Assertiveness: why you might not be getting what you want

When we say ‘I can’t be bothered’, sometimes it’s because it’s easier than saying ‘I’m afraid’. Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Jade felt trapped in a kind of self-made prison.  She was aware that she wanted to make more friends, but she couldn’t bring herself to take the steps necessary to get them.  Every time she thought of joining a new social group or activity, she looked at websites, but things stopped there.  She didn’t do that extra step to commit to anything.  She experienced a kind of fear whenever she thought about doing it.  So she stayed where she was, feeling lonely, stuck in her own home.

Harry wanted a pay rise.  He had seen others at work get promotions and raises, but he was known as the predictable one, the one who would always turn up and do his job anyway.  He was terrified of damaging his position of trust in the company, and so he held back from expressing his dissatisfaction.  He just put his head down and got on with it.  Friends would tell him to push for more money, but when he thought of doing so, he experienced fear, and so he backed off.  Harry stayed in his job for twenty years.  Same salary, same terms, same everything.


Assertiveness is the ability to influence your surroundings, even if those surroundings don’t at first want to cooperate with you.

I admit, ‘surroundings’ is a funny word to use.  Why don’t I just say ‘the ability to influence people’?  The reason is that often it’s a good place to start, if you start on things rather than people.  For those with social anxiety, it can be extremely hard to go out and influence.  It can be better to start on manageable things.  Decorating the home, doing the garden, cooking… there are many, many activities which provide a passageway to assertiveness, without jumping in at the deep end.  Once confidence is built, social confidence can come more easily.

The critical difference, when you become more assertive, is that your world moves to suit your requirements, rather than you having to adapt all the time to suit your world.


Often your fear of making progress can disguise itself as laziness.  It’s much easier to say to yourself ‘I can’t be bothered’, than it is to say ‘I’m afraid’.  It’s very subtle.  We can drift to watching the TV, and then get into a boxed set.  We can drift into having another coffee, or browsing on social media.  We can tell ourselves we are just being lazy, but fear is often a better underlying explanation.

Here is one clue that this is happening…  Do you sometimes find that, when you try to start on a project, you suddenly become weirdly tired?  Or weirdly anxious?  Or weirdly confused?  Or even weirdly and suddenly depressed?  This is your system reacting to the new venture by trying to pull you back into old habits.  It’s not just laziness… it’s a kind of self-defence against the risk of action.


I can’t know what your world contains right at this moment.  But I can bet that it contains a number of things you’d like to get done.  For many of them, you are dependent on other people.  here is my suggestion for making a start.

  1. Identify one thing you would like to be different in your life.  It could be anything you like – a home improvement, an increase in income, a change in someone else’s behaviour, or even something very simple like a piece of tidying up, or a small change in your own daily routine.
  2. Write it down.  This makes you accountable for what you are saying to yourself.
  3. Then write down, in order, the first three actions you can think of… things which begin to make those actions happen.
  4. Start by doing the first thing on the list.
  5. If you can’t do that, break that first thing into smaller components.

This 5-stage process is designed to create momentum, forward-moving energy.  It’s difficult to make a start on things you’re unconsciously afraid of.  That’s why you haven’t made a start yet.  But hold yourself accountable, and see what movement you can begin to create.  You may be surprised.


Assertiveness is a necessary skill.  Lack of assertiveness can leave your life poorer, with a smaller social circle, and fewer resources.

Assertiveness does not have to be social.  Especially if you are shy or lack confidence, you can make a start on assertiveness by doing things rather than directly contacting people.  This can make it easier to move to social assertiveness later on.

Sometimes we say ‘I can’t be bothered right now’, and drift into alternative activities, like social media.  But underneath, we might be afraid of making a change.

To make a start, identify one thing you would like to be different in your life.  Find three things you can do to begin to make that happen, and make a start with the first thing on the list.

Good luck.