From Passive-Aggressive to Assertive by Kristen Fuller

Kristen Fuller

Passive-aggressive behavior exemplifies two roaring heads of the opposite spectrum—passiveness and aggression. This type of behavior is common in relationships and in the workplace, as many people struggle with communicating their disagreements in ways that are both confident and polite. Learning to be assertive, which is neither passive nor aggressive, can be a great liberator for individuals who struggle with standing up for themselves. The New Year is a great time to resolve to take assertive action.

The trap of passive-aggressiveness

Passive-aggressiveness is often ingrained throughout our upbringing and life experiences. If we are taught to avoid conflict, we will most likely develop into passive people. When we face anger, negativity and abuse from someone, we seek to protect ourselves by avoiding conflict, and that can lead to passive-aggressiveness. Avoiding conflict ends up backfiring and hindering our relationships by causing us to miscommunicate. Denying our feelings can lead to these passive-aggressive behaviors:

4Backhanded compliments.
4Purposely omitting important facts in conversation that      may cause a conflict.
4Procrastination and chronic tardiness.
4Sulking or withdrawing from arguments.

The freedom of assertiveness

Friendships and healthy relationships thrive on honesty, open communication, boundaries and self-confidence. Individual happiness is the central pillar to a happy relationship and, similar to many personality traits, happiness comes from within. We often have to stand up for our beliefs and values even among those we cherish and love. Disagreements and different perspectives still occur in these relationships, and practicing assertive behavior rather than passive-aggressiveness can bring relationships closer together and mend broken ones. Taking action in a kind, honest and selfless manner can increase and strengthen many relationships.

Assertiveness means to stand up for yourself in a non-aggressive way to defend your beliefs, values and human rights. Self-confidence is needed to be assertive, as people who do not feel good about themselves will be less likely to stand up to the bully at work, their aggressive friend, the abusive spouse or the mean neighbor. Assertiveness enables you to verbalize standards and boundaries for yourself in your relationships with others, which can lead to stronger relationships in the long term.

Assertiveness is not aggressiveness

The term assertiveness often gets confused with aggression, but there is a major difference. People who portray aggressive behavior rarely have insight or self-awareness.

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author, phrased it this way in his online article Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior for Psychology Today: “Assertiveness, the ideal compromise between the extremes of passivity and aggression, is part of our natural endowment—our ‘universal personality,’ as it were. When we first come into the world, and even before we become verbal and can articulate what’s going on inside us, we possess the rudimentary ability to communicate. Innately, we know how and when to smile, to yawn, to express surprise, anger or trepidation and, indeed, to convey a broad variety of emotional distress through crying—even wailing (as many a parent can woefully testify).”

Having the ability to express our opinions and ideas is a pure human right and being fearful of practicing this right not only can harm relationships but also bring self-doubt and self-destruction. A hostile workplace, a mean-hearted co-worker, a backstabbing friend or a jealous family member can all be difficult to deal with. Although ignoring them and being complacent may seem like the easiest route, practicing assertiveness will not only allow you to stand up for yourself but it will also demand respect from others. Practicing an active stance by standing up for yourself and your beliefs will often attract the attention of others.

The next time you come head-on with an individual who is negative or disrespectful toward you, try to take a more active approach by politely yet confidently speaking your mind and closely observe how the other person responds.

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at Sovereign Health, a Joint Commission-accredited behavioral health treatment provider with locations through the United States. To learn more, visit us at, Facebook and LinkedIn or follow us on Twitter.