Silent Epidemic: Lack of Assertiveness and Low Self-Esteem

GoodTherapy | Silent Epidemic: Lack of Assertiveness and Low Self-EsteemA common theme in my office lately has been difficulty with assertiveness. Whether it’s breaking off a relationship that’s no longer working, asking for a well-deserved raise, requesting an extension on a project, or setting healthy boundaries with others, many of the people I work with struggle with voicing their needs and advocating for their best interests.

The inability to speak up and ask for want we want often stems from a variety of subconscious fears and/or irrational belief systems. We may be afraid of making others mad or hurt, reluctant to put anyone else out, or terrified of appearing demanding or unreasonable. We tend to hold onto irrational belief systems that tell us we are responsible for the feelings of others. Thus, we avoid making requests that may create any form of discomfort or tension. Sometimes we hold deep-seated attitudes that the needs and wants of others are more important than our own. We ultimately wind up shutting down and remaining silent—in other words, being passive or non-assertive.

The problem with an inability to be assertive is that it often goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem. When we are unable to be assertive, we may set into motion a vicious cycle where feelings of unworthiness are reinforced, leaving us even less empowered to stand up and take proper care of our needs. When we are unable to be assertive, we send ourselves a subtle yet powerful message that we are not good or worthy enough. It’s a form of self-belittling that becomes a destructive habit over time. The portrayal of weakness, indecisiveness, or inhibition is also conveyed to others, leaving us more vulnerable to being depreciated or taken advantage of.

As we remain silent in various situations, we may also begin harboring feelings of frustration and anger, leading to a buildup of resentment that results in assertiveness being all the more difficult. Many people find themselves initially unable to speak up, but ultimately reaching a boiling point, after which they cross the line and wind up engaging in aggressive communication or behavior.

When we are able to speak up for ourselves, we set a tone of equality, honesty, and mutual respect. Acting assertively allows us to establish healthy boundaries with others and to improve our chances of fulfilling our needs and meeting our goals.

I tend to view assertiveness on a continuum, with healthy assertion being the middle ground and goal, and non-assertion and aggression being the two opposite-end extremes. Assertiveness training is an important part of the work I do in helping individuals to build self-esteem. One of the most useful and encouraging things to know is that assertiveness is a skill that can be learned, practiced, and improved upon. It is not necessarily an inherent personality trait. Rather, it takes a concentrated effort to develop it.

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In Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships (9th edition), Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons define assertive communication as “direct, firm, positive—and when necessary persistent—action intended to promote equality in person-to-person relationships.” They say “assertiveness enables us to act in our own best interests to stand up for ourselves without undue anxiety, to exercise personal rights without denying the rights of others, and to express our feelings honestly and comfortably.”

When we are able to speak up for ourselves, we set a tone of equality, honesty, and mutual respect. Acting assertively allows us to establish healthy boundaries with others and to improve our chances of fulfilling our needs and meeting our goals.

Most importantly, assertiveness helps us to build and maintain healthy self-esteem.

There are always going to be situations where certain assertive messages do not result in the end goal being achieved. You may not get the promotion, extension, appreciation, or respect you are asking for. There will always be challenging, difficult, or abusive people who refuse to embrace your assertiveness or fail to match your level of healthy communication. Don’t be discouraged. The fact you tried to advocate for your desires and needs sends a powerful message that you value and respect yourself enough to speak up.

Remember it does take effort and it may involve some work to challenge the irrational beliefs that stand in your way. But with practice and determination, you can become more assertive, build self-esteem, and experience a more rewarding quality of life.


Alberti, R. & Emmons, M. (2008). Your perfect right: Assertiveness and equality in your life and relationships (9th ed.). Atascadero, CA: Impact Publishers.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Luke

    November 3rd, 2016 at 11:45 AM

    My daddy taught me right. He always said that I was the only one that I could be counted on to stick up for myself. You might think that there is someone out there who has your back but when it comes right down to it, you are the only one that you KNOW for sure that you can always depend on. At the time when he would tell me that I thought what a cynic he was. But you know what? He was right, and I appreciate the lesson even though it has been a tough one to always remember.

  • Tammy

    November 5th, 2016 at 8:16 AM

    There are a lot of women that I know, I not being one of them, who are afraid of being assertive, that it is a turn off to men and therefore they hold that part of themselves back because all they are looking for is some man to take care of them.

  • Abigail

    November 7th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    The more that I see parents doing for their children the more I tend to think that this plays a huge role in this epidemic. The children do not have the confidence to do anything for themselves because they have not ever been given the opportunity to actually do it and try. We need to give our kids more chances to fail, help them see where their mistakes lie and then let them try again. This is where they develop a strong sense of s elf and they begin to have confidence in their own abilities without always having to look to the parents for a bail out.

  • bree

    November 7th, 2016 at 11:19 AM

    I don’t know, I think that there is actually a good bit of anger out there right now and people are not sure how to channel that.

  • Jessica

    November 8th, 2016 at 7:59 AM

    The biggest misconception that I see is that people confuse that assertiveness with anger. I don’t think that it is anger at all when you are simply doing what has to be done to stand up for yourself.
    I decided that I had to start doing this because honestly I think that people thought that they could walk all over me and take advantage of what I saw as kindness but they saw as naivete. I think that I probably lost some “friends” as a result, but I have just had to tell myself that these people are not really my friends if they were just in it to use me anyway.

  • jt

    November 8th, 2016 at 1:37 PM

    There is always going to be this fine line of how much of this you really so want to witness in someone. You feel like this line is arbitrary with any given situation so what might be appropriate for one might not be for the next. That is when things can get a little dicey and frustrating.

  • Judith R

    November 11th, 2016 at 11:33 AM

    You are so right. I hold so many things back that once I very much reach my tipping point then it does come off as mean and rude because I have just kept it all inside for way too long. I am sure that if I could let things out a little more easily then I probably wouldn’t struggle with these little mini explosions that I tend to have from time to time. But it always seems to be the path that I choose to take no matter how hard I try not to.

  • janice

    November 14th, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    Oh please
    surely I am not the only one who finds that this generation seems to feel like they are seriously entitled to always having everything go their way?
    I get a little tired of the dramatics

  • Tamara

    October 16th, 2017 at 1:00 PM

    Yes and no. Tons of young people definitely are to thin skinned and all to quick to blame others and point fingers. My ex did this all the time which means lose lose for both of us. I felt terrible because he blamed me for every feeling he had good or bad. Also though I agree with this article that speaking up in assertive is important skill. Especially for me at work, because sometimes I’m nervous to say my ideas even when I know they are the right idea

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