How Can I Be More Assertive When I Have Social Anxiety?

The Weird Way My Anxiety Led Me To Being More Assertive In My Everyday Life

How Can I Be More Assertive When I Have Social Anxiety?

One of the hardest things I've faced in my life was overcoming social anxiety. Often, I knew how I'd my life to be different, and I recognized how I'd behave in a world where I had unlimited confidence. Some part of me knew what to do, but anxiety stopped me from doing it.

Getting past that anxiety and starting to develop true inner confidence and self-acceptance was tough.

And not just tough as in the way our society views hard work, but tough in the way that only comes from challenging the core of how you view yourself as a person.

Tough doesn't even begin to describe the obstacle of challenging all your assumptions about how you were raised, who you are now and, essentially, what it means to be you.

When I look back at my own development of assertiveness skills, I was initially operating with some subconscious scripts in my head that held me back.

During moments of self-realization, I could tell that I was more motivated by avoiding pain than I was motivated by going after rewards. To some extent, all of us are averse to risk in this way; universally, losing $20 hurts more than the joy we get from gaining $20.

But while this risk aversion exists deep within human behavior, some people are more in favor of taking action toward the things they want, while others focus on what could go wrong.

I fall into the latter category.

It's the same idea of playing not to lose versus playing to win, and when you fall firmly into one camp, you have to overcome a ton of friction to behave someone in the other camp.

So where does this come from? There's some scientific evidence that suggests we have a biological predisposition to be one way or the other. And our childhoods also play a role.

A lot of us grow up not feeling we have a legitimate right to put our needs before others.

Instead of asking for what we want in a healthy, assertive way, we learn there's less friction when we put the needs of others above ours.

We walk on eggshells to avoid conflict, and sometimes, it's not even avoiding something as strong as conflict. It can look avoiding any kind of uncomfortable interpersonal situation.

Only partially aware of these ideas, I took baby steps to push myself my comfort zone. I purposely put myself in uncomfortable situations. I embarrassed the hell myself, as inner confidence teaches you to do when you're improving your dating life.

When you follow the right process and learn from the right mentors, progress happens.

You don't always see it during the tough times, but progress is inevitable when you prioritize taking action over everything else.

Things have gotten better for me, and I couldn't be more grateful to be able to say that social anxiety will never hold me back in life the way it used to when I was in my late teens and early 20s.

And I'll be clear: The goal isn't to eradicate your feelings of anxiety. The goal is to transform your relationship with anxiety. Top performers don't worry about anxiety, even though they feel it just the rest of us. They just view it differently. Athletes get “in the zone.” Public speakers talk about being energized by their audience.

Anyone who tells you he or she doesn't feel fear is full of sh*t. Because that's the thing about negative emotions: We feel them the most strongly in the areas of life for which we care the most deeply.

If I didn't care about having close personal relationships then I would never feel approach anxiety.

If I didn't care about getting along with others, then I would never feel uncomfortable when I have to assert myself and say things others might not .

So what script do I have now in my mind that I didn't have before? It's one idea:

You have a right not to justify yourself to anyone

I'll say it another way: You have a legitimate right to show the world who you are.

Your needs are valid. Your needs, preferences and desires are all equally important to everyone else's wishes. We're so often taught that it's selfish to express our desires, and as a result, we become passive.

The idea that it's selfish to express our desires is bullsh*t. There's nothing selfish about fully expressing yourself. And if you're not violating the rights of others, there is nothing wrong with showing others who you are fully. Ever.

Your survival depends on you speaking up for what you want

That means going up to that person you think is cute, and letting him or her know how you feel. That means telling your boss what you're worth as an employee and tactfully negotiating for the salary you deserve. That means setting limits and enforcing boundaries with people in your life.

The antidote to feeling you have to justify yourself to the world is a healthy sense of assertiveness. Assertiveness is about asking for what you want in a way that respects your relationships with others, maintains your self-respect and is neither passive nor aggressive. Building assertiveness requires changing your thinking and developing new actions.

Reading posts this and examining your thoughts are two crucial steps for getting the ball rolling, but alone, they're not enough. They MUST be followed by consistent action. Especially in this domain of life, that action is uncomfortable as hell for guys who were taught to be passive.

Being human means that you have values, desires and goals, and yes, that you need things from other people. You do not ever have to apologize for your existence, or justify why you want something.

All you have to do is pursue your values wholeheartedly, and don't ever let your subconscious scripts get in the way of building and expressing your confidence to the world.


Effective Communication — Improving your Social Skills

How Can I Be More Assertive When I Have Social Anxiety?

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of avoiding social situations is that you never have the opportunity to:

  • Build up your confidence interacting with others
  • Develop strong communication skills that would increase the chance for successful relationships

For example, if you are afraid of going to parties or asking someone out on a date, your lack of experience and/or low confidence will make it even MORE difficult to know how to handle these situations ( what to wear, what to say, etc.). Often, people have the necessary skills but lack the confidence to use them. Either way, practice will increase your confidence and improve your communication skills.

Why Are Communication Skills Important?

Communication skills are the key to developing (and keeping) friendships and to building a strong social support network. They also help you take care of your own needs, while being respectful of the needs of others. People aren’t born with good communication skills; any other skill, they are learned through trial and error and repeated practice.

3 areas of communication that you may want to practice are:

  • Non-verbal communication
  • Conversation skills
  • Assertiveness

Note: Of course, there are many aspects to effective communication and you may want more specific help in certain areas (e.g. learning how to deal with conflict, presentation skills, giving feedback, etc.). For more specific help, please see the “Recommended Readings” list at the end of this module.

Non-Verbal Communication

A large part of what we communicate to each other is nonverbal. What you say to people with your eyes or your body language is just as powerful as what you say with words.

When you feel anxious, you might behave in ways that are designed to avoid communicating with others. For example, you may avoid eye contact or speak very softly. In other words, you are trying not to communicate, ly to avoid being judged negatively by others.

However, your body language and tone of voice does communicate powerful messages to others about your:

  • Emotional state (e.g. impatience, fear)
  • Attitude towards the listener (e.g. submissiveness, contempt)
  • Knowledge of the topic
  • Honesty (do you have a secret agenda?)

Thus, if you are avoiding eye contact, standing far away from others, and speaking quietly, you are ly communicating, “Stay away from me!” or “Don’t talk to me!” Chances are, this is not the message that you want to send.

Conversation Skills

One of the biggest challenges for someone with social anxiety is starting conversations and keeping them going. It is normal to struggle a bit when you are trying to make small talk, because it is not always easy to think of things to say. This is especially true when feeling anxious. On the other hand, some anxious people talk too much, which can have a negative impression on others.


Assertive communication is the honest expression of one’s own needs, wants and feelings, while respecting those of the other person. When you communicate assertively, your manner is non-threatening and non-judgmental, and you take responsibility for your own actions.

If you are socially anxious, you may have some difficulty expressing your thoughts and feelings openly. Assertiveness skills can be difficult to learn, especially since being assertive can mean holding yourself back from the way you would normally do things.

For example, you may be afraid of conflict, always go along with the crowd, and avoid offering your opinions. As a result, you may have developed a passive communication style.

Alternatively, you may aim to control and dominate others and have developed an aggressive communication style.

However, an assertive communication style brings many benefits. For example, it can help you to relate to others more genuinely, with less anxiety and resentment. It also gives you more control over your life, and reduces feelings of helplessness. Furthermore, it allows OTHER people the right to live their lives.

Myth #1: Assertiveness means getting your own way all the time

This is not true. Being assertive means expressing your point of view and communicating honestly with others. Often, you may not get “your own way” when you are assertively giving your opinion. But telling others how you feel and trying to work out a compromise shows respect for both yourself and others.

Myth #2: Being assertive means being selfish

This is false. Just because you express your opinions and your preferences does not mean that other people are forced to go along with you. If you express yourself assertively (not aggressively) then you make room for others. You can also be assertive on behalf of someone else (e.g. I would Susan to choose the restaurant this week).

Myth #3: Passivity is the way to be loved

This is false. Being passive means always agreeing with others, always allowing them to get their own way, giving into their wishes, and making no demands or requests of your own. Behaving this way is no guarantee that others will or admire you. In fact, they may perceive you as dull and feel frustrated that they can’t really get to know you.

Myth #4: It’s impolite to disagree

This is not true. Although there are some situations where we don’t give our honest opinion (e.g. most people say how beautiful a friend looks in her wedding dress, or we only say positive things on the first day of a new job). Much of the time, however, other people will be interested in what you think. Think how you would feel if everyone always agreed with you.

Myth #5: I have to do everything I am asked to do

False. A central part of being assertive is setting and keeping personal boundaries. This is difficult for many people. With our friends, we may worry that they will think we are selfish and uncaring if we don’t do everything they ask. At work, we may worry that others will think we are lazy or inefficient if we don’t do everything we are asked.

But other people cannot possibly know how busy you are, how much you dis a particular task, or what other plans you have already made unless you tell them. Most people would feel badly to learn that you had done something for them that you really didn’t have the time for (e.g. writing a report that requires you to work all weekend) or that you really dis doing (e.g.

helping a friend move).

Below are links corresponding to the three areas of communication just outlined. In each section you will find information described in two important steps that can help you get started in identifying your specific difficulties, and improving your communication skills to help you begin building successful and meaningful social relationships.

  • Non-Verbal Communication
  • Conversation Skills
  • Assertiveness

For more information on overcoming social anxiety, effective communication, and increasing assertiveness, see:

  • Antony, M. & Swinson, R. (2000). Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven Techniques for Overcoming Your Fears. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
  • Antony, M. (2004). 10 Simple Solutions to Shyness. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
  • Burns, D. D. (1985). Intimate Connections. New York: Signet (Penguin Books)
  • McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (1995). Messages: The Communication Skills Book. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
  • Paterson, R. (2000). The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and In Relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger


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