How to Overcome Passivity

Three Parts:Exploring Your Interactions with OthersSaying NoPracticing Being Assertive

Caring about the feelings of others is important; however, other people's needs should not always supersede your own. When you are overly passive then you allow other people to mistreat you and take advantage of your kindness. The end result is often a lot of resentment and pent-up frustration. Being too passive can also have a negative impact on your self-confidence and self-esteem. However, being overly aggressive is the other extreme and isn’t very helpful either. Overly aggressive behavior often reflects arrogance and is mean-spirited and unhelpful. However, assertiveness means that you have learned how to express your own thoughts and needs without belittling or hurting other people. It’s important to find balance by engaging with others in a healthy and appropriately assertive manner.

Part 1
Exploring Your Interactions with Others

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    Assess your personal interaction style. It’s important for you to understand your personal style before you decide to change it. If you are already being assertive in most areas of your life, you may only need to make minor adjustments. After all, there is a fine line between being assertive and being aggressive. However, you may be a bit too passive if you find yourself in those cases:[1]
    • Not voicing your opinion
    • Remaining quiet most of the time
    • Saying yes when you really want to say no
    • Taking on more responsibility even when your plate is already full
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    Explore the fear. When you find yourself not standing up for yourself or struggling to say no to others, it may be because you’re afraid to displease other people.[2] When you find that you’re being passive in a particular situation, ask yourself what you’re actually afraid of. Remember, the only way to overcome the fear is to first recognize its existence.
    • Telling yourself that you “must” get the approval of someone else is a cognitive distortion. When you feel that you “must” and “have to” do things,you will start to place unrealistic demands on yourself.
    • What other people think is not reflective of your self-worth. Rather it is usually a reflection of issues with the other person.
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    Think about whether your fear is likely to happen. Often, beneath the fear of disapproval is the fear of retaliation or rejection. In other words, you may be passive in some situations because you’re concerned about the potential consequences of being more assertive. Thinking about the likelihood that the retaliation will actually happen and how to handle it if it does, is a great way to move through the fear and become more assertive. Here are some questions to ask to help you with this process:[3]
    • What do I fear will happen if I am more assertive?
    • What specific evidence do I have that the person will retaliate? For instance, has she done it before?
    • What evidence do I have that the person will not retaliate?
    • What do I think will actually happen?
    • What can I do to protect myself from the retaliation?
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    Release the responsibility of harboring other people’s feelings. Sometimes you may refrain from being assertive because you don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. However, sometimes people will misinterpret your intentions even if your assertion is justified. You should not do what you don’t want to do or refrain from sticking up for yourself because you’re afraid of hurting someone else.[4]
    • Being assertive doesn’t mean being heartless. You should always try to be assertive in a way that minimizes hurt feelings as much as possible. However, you should always keep in mind that it's not always possible.
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    Release the guilt. You may sometimes find yourself doing what you don’t want to do because you think that there’s no one else available to do it. However, harboring guilt, when there’s no basis for it, is not fair to you nor is it healthy for your self-esteem.
    • People are generally resourceful and will find other avenues to get their needs met. It is fine for you to say no.[5]
    • The other person may try to communicate the message that you would do it if you really cared about them. That is manipulative and isn’t fair to you. Your needs are important too and if you allow the manipulation to continue, it will breed resentment.
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    Learn from your passivity. When you do what you don’t want to do, it usually doesn’t feel pleasant. Similarly, it feels awful when you find yourself being someone’s doormat. So take some time to reflect on how it makes you feel when you are overly passive. When you remind yourself that you should not have to to feel bad about yourself, you may wish to learn to become more assertive. Here are a few things to notice when you find yourself being passive:[6]
    • Do you feel resentful, hurt or depressed?
    • Does your heart sink, stomach tighten, or breathing quicken?
    • Take notice of these bad feelings and remind yourself that you don’t have to accept anything just to meet the need of someone else.
    • Sometimes you’ll feel satisfied after helping someone else and that is the feeling that you should be aiming for. If you don’t feel satisfied, then there’s a strong likelihood that you’re being too passive and possibly being taken advantage of.

Part 2
Saying No

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    Decide what you do and don’t want to do. If you’re a little more passive then you’d like to be, chances are that you often find yourself saying yes when you really want to say no. This can create internal stress and a lot of resentment toward the other person. To avoid this, it’s important to first figure out what you want to do and don’t.
    • When someone asks you to do something, ask yourself if it's really something that you want to do.
    • If you find yourself saying that it won’t be so bad, stop and ask yourself again if it's something that you really want to do. If you want to do it, then you won’t have to convince yourself.
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    Take a deep breath. It will help you stay emotionally centered. This is important so that you can sound calm as you speak.[7]
    • Inhale air through your nose and feel the air travel to your belly. Then allow the air to be released through your mouth. This deep breath will remind you to stay calm.
    • If you’re having the conversation in person, try not to be too overtly obvious when taking the deep breath.
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    Say that you are not able to do that today.[8] At first, this may seem a little awkward because you’re used to always saying yes. However, it’s important to set boundaries with others. Being more assertive has many benefits such as the following[9]:
    • Greater self-confidence
    • More respect from others
    • Better self-esteem
    • Improved decision making
    • Increased job satisfaction
    • Better relationships
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    Repeat the statement in a word or two. If others are used to your compliance, they may show some resistance when you start saying no. However, it is important for you to remain firm. Keep shortening your “no” statement by a word or two each time the person tries to insist.[10]
    • For example, you could say that you are not able to do that.
    • Then you could say that's impossible to do for you.
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    Say no. If the person continues to insist, it’s time to be very direct by simply saying no.[11] Clearly the other person is not respecting your boundaries and there’s no point in continuing to go around in circles. It’s time to simply say no.
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    Discuss alternatives. At times it may be difficult to say “no” in such a direct manner. For example, if keeping your job is a priority, you probably shouldn’t just tell your supervisor “no” and walk away. When you are in a bind and just saying “no” isn’t an option, then try offering alternatives instead. For example, you could say the following:
    • “Can I suggest another idea instead?”
    • “Is there someone else who can do this?” (you can explain why it would be difficult for you to comply with the request.)
    • If the person is not open to other options, it may be helpful to discuss your concerns with her. You could say that you understand her request, however, you have some serious reservations and discuss your concerns.
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    Exit the conversation. You may continue to get some push back even though you have made it clear that you are unable to comply with the request. At this point, it’s probably a good time to end the conversation so that the situation doesn’t escalate.
    • You could say that you have to go or that your spouse is waiting for you and walk away.
    • If you’re having the conversation over the phone, you could say that it was a great conversation but you have to go.
    • If you are having a conversation with a supervisor, you might want to say that you know about the task, but that you are simply unable to do it.

Part 3
Practicing Being Assertive

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    Make the decision to be more assertive. You must commit to making the change to really start seeing results. Thinking about why you want to be more assertive would be helpful. Here are some of the potential toxic consequences of being overly passive:[12]
    • Frustration with yourself may occur as you keep asking yourself how you did manage to let that happen.
    • Resentment can occur because you may begin to feel like you’re being taken advantage of.
    • Violence and verbal aggression can occur when the frustration builds up and you inappropriately respond and lose control.
    • Depression can result due to a sense of feeling helpless and feeling like you having no control of situations.
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    Write down areas in which you want to be more assertive. Be as specific as possible. So instead of writing down that you want to be more assertive at work, you could specify to be more assertive with a coworker. Keep in mind that there may be some areas where you are more assertive in than others. Identify specific areas that you need to work on so that you can focus on becoming more assertive in those fields.
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    Select a low-risk situation to start. Becoming more assertive is a skill and as with all skills, it takes practice to improve. It’s probably best to practice being more assertive with a friend or mate and then move up to higher risk situations as your skills improve.[13] For example, if your sister wants you to run an errand for her again, and you simply don’t want to do it, this might be a great time to practice being more assertive.
    • Remember, you still love or like the other person when you are assertive; saying no means that you recognize that your needs are just as important as hers.
    • When possible, try practicing with a few low-risk situations before moving on to higher risk situations.
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    Rehearse what you want to say. Whenever possible, script what you’re going to say in advance. This way you can rehearse what you’re going to say before you actually begin to assert yourself in that situation.[14]
    • You can write down the script first to help solidify what you’re going to say in your mind.
    • Be sure to use “I” statements instead of “You” statements.[15] For instance, you might say, “I’m unable to watch the kids today,” rather than, “You can watch your own children.”
    • It also might be helpful to spend time mentally rehearsing the entire situation. Use your imagination and imagery to see in your mind’s eye exactly what you’re going to say and do during the conversation. Pretend that you’ve teleported yourself there so that you can vividly experience the conversation in your mind. This will help reduce the anxiety that you may experience, especially when you first begin to assert yourself more.
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    Schedule a time to talk. If you need to discuss something more formally, then it’s important that you choose a time that is convenient to both you and the other person. Once in the meeting, communicate to the other person in an even and calm manner, just as you rehearsed it. Also, be sure that you demonstrate confident body language such as:[16]
    • Consistent eye contact
    • Upright posture
    • Leaning in slightly as you speak
    • A positive facial expression
    • Also, try to avoid anxious gestures such as wringing your hands, rocking your body, or bouncing your leg, which will make you appear less confident.
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    Repeat this process. Continue to go down your list of areas in which you would like to be more assertive. Being assertive will eventually become second nature to you, but until then be sure to be intentional about it.


  • Being assertive with family and friends may be the most difficult because you probably want to please them most; however, when you are more assertive, your relationships with them will improve.
  • Saying no is not always an option. Sometimes you may have to do something you don’t want to do, such as go to a meeting at your child’s school or finish an overdue work assignment; however, there shouldn’t be a noticeable pattern.
  • Dealing with conflict can be very hard, even for the boldest of people. If you think that it will be emotional for you to the point that you may become very angry, start crying, or demonstrate other extremely emotional behavior, try to wait a bit, if possible, before having a conversation.
  • Assertiveness results in feelings of balance and empowerment. Be sure that your assertiveness doesn’t go to the other extreme and become unhealthy aggression.

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