Assertiveness: Learn to Say No

Assertiveness: Learn to Say No

Often we find significant people in our lives coerce us into thinking the way they think. Sometimes we find we have difficulty in expressing our positive and negative feelings openly and honestly. And at other times we may find ourselves leashing out our anger on those who do not deserve it. These are very common problems arising out of lack of assertiveness. 

What is Assertiveness?

The ability to express oneself and one’s rights without violating another person’s rights is known as assertiveness. Assertiveness is direct, open and honest communication that is self-enhancing and expressive. Assertiveness allows us to feel self-confident and earn respect of our peers. It increases our chances of honest relationships and helps us feel better about ourselves and feel self-control in everyday situations. It not only improves our decision making abilities in everyday life but also our chances of getting what you want in life.

In The Wellness Workbook, Regina Ryan and John Travis define “assertiveness basically means the ability to express your thoughts and feelings in a way that clearly states your needs and keeps the lines of communication open with others.” Before you can comfortably express your needs assess if you have legitimate right to have those needs. Following are your rights:

  • The right to decide how to lead your life, set your own goals and priorities, and pursue your dreams. Sometimes we feel pressured by our family, friends and well-wishers and follow their dreams and forget that we have a right to our own ideas and dreams.


  • The right to your own values, beliefs, opinions, and emotions and take pride in them even if they are different from others. Often we are made to feel ashamed of our beliefs and our opinions, sometimes we feel guilty for our views but in our hearts we know we are not.


  • The right not to give explanations and justification to others for your feelings and actions. At times we are cornered and asked to explain our every action and feeling and even we feel we like a culprit but we don’t have to.


  • The right to clearly tell others how you wish to be treated. People mistreat us because we let them. We have a right to say, “Stop you are hurting me.”


  • The right to say “No,” “I don’t know,” “I don’t understand,” “I don’t want to give an answer that at this time,” “I need time to think.” You have a right to express yourself and take time to formulate your responses and ideas before you express them. You have a right not to be rushed into making decision.


  • The right to ask for information and help without feeling negatively about your self and needs. We grow up learning that to ask for help is a sign of weakness but to ask for information and help is a sign of maturity.


  • The right to be yourself and like yourself as you are even though you are not perfect and do make mistakes. Often our near and dear ones make us feel bad about ourselves because we do not fit in to their paradigm of perfection. But we have a right to feel good about ourselves without making others feel bad about them.


  • The right to be in positive and fulfilling relationships where you can honestly express yourself; if the relationships feel a drain of our emotions and energy then the right to end them without fear of repercussions.


  • The right to change your mind, change, enhance, or develop your life in anyway you determine.

 The unawareness about these rights forces us to react passively towards our life circumstances. When we allow the needs, opinions and judgments of others to become more important than our own, we are likely to feel hurt, anxious and angry. This passive and nonassertive behavior is often indirect, emotionally dishonest, self denying and self defeating.

Often we grow up learning that to assert ourselves and attending to our legitimate needs translates to being selfish. Legitimate needs are essential for our healthy survival like sufficient food, clothing and rest. Selfishness essentially means being only concerned with one’s own needs and rights and to have no regard for others. In our legitimate rights is implicit the legitimate rights of others as well.

Selfishness and Aggressiveness

 Selfishness is when one behaves in a manner where they claim their own rights and violate the rights of others. Such behaviors are destructive, aggressive as opposed to constructive and assertive behaviors.

Aggressiveness means that one expresses their rights but at the expense of another thus degrading and humiliating them. It is a forceful emotional expression where the rights of others are not allowed to surface. It usually breeds resentment as others become angry or vengeful against one’s intentions thus it can work against the aggressor and people can loose respect for them. If you are an aggressor then you feel self-righteous or superior at a particular time but after thinking things through, you may feel guilty latter.

 Assertiveness neither guarantees you happiness or fair treatment from others nor does it solve all your problems or guarantees that others will be assertive not aggressive. Asserting yourself may not get you what you want but it definitely its lack causes conflicts in relationships. 

How to be Assertive

Begin with being as specific and clear as possible about what you want, think, and feel. Here are some tips:

  •    “I want to…”
  •    “I don’t want you to…”
  •    “I have a different opinion. I think that…”
  •    “I have mixed reactions. I agree with X for X reasons. But I am disturbed about X or (what ever the other person said) for XYZ reasons.
  •   “Would you…?”
  •   It helps to explain exactly what you mean and what you don’t mean, such as “I don’t want to have a conflict over this. I’d like to talk this through and see if we can prevent it from happening again.”  


  • It pays to be direct. Deliver your message to the person for whom it is intended. If you want to tell Anita something, tell Anita: not her friends, colleagues, and everyone other than Anita. Often in desi contexts we are taught not to talk back to elders or be respectful to people in authority and those from conjugal family even if they are younger to us. In such circumstances often the aggrieved party usually a daughter-in-law keeps simmering about what her MIL or SIL have said to her and complaints to everyone other than her aggressors. This venting does not help in anyway as the root cause of the problem remains untouched. It will help if the DIL could be direct with her MIL and SIL.


  •  “Own” your Message. Acknowledge that your message is your own and it comes from your perspective and your frame of reference. Good or bad, right or wrong it is your perception. To make it clearer, personalize your message with “I” statements like, “I don’t agree with you” instead of “You are wrong.” State what you want accomplished such as, “I would like you to do X” instead of making blank statements like “it will be good if X happens.” Pushing someone to change even if it is for their own sake or telling them they are wrong or bad will only breed resentment and resistance instead of understanding and cooperation.  I remember one time an aunty who I respected a lot said something about a friend that I did not agree with but I kept quite because I did not want to upset her. I always knew I could have a different opinion but did not know how to assert it without offending others. Later I learned I could I have said “I do not agree with you and I do not want to be a part of this conversation.”


  •  Ask for feed back. “Am I being clear?” “Are we on the same page,” “What do you want to do?” Asking for feedback encourages the other person to understand that you are expressing your opinion and not making a demand. This also encourages them to be specific, clear and direct in their feedback to you.

 Learning to Become More Assertive and Say No without felling Guilty 

 Body Language:

  • Assertiveness is a skill you’ll have to practice it to be able spontaneously at right times. Assertiveness is not just a verbal skill your body language, gestures, facial expressions, voice tone and eye contact all have to complement it. It takes time and practice to master assertiveness, along the way you’ll have to accept you’ll make mistakes but it is okay you will still have to move forward towards your goal of acting assertively.

 Why I Wont to Say “No”:

  • It helps to identify the root cause of why you have difficulty saying “no” to someone. Often we think to say “yes” is the right thing to do but saying yes at your own expense where you suffer or latter regret loss of time and effort is not a right thing to do. Often people who ask us to do something are capable of doing it themselves, if you are aware of their abilities then you can suggest they are able to do it themselves. Where other people do not know how to accomplish a task you can suggest to show them how to do a task instead of finishing it for them. Most of all it helps to dig deeper in your conscience and see where the need for saying “yes” is coming from; such as, there is a hidden desire to please everyone, there are deep seated feelings of inferiority or low self esteem that one may want to quell by helping others and feel wanted or saying yes could be a way to feel important and indispensible. Once you identify this root and work on it it becomes easier to say “no.”


  • It helps if you have accepting relationships and supportive environment while you are still practicing how to be assertive but in real life this not the situation. People who understand your need to be assertive and care about you are your greatest assets.

 Quell the Desire to Revert Back:

  • Assertiveness means changing the way you have been behaving for a long time and asking others to make space for you. Initially when you’ll start asserting yourself you’ll observe those around you are acting up. They may call you names like, “you are selfish,” “you are mean” or “you have changed” and so on. At time even drama would ensue. It is normal if you are bothered by these remarks. They are sabotaging your attempts to deny them what they took for granted for a long time. Understand the reality and stick to the plan. If you submit to their demands you’ll be sending a contradictory message “she just says no for the sake of saying no, she doesn’t mean it and will ultimately do what we want her to just twist her arm a little.”

 Feeling Guilty:

  • In the beginning when you’ll say “no” to someone close to you, it is normal for you to feel guilty because you love them and you do not want them to be sad or denied of something. When I started practicing assertiveness and was learning how to say no I struggled with this over powering guilt all the time. Often the guilt was so over powering that I would run to them and say that “I just said that I didn’t mean it, I’ll do it.” Later I would regret and hate my self for reverting from my goal. The key is not to give up and start again from where you left.   

Practice with Consciousness:

  • One mistake is not the end. It takes consistent efforts to learn a new behavior. Every time you confront a situation where you have to say “no” to someone, pause for a moment, take a deep breath. Focus on what the other person is asking of you, listen intently. Then repeat it to them so that you both are on the same page and then use the scripts given in the previous subtopic “How to be assertive.” You have a right to negotiate. Sometimes it will be difficult to out rightly say a “no” in those circumstances it helps to negotiate and say “I’ll only do part X and part Y will not be my responsibility.” That way you’ll split the job and not feel bad about saying “yes” to the job. While I was practicing being assertive whenever I confronted a situation and I felt I was dying to say “yes” I would pinch my hand to make me realize not to go there. Over time I can say I am doing better.

 Practice with Consistency:  

  • In your alone time think about all the situation where you regretted saying no take a mental note of it or make notes. Assess the similarity of those situations and how often they were repeated. This will give you a clear picture about the trigger situations. Thereon, you can start practicing how you will address them in future. Standing in front of the mirror and speaking out aloud helped me. Some times I even wrote my dialogues and practiced them. I do make mistakes but I have not given up. Good Luck. 



Travis, John and Regina Ryan, The Wellness Workbook, Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 2004.

5 Responses to “Assertiveness: Learn to Say No”

  1. caty April 2, 2013 at p04 #

    Can you please also suggest as to how to not let in-laws and husband to control your life and avoiding any conflicts? How to deal with situations when in-laws try to impose their decisions on you?


  2. Anonymous June 11, 2012 at p06 #

    The articles on emotional abuse have been really helpful. I am the pleasing kind & well ….
    But my point is, how do I get out of a 10 year old relationship and 5.5 year old marriage, during which I have given up my chance at having a career and now feel helpless as to what I will do. I have extremely supportive parents and family, but the decision is mine. We are unable to have children because of a male factor infertility and I think it is adding to his psyche. I am confused !


    Welcome to GGTS, a safe space.
    Sorry the volume of emails just bogs DG down that GGTS comments have to take a slack.

    It is difficult to break a relationship and that too when it is sealed with marriage that said till death do us apart. The duration of the relationship and the investment emotional and otherwise (giving up career) make it harder to break free.
    Though you have tried everything in your power to make it work, guess you would have thought about adoption too and met with resistance and given upon the idea.
    There are skill building tools on the sidebar to help readers please use those to assess your situation and how to deal with it.

    DG provides individual support with skill building it is a paid service nominally charged to meet the costs of upkeep of time commitments. For that please contact her on gmail. In individual sessions a person unlearns non productive behavioral processes in order to learn new behaviors that will help them meet the goal they have set for themselves.

    Please share this message of hope with anyone who may benefit.
    Desi Girl


  3. seashell May 4, 2011 at p05 #

    Thank you for pointing me to this post. I found it very helpful. I have already started practicing some of the things that you menioned here but I still have a long way to go. The following statement made me think a lot:

    “◦The right to be in positive and fulfilling relationships where you can honestly express yourself; if the relationships feel a drain of our emotions and energy then the right to end them without fear of repercussions.”

    I can see how this rule applies to relationships that come later in life like a spouse or in-laws or friends however what if one is born into an emotionally abusive family? How can one end such relationships? It is draining to maintain them even at a superficial level but is it possible to end them? Actually, is it even a good choice to end them? Would love to hear your thoughts on this…


  4. Shruti April 25, 2011 at p04 #

    Dear Desi Girl,

    Thank you so much for this excellent post. You have explained it so nicely. I hope people learn from this and practice assertion. I have learnt a lot from this post and will definately practice it. After all learning and doing assertion is hard work and and requires a lot of practice.

    Welcome to GGTS, a safe space.
    Desi Girl is glad she could help.
    Please share this message of hope with anyone who may benefit.
    Desi Girl


  5. Broken DesiGirl November 20, 2010 at p11 #

    I am learning. I probably would have saved myself a lot of abuse if only I had know how to be assertive. Learning how to be assertive is part of growing up, standing up for what you believe in and becoming a mature individual.

    Thank you. Your blog have been a life saver.


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