I am endlessly excited about the work done in psychology today, which confirms age-old ideas about what makes life meaningful, and deepens our understanding of them. Research published earlier this year is a case in point. What leads to an assertive way of being? Is it a sense of entitlement? That's what we all fear; that narcissists are happier and more successful. Well I am happy to say that this research suggests it is something else, something we should all aspire to.
Researcher Daniela Renger distinguished self-assertion from aggression, and then across several large studies tested whether it was 1) self-entitlement, 2) self-confidence, 3) a sense of competence, or 4) self-respect, which led to assertiveness.
Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for yourself, to let others know when they are doing wrong by you, to assert boundaries in word and action, to say No to unwanted demands. If you lack assertiveness you know exactly what I’m talking about, for it's no joke to struggle with that. You are stepped on often, especially by aggressive types. But you don't want to be like them, so entitled - you want to live better in the world. Well there is good news for those who fear that narcissists are happier: entitlement led to aggressive behaviour, but not to assertive behaviour. And plenty of studies show that aggression tends to hinder people rather than lead to success - in reality we tend to reward competent people who treat others well - so despite popular myths, it does not pay to be a pushy narcissist.
Renger defines self-respect as “a person’s conviction that they possess the universal dignity of persons and basic moral human rights and equality.” Her test questions are themselves ways of unpacking this notion. This is a central and profound insight that lies behind much of what is good in modern civilisation, but it has been debased in some bad social experiments of recent decades. For example many of us were raised on the notion that self-esteem will not only make us happier, but more assertive (as opposed to aggressive). However Renger has found that that is not the case, that it is self-respect which seems to do the work. This is important given the possible connections between the self-esteem movement and the age of entitlement. Self-esteem is an attitude of concern for myself as an individual, different to others, whereas self-respect sees me as one among others, in community with them.
In further accordance with the older, profounder, and deeper notion of human worth, Renger also found that it was not self-competence which led to assertiveness. This is a trickier issue, for it seems to me that many of the ills of young people (and plenty of older people) have to do with not being provided, socially, with a meaningful sense of heirarchies of competence. And so they do not see a worthwhile use for their energies, a place to get to which is deeply worth striving for, and so they fall into dispiritedness, into a lack of direction and purpose. If you want to create meaning with your life, start by lifting a load, and learn to do it well. When people develop competence that makes them useful in the world then, insofar as it is woven through with genuine values, they typically become happier, more energised, and more assertive. Unless something deeper is wrong in them. At least this is what I have witnessed. But at the same there is a danger in basing your sense of worth on your abilities and achievements. What if you are disabled? What if you have foregone outward achievement to serve somebody, like you your children or an ill relative. What is the society does not provide clear structures of competence-development like it used to? At that point you have to return to what it means to be a human being, in a world which may not work well, where you may do everything you can to stand up and yet fall down, or be knocked down, yet again.
So it seems to me that if you want to become more assertive, then you should deepen your sense of what it means to be a human being. If you are somebody who respects others but devalues yourself, you need to do a 360 and turn that lens of respect on yourself. That is not egotism when it is done as expansion, treating yourself as one among others and giving respect to all. The highest value in you is not something you created or earned; and your life is not something you own, rather it is all a gift for which you are merely a caretaker. In this context, self-assertion is speaking up for what is true and what matters, values which are the source of genuine conviction and courage, which are the ingredients of proper self-assertion.