Q: “I have a good friend. I’ll call her Jamie, but it’s not her real name. At least I always thought she was my good friend when we were in high school. Now we’re in college and I’m either seeing a side of her I never saw before, or she’s changed. Jamie does things I don’t respect. Examples: One time we went to the bank together. There were two lines. The other line was really slow, and when it was Jamie’s turn, I saw that the woman in the other line had been waiting before us. I motioned to Jamie to let the woman go ahead of us, but Jamie just shook her head and went next. She does all kinds of things like that. She takes parking spaces that other drivers have been waiting for, takes a cart load of groceries through the 12-or-less line, and the other day she parked in a handicapped-only spot. When I try to point out to her that these acts seem inconsiderate and bother me, she says she’s just being assertive. She says I should be assertive, too. Are the things I described assertive?” -Pat
A: Pat, what you described here is not assertive on your friend’s part. Let me give you definitions of THREE ways of being:
1. Being non-assertive means to deny our own rights by failing to express our honest feelings, and by failing to express our needs, opinions, and preferences. Non-assertive behavior is emotionally inhibited.
2. Being aggressive means to violate the rights of others while trying to serve our own needs. Aggressive behavior may achieve a desired goal, but always at the expense of others. Aggressive behavior is emotionally negative or dishonest.
3. Being assertive means standing up for our own rights in a way that does not violate the rights of others in the process. Assertion means the honest expression of our own opinions, feelings, and wants. Assertive behavior may be forceful or sedate, but it is always honest and self-affirming. Assertive behavior is emotionally expressive and honest. It is behavior respectful both of ourselves and of the persons we deal with.
I think you can see from these definitions that Jamie’s behavior, as you have described it, is aggressive and not at all assertive. Aggression is not just assertiveness in high gear. It is a different kind of behavior altogether. Perhaps your friend will eventually learn how to stand up for her rights and to be self-affirming while still being considerate of others. Assertive behavior is a combination of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, and it can be learned.
Michael R. Slavit, Ph.D., ABPP, is Board Certified in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. This column is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified professional.