by Andrew Lawless, John Quinn, Sue Wilcox

The barriers to assertiveness

Despite people’s desire to be assertive, many do not change their behaviour. Assertiveness eludes them.

So what is stopping them being assertive?

Some people simply don’t know what to do in order to be assertive. They have never had good role models, so the barrier is simply lack of knowledge as to how to behave. If this is the case, read through the What is assertiveness? page first, so you understand what assertiveness actually is, and then do the ‘Model an expert’ exercise.

The other main barrier is fear or anxiety over what might happen or how people may see them if they do behave assertively.


Given a situation where your rights are being ignored or you want something, think how an assertive person would behave. If that seems scary, think of a less threatening situation. Rehearse in your mind what you would do or say, and how you would expect the other person to react.

As you do this, notice how you feel; notice where the resistance is inside you to these assertive behaviours.

This will start giving you clues as to which limiting beliefs are at play.

  • Where did this belief come from?
  • Does it still make any sense now that you are an adult?
  • Think of counter-examples in your life or in others’ lives where this belief is clearly not true.
  • What benefits does this belief get for you?
  • Contrast these with the benefits a more empowering belief would get you.
  • What could you do to test the validity of your belief?
  • Consider what will happen or how you will feel if you let this particular situation continue.

Now take what you have learned from this thought exercise out into the real world and test it.

Replacing limiting beliefs

All behaviour is driven by our beliefs, either conscious or unconscious, so a lack of assertiveness is down to beliefs that limit our ability to behave assertively. These limiting beliefs could be about something bad that will happen and so cause fear, or they may stem from rules we have developed as we grew up.

Key point

The key to assertiveness is to replace limiting beliefs with more empowering ones.

This is typically a gradual process, leading eventually to better results. There is more on this kind of approach in the Coaching Yourself topic. Engaging with a business or life coach can accelerate the process of change.

Working on beliefs relating to assertiveness, even by just reading through this topic, will automatically start to change behaviours. This leads to looking for different things, as a result of which your perception of what is going on during interpersonal interactions will also change.

Be curious. Try something a little bit different and notice what happens.

The key here is recognising the need to change first, and then working on whatever barriers are stopping natural assertion. Understanding the reason will help deal with the cause and go a long way to eliminating the symptom.

Step by step

Full assertiveness won’t all come at once. Cutting the issue down into a series of smaller parts will make it feel less of a hurdle to overcome. Recognise each small improvement and notice how other people start to change the way they respond as change occurs. An artist will probably start a new project by doing a pencil sketch first, then adding more detail, and finally beginning the actual painting. It is unlikely that he/she would go straight to the painting stage.

He who trims himself to suit everyone will soon whittle himself away.

Raymond Hull

The following is a list of some of the fears people have that prevent them from being assertive. Consider which seem to fit you and which don’t.

The fear of being...

  • Rejected
  • Criticised
  • Considered unfeminine/not masculine enough
  • Considered emotional
  • Being seen as pushy
  • Considered uptight/under pressure (stressed out)
  • Misunderstood
  • Taken advantage of.

Likewise, some people place demands on themselves. Which ones reflect you?

Some people will like me and some won’t. So I might as well be myself, and then at least I’ll know that the people who like me, like me.

Hugh Prather

The need to...

  • Be nice
  • Avoid conflict
  • Be self-effacing
  • Be liked
  • Be feminine/masculine
  • Keep a stiff upper lip.

And the desire not to...

  • Be selfish
  • Hurt others
  • Seem vulnerable
  • Show anger
  • Show liking
  • Have your own wants
  • Make the first move
  • Make a mistake
  • Admit a mistake
  • Take a risk
  • Ask for what you want
  • Put others under pressure.

Now consider Some practical approaches and techniques that can be used to overome these barriers.

See also the NLP topic on Beliefs.