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All too often, people mistake the term “assertive” with the term “aggressive”.

In truth, these two behavioral styles could not be more different — and passive aggressiveness is a completely different behavior again. It’s important to understand your own behavioral style, as the way you express feelings of anger and frustration will have an enormous impact on your romantic partner or spouse, children, broader family, friends, colleagues, and more.

Your behavioral style influences the way you communicate, the way you process and respond to feedback, how you respond to positive and negative behavior in your relationships, how you parent, how you participate in social settings… and much, much more. Your communication style will impact and influence every facet of your life — so it’s very important to understand your behavioral tendencies, and learn how to assert yourself in dealing with others, without becoming outright aggressive- or passive-aggressive.

Let’s Use An Example

Imagine that you’re meeting your friend for a nice lunch. The plans were made over a week ago. You got dressed and ready for a nice day out, and arrived at the restaurant five minutes early, excited to see your friend. You wait and wait — until you receive a text from your friend at one forty-five, saying that they won’t be able to make it after all, with no apology. 

An aggressive person might shout at their friend, calling them selfish and rude before telling them to never bother making plans again.

A passive-aggressive person might text their friend and say “It’s fine” — but then ignore their calls and texts for weeks afterward to “punish” them for cancelling.

An assertive person might explain to their friend that they’re disappointed they didn’t contact them earlier, and that they would appreciate an apology because they felt rejected. 

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Aggression vs. Passive-Aggression

Often, passive-aggression stems from the belief that things will get worse if they tell someone how they truly feel. The passive-aggressor will devise all sorts of plans and strategies to “get back” at the offender, who often doesn’t fully understand or even realize that they are on the receiving end of such behavior. Someone who is passive aggressive will express their feelings indirectly, usually by withdrawing from conversations or limiting their participation (often using single-word responses such as “fine” or “whatever”), sulking and procrastinating, intentionally delaying or confusing plans, not putting in effort, spreading rumors, and complaining to everyone except the person who upset them.

Outright aggression is far easier to identify. The aggressor appears to “lose control” of their anger, which can then present in unhealthy and destructive ways. While the aggressor usually feels remorse or regret after an outburst, the behavior itself can be quite confronting for the person on the receiving end. Someone who is aggressive may resort to yelling, name-calling, or physical violence (toward other people or objects, such as throwing something across the room, or slamming doors). Aggressive behavior is usually intentional and is meant to harm someone, either psychologically or physically. 

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Assertiveness is Very Different From Aggression and Passive-Aggression

An assertive person is usually highly emotionally intelligent, and doesn’t seek to “pay people back” or cause hurt or harm. An assertive person understands how to express their anger in healthy, direct, constructive and honest ways. Assertiveness is, in many ways, about coming to accept anger as part of the human condition — and becoming accountable for it — rather than using anger as a means or excuse to hurt someone, or something, else. An assertive person can identify anger, articulate how and why they feel angry, and offer constructive feedback or a path forward without damaging their relationships

The next time you feel angry with someone, try these five simple tips for expressing your feelings in an assertive, constructive way — rather than an aggressive or passive-aggressive way.

Focus on you and how you’re feeling.

Use ‘I’ statements (“I’m upset because…” “I’m feeling confused by…” “I don’t understand how…”) rather than ‘You’ statements (“You never…” “You’re always…” “Why can’t you…”)

Say “No” more often.

Don’t place yourself in a position that might create feelings of resentment or anger. If you don’t want to do something or go somewhere, practice saying “No thank you.” 

Have a dress rehearsal.

Practice what you want to say to the person who made you feel angry. You might even like to write down some bullet points to help you keep focused and on-topic.

Be mindful of your body language.

Try to keep your legs and arms unfolded, your hands soft and unclenched, and to maintain steady eye contact during the discussion. 

Keep your emotions in check.

If you feel as though you’re going to lose control and become angry, take three deep breaths and shelve the conversation for another time.

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In addition to relationship therapy for one, Our Sacramento area counseling clinics located in Roseville and Fair Oaks, CA are pleased to offer a variety of mental health services. Our couples services include: Couples Counseling, Counseling after infidelity, sex therapy, co-parent counseling, family therapy, divorce counseling, intensive couples retreats, and premarital counseling. Our individual therapy services include anxiety treatment, therapy for children, teen therapy, depression treatment, codependency counseling and individual relationship counseling. Our therapists offer online counseling in California to treat a variety of mental health concerns. Please reach out to our Sacramento area therapy office to learn more about the many ways we can help you or your loved ones.