Unlearning Cowardice: Assertiveness and Mental Health

For the last 5 to 8 years, there has been a growing interest in stress management, therapy, counselling, and assertiveness. As Nigerians, we are becoming more aware of self-help and we are now conscious of how stress actually affects our health, work and productivity.

This is a welcomed move because it will see more and more people taking charge of their lives in a positive way. It will also reduce the number of people who suffer in silence and won’t seek help because they feel it is a taboo or a show of weakness. Fortunately, a good number of doctors are beginning to hold trainings to help treat cases. The darkness that shrouded mental health or illness is beginning to dissolve and people are learning to do things differently.

In this article, we will be looking at how a focus on ‘assertiveness’ can help boost self-confidence and accelerate the work being done on mental health.

This is important because assertiveness has become respectable in recent years. More people now realise that it is not about ruthlessly getting what you want. That it is more about staying true to yourself, and allowing for compromise only when it is necessary.

A significant percentage of a person’s career and personal problems are directly related to that person’s self-esteem. Consequently the focus of recent research and trainings has been to assist others to better understand who they are, and to provide them with the skills to deal more effectively with themselves and with the people around them.

The aim of assertiveness is to demonstrate that change is possible. All these holding onto traditions, conventions and norms may be doing us more harm than good. So it is rooted in learning theory which claims that all behaviour is learned. We can unlearn behaviours which is no longer useful for us and relearn more effective behaviour. In essence, we can do away with traditions that are toxic.

Assertive communication is the art of clear, honest and direct expression of feelings; whether positive or negative. In this part of the world, we are trained to express ourselves only when our intentions are positive. The aim, usually, is to avoid offending other people. This should never be so.

People with good self-esteem handle situations with confidence and authority, while people with low self-esteem will either say nothing and feel bad or become aggressive and also end up feeling bad. Assertiveness is learning how to avoid being taken advantage of by others and to avoid punishing others as well.

Happy African Children

Truth is, when our self-esteem is low we often do things to please people to win their approval. We forget that we have rights. Some of the rights are:

  • I have the right to have and express opinions, views and ideas which may or may not be different from other people’s.
  • I have the right to refuse a request (say no) without feeling guilty or selfish.
  • I have the right to be treated with respect as an intelligent, capable and equal human being.

If we don’t believe we have rights we often behave badly. If we feel we have the right 
to say “NO” it stops us from saying “YES” and then end up letting people down because
 we never intended doing what they asked in the first place. When we realise that we have 
rights it can often be the first and a very positive step towards building good self-esteem.

Read also: The Conceptions and Misconceptions of Mental Health

Assertive behaviour involves a genuine respect for self, family, employees and colleagues. And self-esteem is anchored deeply within and is not dependent on the approval of other people.

There is no need to put others down (be aggressive), and there is also no need to put others on a pedestal (be passive), because an assertive person sees themselves as equal – not superior, not inferior, but equal.

I encourage people to drop the self-critical/judgemental voices and concentrate on building up their self-esteem enabling them to handle their lives more effectively.

If we continue to distrust our emotions, be over-dependent on approval from others, hide or belittle our abilities, suppress feelings of anger in favour of compassion, our mental health will suffer.

When we pay attention to ourselves; recognise our uniqueness; congratulate and reward ourselves; challenge ourselves; and act as if we really count, take responsibility for our actions and behaviours, we become mentally and physically healthy.

Source: Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Pyschotherapy