could say in these moments? What are you afraid of?
Start by practicing assertive communication with a trusted friend or loved one. You may even want to tell them what you’re doing so they can be on your team and encourage you. Then, when you need to speak up in scarier situations (like at work or with someone you don’t know well), you already have some experience under your belt.
If you know you need to have a challenging conversation with someone, rehearse what you want to say beforehand. Your nervous system is likely to go haywire when you’re actually in a difficult conversation, and this can make it extremely difficult to remember the things you want to express. It can help to write yourself a script with all the key points you want to get across, and to practice until you’re more comfortable. Or you can record yourself and listen back to see if you sound the way you want to. You can also ask someone you trust to let you practice on them.
Be mindful of opportunities to speak up in the moment. You can take small steps to anchor yourself in your present conversation, such as taking slow deep breaths or making a point to maintain eye contact. If you have a chance to voice your opinion or speak up for yourself, however small, do it. Don’t worry about looking or sounding perfect – stumble through it if you have to.
Don’t be afraid to speak up or tell someone they hurt your feelings after a conversation has ended. It’s totally okay to reference back to an earlier conversation you had with someone and say something like, “Hey, you know how we were talking about xyz the other day? Well, I’ve had some time to process and I actually think _____.” Or, “The conversation we had the other day where you called me lazy really hurt my feelings. Please don’t use that language in the future.”
Assertive communication is so difficult for people-pleasers because it brings up a lot of scary emotions. For most people, it’s easier to continue being passive in order to avoid the initial hard feelings. But by learning to tolerate difficult feelings like guilt, distress, and uncertainty, you teach yourself that you can get through tough situations. As you become more uncomfortable for those feelings, you lay the foundation for more loving and authentic connection with yourself and others.
Learning how to communicate assertively after a life time of passive communication is hard. If you’d like support, I’m here to help.
People-pleasing and communication don’t have to make your life hell. Together, we can help you figure out ways to advocate for yourself, ground your nervous system, tolerate difficult emotions that arise during difficult conversations, and learn how to be your most authentic self.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.