I’m not sure where I learned this lesson, so I’m afraid I do not know who to credit. Still, this is valuable wisdom that I really think they should teach in schools.

Many people desire to be more assertive, but I think that is sometimes a vague concept, which makes it hard to do. I once heard it explained in very simple, easy to understand terms that I want to share with you.

Perhaps you have heard of the term passive-aggressive, the idea that someone is nice to your face, but then hurts you when your back is turned. So, let’s imagine there is a spectrum of behavior with Aggressive on one end and Passive on the other. Assertiveness is not just a compromise of the two, it is a third option. And all of these terms can be summed up with these phrases:

Aggressive is the attitude “I matter and you don’t matter.” People are aggressive when they hurt others for their own benefit. When the mean kids in high school tore down other people to feel good about themselves, they had the attitude they mattered and their targets didn’t. Sometimes people are aggressive when they are hurt and then they feel justified hurting that person back. “Because of what they did, they no longer matter.” Violence, insults, threats, manipulation, theft, cruelty and selfishness are aggressive because the person is only concerned about getting their needs met.

Passive is the attitude “You matter and I don’t matter.” Passive people say, “Whatever you want.” Passive people apologize when they have done nothing wrong. Passive people bend over backwards to prevent conflict or upsetting others. People are passive for a variety of reasons. They often call themselves people pleasers. Perhaps it started for noble reasons because they wanted to put others before themselves, because they did not want to be selfish, or they thought loving people means making them happy. Perhaps it was a bit more survival or emotionally based with the idea that making people happy would keep them from hurting you or leaving you. Still, the more you act like only the other person matters and you do not, the more you start to believe it. Most passive people accumulate negative self-esteem because acting like you do not matter eventually makes you feel like you do not matter.

Assertiveness is the attitude “You matter and I matter.” Assertiveness is respectful. Just because someone hurt you does not mean you hurt them back. Assertiveness is solution focused and realizes that speaking up for yourself provides vital information, listening to others provides information, and then you can find solutions that take everyone’s needs into account. Assertiveness sees the big picture. Whereas passiveness feels noble, it makes the other person into the villain. Being assertive may feel like being the bad guy, but it acts on the hope that the other person might join you in a healthy relationship. Even if they don’t, it still protects you and respects them.

And even if being assertive does not always get the outcomes you want, it usually gets you closure and moving on your way towards better things, rather than stuck in the anxiety of never-ending, unhealthy relationship patterns.