Setting and maintaining boundaries is an essential part of so many areas of your life: dealing with toxic friends, navigating your relationship with your family (or in-laws), and at work whether you are freelancing, working from home, or in a corporate setting. Boundaries help ensure that your relationships are healthy and respectful in all of these areas of your life.
One important skill to use when you are focusing on setting boundaries is being assertive. This is not only important for helping you to be clear about the boundaries you are choosing to set, but it is also very useful when you experience any pushback from others about those boundaries. In other words, assertiveness is a skill that facilitates effectively setting and holding boundaries — it is an essential ingredient.
Unfortunately, the benefits of being assertive are often outweighed by some of the misconceptions surrounding it, which confuse being assertive with being aggressive or mean. And it’s safe to say that most of us do not want to come across as aggressive or mean to our friends, coworkers, family, and significant others. No one enjoys being around someone who bulldozes over everyone else’s needs and opinions — you probably know someone like that already, and you also probably avoid them at all costs. But confusing assertiveness with aggressiveness means you miss out on the benefits of being more assertive in your life.
So what exactly is assertiveness if it isn’t aggressiveness? It’s helpful to think of it as the happy medium between being passive and being aggressive. When someone is passive, they let the needs and opinions of others overrule theirs and they often neglect to verbalize or advocate for themselves. In its extreme forms, it’s sort of like being a human doormat.
Aggressiveness lies on the other end of the scale and is the opposite of being passive. An aggressive person prioritizes their needs and opinions over others and does not factor in the needs of others. They are more like a human bulldozer.
An assertive person, on the other hand, is not afraid to advocate for themselves and verbalize their own needs while also respecting and affirming the needs of others. They are more like a human balance beam or seesaw.
Being assertive is neither letting people walk all over you nor bulldozing over people in your life. At its core, assertiveness is respecting your needs and the needs of others. To connect this idea to setting boundaries, assertiveness helps you communicate a request that the other person respect your needs and emotions.
When you want to assertively communicate a boundary you are setting, it can be helpful to think about why setting this particular boundary is important to you. For example, maybe a friend frequently cancels their plans with you and you are sick of making space in your busy schedule only to have your friend cancel — again. In this situation, you might want to set a boundary of only making a certain type of plan with your friend (e.g. making spur of the moment plans if you both happen to be free instead of blocking out time on your calendar a few weeks ahead). That kind of a plan might spare you the constant disappointment of making plans only to have them fall through. Or you might want to let your friend know how you feel when they cancel plans and suggest that the two of you take a break from making plans for a few months. In this example, you are setting a boundary because your friend isn’t respecting your time or your friendship.
Identifying the reason why being assertive and setting the boundary is important to you helps you to figure out what you want to say. Since being assertive is about respecting your own needs and communicating them to others, focus on stating the boundary you need to set in a clear but respectful way. While it’s tempting to try to “soften the blow” by sandwiching your assertive statement with qualifying statements, that strategy will only distract from the message you are trying to communicate. Being clear yet respectful is ideal and more effective.
Here are some examples of things you could say to be assertive in a clear yet respectful way:
- I don’t have time in my schedule for that, but thank you for asking me.
- I am not comfortable with that approach, but what if we try XYZ instead?
- This isn’t working for me anymore, and I will have to take a break from this relationship.
- I would appreciate it if you could send a quick text before you stop by. That way I can let you know whether or not it is a good time to come over.
- When is a good time to schedule a meeting with you? I have some ideas I’d like to share that I think may benefit the company.
- I understand that this is something you’d like to discuss with me, but now is not a good time. Perhaps we can find a different time to discuss it?
- When you cancel plans at the last minute, I feel like I am very low priority. I think we should find a different way to spend time together.