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When to be Assertive, When to Hold Your Tongue

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It’s important to be authentic, but in our relationships, we need to also be smart. We need to be strategic. Expressing every thought and feeling we have doesn’t serve us, or our connections with others.

But you don’t want to stifle yourself and end up frustrated and resentful either. So here are some ideas about assertiveness versus keeping your own counsel–for a while, at least.1) Be honest with yourself, first.

Consider the situation and all the variables; consider how frequently it’s occurring; consider your role. If you focus only on the other person, you might be missing a key part of the equation. Where do you fit in?

Don’t discount your emotions. They’re giving you valuable information. Anger or hurt are like blinking neon signs telling you, “Pay attention.” But once your feelings have alerted you, that doesn’t mean you want to immediately act on them. Especially if your emotions are intense, they can temporarily block rational thought. So being able to give yourself a time-out can be useful.

2) Figure out if what feels so intense in the moment is really a significant issue.

Sometimes you’re hormonal, or you haven’t eaten, or you’ve allowed other problems to build up so while the current issue isn’t big, it feels big. It’s the straw that’s broken the camel’s back. And then expressing a small thing as if it’s a big thing loses credibility for you. The person you’re talking to might more easily dismiss your feelings.

So getting to the heart of what’s really bothering you is key. When you express yourself, you want to be sure it’s about the true issue. That true issue might be the accumulation of what hasn’t been said before.

3) Once you know that you do need to speak up, do it vulnerably.

Yes, I’m talking about I-statements. I’m talking about expressing not simply anger, which is the uppermost level, but what lies underneath it–like hurt, disappointment, sadness. Those are the emotions that will draw others to you, while a strong expression of anger pushes them away. It makes them want to defend themselves rather than hear you.

Very few things are actually a five alarm fire, even if it feels like it at the moment it happens. Remember that you don’t have to say it the second you feel it; you just want to make sure that you’re saying what needs saying, in a relatively timely manner. And if you don’t care by the next day, then be glad you just let it go rather than waste everyone’s time and energy.

In ongoing relationships, you can go back to something if it continues to eat at you. There’s no statute of limitations. What matters to you matters to the relationship. It’s better to take a little extra time so that you can assert yourself productively rather than race to get it out and risk doing damage.

The point of telling others how you feel is to ultimately connect you. Communication lifts all boats.

When to be Assertive, When to Hold Your Tongue

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2017). When to be Assertive, When to Hold Your Tongue. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Jul 2017
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