The Meaning of Assertiveness: How to Use DBT to Finally Get What You Want

Typewriter text that says “stop” representing the meaning of assertiveness.

A lot of us make a habit of ignoring our needs to make other people comfortable.

We withhold our opinions, our complaints, our wants, our needs, and our desires for fear of making others upset. This is basically a blueprint for feeling unfulfilled.

You deserve better than that. You just need to prove it to yourself. Here’s how Dialectical Behavior Therapy and assertiveness training can help you finally get what you want in life.


Defining Assertiveness and Its Value

Assertiveness is the gentle balance between making your needs known and respecting the needs of others.

Here are some qualities of assertive people:

  • They set and enforce their personal limits.

  • Instead of withholding their opinions, they express them in calm, effective ways.

  • They consider their own wants, needs, and desires as much as others.

  • They are effective communicators and negotiators.

  • They openly share their goals and aspirations.

  • They understand their self-worth and feel they have a right to “take up space” in the world.

  • They accept compliments and constructive criticism in equal measure.

Setting strong boundaries, standing up for yourself, and not apologizing for who you are are the core elements of maintaining self-respect.

But what about relationships? Wouldn’t high levels of assertiveness lead to more conflict?

Nope. Assertiveness has been shown to make relationships more harmonious and satisfying. Here are the reasons this makes sense:

  • Assertive people live authentic lives and do not hide their issues. You find people you are compatible with by living this way.

  • Wants and needs can get negotiated instead of being swept under the rug.

  • Assertive people address issues right away, so there are fewer opportunities for breeding resentment.

If you’re afraid of damaging your relationships by being assertive about what you want, here is the mistake you’re making:

By ignoring the issues you have with someone, you build up resentment for them, which harms the relationship you were trying to maintain.

But yes, it’s true that telling someone how you feel can be difficult. That’s where DBT comes in.


How DBT Teaches You the Meaning of Assertiveness

Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a multipurpose skill-based therapy that’s designed to help improve your quality of life in several domains.

The DBT branch we’re concerned with is “interpersonal effectiveness,” which is essentially a communication guide for those who struggle with stating what they want.

Because being assertive can feel uncomfortable and even overwhelming, an acronym was invented in DBT that will walk you through how to assert yourself. It’s called DEARMAN.

D: Describe:

You start out by relaying the facts of a situation to someone, making it clear what you want to talk to them about.

E: Express

You give your honest opinion about the situation so that the person can know how you really feel.

A: Assert

This is when you tell them what you want, or it could be when you say no to something you don’t want.

  • *Saying no is the heart and soul of assertiveness. It can feel hurtful to say no if you are an empathic or sensitive person. But remember: you don’t have to help everyone, and it’s not your responsibility to always be donating your time and energy.

  • *No is a wonderful tool for the natural people pleaser to learn to put themselves first. You might feel some guilt at first, but over time, you will feel your self-respect increase, and other people will start to respect your boundaries too.

R: Reinforce

This might sound odd, but you actually want to reward them for doing the things you are asking for. If they say yes to an assertion, how will it benefit the other person? Humans are more likely to act in a certain way if it also benefits them.

M: Mindful

This is when you are mindfully asking for what you want or saying no to a request. You calmly state the facts, maintain your point of view, and stay on track with your assertive request.

A: Appear

You appear confident when you express your needs (even if you’re nervous). Nonverbal communication (good posture, strong eye contact, clear voice) shows the other party that you are serious about what you’re saying, and that you will be heard.

N: Negotiate 

A person might reasonably object to what you’re saying and address what they need from you. You’re allowed to negotiate, but not capitulate. Remember, you matter too!

  • *Consider a way that you might both get what you want, instead of immediately compromising. This is the concept of Win-Win from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Every situation will be different. Sometimes you will have to address more than one person, or you’ll have to assert yourself to someone that you can’t bare to disappoint (like a parent or a child). But remember,  you aren’t doing yourself any favors by letting things build up in the background.


DEARMAN in Practice

Let’s look at an example of DEARMAN in practice:

Say you have a close friend. You consider them your best friend and you have great chemistry when it’s just the two of you together.

But, when the two of you start hanging out with others, you feel as though your friend starts poking fun at you, making rude jokes toward you, and getting the other friends to laugh. This happens on a consistent basis.

You still consider them your best friend and you don’t want to end the friendship. So, instead of enduring the problem every time you’re together, you decide to say something.

Describe: You sit your friend down and explain to them how you were at their house the other night when they joked about your appearance.

Express: You tell them you feel sad and embarrassed by their behavior.

Assert: You ask them “Can you please stop making jokes when we are in front of groups with others?”

Reinforce: You reinforce them by reminding them that your friendship is very important and you both want to feel safe in the relationship.

Mindful: If they tell you that you’re being too sensitive, ignore the threats and remain mindfully present in expressing your assertion.

Appear: You show them you take this issue seriously by looking them in the eyes and keeping a strong posture.

Negotiate: You can’t accept being made fun of, but, because of your honesty, your friend might reveal to you that they’ve just been acting insecure, and they apologize.

  • *You would get what you wanted in this case, but if they doubled down on their behavior, then you’d need to reconsider your relationship with this friend.

You can apply DEARMAN to any confrontation or difficult moment. To quote Tim Ferris:

“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”


Assertiveness and Putting Yourself First

If you feel like you lack self-respect, then you might not be asserting your needs and boundaries enough.

You shouldn’t punish yourself though. Make a commitment to being more assertive now, so that you can really start living the life you want.

Assertiveness is telling the world that you deserve to be happy, and that you have a right to exist. When you assert yourself, you don’t just remind others of these facts, you remind yourself.

You build your courage each time you say no, so get to it! Pretty soon, you might catch yourself starting to enjoy it.