ASSERTION and stress

December 17, 2019
Emotional Wellbeing

We all know that communication is a crucial skill. Still, for many it becomes an even more delicate issue when it comes to communicating emotions and feelings. Christmas is right around the corner and we are all looking forward to spending time with our loved ones and hopefully having real talks, talks about more than just Christmas meals, the weather and politics. We want to talk about us, and better understand others, our family and friends. Similarly, during this time of reflection and resolutions for the year to come, “doing better at work” might be a wish for many; and while we all may agree that  better communication is a key for success in any workplace, that “emotional communication” and assertiveness can still be challenging.

Assertiveness is the capacity to communicate and express our feelings and emotions in an honest and respectful way, without being aggressive or manipulative.

It is an important skill in all circumstances of our life, for our personal relationships and also at our workplace, especially when we have to deal with stressful situations.

But when it comes to expressing our emotions, we are not all equal: some people are naturally assertive, while others struggle with identifying their emotions and/or communicating them in an adequate manner.

The fundamentals of assertiveness are:

  • saying ‘NO’ when needed (refusing unreasonable requests from others)
  • expressing emotions and feelings in an honest and respectful manner, whether they are positive or negative emotions like i.e. tenderness, affection, dissatisfaction or anger
  • standing up for your point of view, while respecting the point of view of others

These 3 ideas seem obvious and easy to put into practice, but it is sometimes challenging to find not only the courage and inspiration to apply them, but also the right dosage, especially when it comes to expressing emotions. Can assertiveness give way to aggressivity? It shouldn’t, as even though we can express our feelings in an aggressive manner, this is not what we aim for and there is a clear distinction between the two. In the 1970s, researchers (Mathieu and then Wolpe), had already grouped the expression of feelings into 3 poles:

  • obedience - too little expression (a non-adaptive behaviour), at one pole
  • aggressivity - too much/inadequate expression (a non-adaptive behaviour) at the opposite pole
  • assertiveness - the honest and respectful expression of various feelings, legitimate refusals, etc. (an adaptive behaviour) - in the middle

Verbal communication is not everything, it needs to be supported by our body language and attitude (with these being coherent with what we are saying). For example, someone can try to be  ‘politically correct’ and use a polite and neutral verbal message, but at the same time adopt an aggressive voice, tone, and posture (passive-aggressive behaviour).

Of course, we don’t express our feelings in the same way when we’re talking to a stranger, to our boss, or to our closest friend - assertiveness depends on context.

Getting better at expressing our emotions is a process that usually takes time, and sometimes you might need professional help, especially if you’re experiencing social phobia, anxiety, stress, depression, addictions, aggressive behaviour, etc.

Identifying, accepting and expressing our emotions and feelings, acknowledging their existence, it is a powerful reminder of our identity as an individual. It allows us to better know ourselves and have more empathy for others. Overall, having a sense of emotional comfort and intelligence will help us to better manage modern stress and have better relationships (both personal and work relationships).

To read more:

Assertion et habiletés sociales by Mathieu, M. et al. (In R. Ladouceur, M. A. Bouchard, & L. Granger (Eds.),Principes et applications des therapies behaviorales. St- Hyacinthe, Quebec: Edisem, et Paris: Maloine, 1977)

Expressing emotion: myths, realities and therapeutic strategies by  Kennedy-Moore, E., & Watson, J. C. (2001)

Les mécanismes de défense, by Serban Ionescu (2016)

Emotional Intelligence for a better life, better at work and happier relationships by Brandon Colleman (2019)