Assertiveness: top tips

How many times have you found yourself in trouble while asking for help, expressing your disappointment to someone or your preferences when making a choice?

Have you ever surrendered to other people’s choices because of guilt or embarrassment? Have you ever acted too aggressively in order to get what you want?

If any of the above applies to you, you might have experienced trouble being assertive.

Assertiveness refers to the ability to be able to express your choices, preferences and critics in an honest and clear way, that respects yourself and other people.

In some instances being assertive can be particularly difficult, especially when close relationships are involved or our performance is at stake. One may be easily scared of not being liked, rejected or negatively judged when expressing a desire or an idea that it is different from the interlocutor’s. Conversely, one may expect other people to think the same way or have the same preferences, therefore not accepting other people’s point of view.

Generally, in social relationships there may be found three different recognisable – and often alternate, depending on the instance – patterns: passive, aggressive or assertive behaviour.

A passive behaviour may imply swallowing emotions, desires or personal preferences as well as adopting someone else’s preferences to please others. Passive people have trouble saying no to people’s requests; they always apologise for every little thing and usually tend to play a passive role in relationships.

Usually, people with a passive behaviour are driven by a fear of upsetting others or breaking their relationship if they express their personal preferences, and are most often afraid of being negatively judged. They might believe that their own preferences are not equally valuable and equally worthy of respect. Predictably, they suffer from low self-esteem issues.

Conversely, people with an aggressive type of behaviour tend to often ignore other people’s point of view and force others to think or act in the way they desire. This kind of behaviour usually brings about relational conflicts.

Contrarily, assertive people are able to express their ideas and feelings in an honest and direct way, while defending their rights and respecting other people’s ones, without experiencing guilt or shame.

How to be assertive?

Assertiveness is not an easy-to-apply skill, as life teaches us that each situation requires a balanced mix of several kinds of behaviour.

Here are some tips that may help you increase your assertiveness skills:

  • Recognise which traits you show more frequently. Do you have a tendency towards passive, aggressive or assertive behaviours?
  • Think about the reasons why you tend to behave in a passive or aggressive way (e.g. fear of negative judgment, low self-esteem issues, etc.).
  • Actively practice assertiveness in your daily life, starting from being honest with yourself about what you want in a relational situation, and ask for it in a clear and respectful way.
  • Please, bear in mind that in the same way as every new skill, assertiveness requires practice. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not getting it quite right yet.
  • Speak to a therapist if you need help to develop or increase your assertiveness skills or the reasons behind your aggressive or passive behaviours are too complex and difficult to cope with.

Comfort zone: in or out?

“As you move outside of your comfort zone, what was once the unknown and frightening becomes your new normal” Robin Sharma

Very often we hear managers, psychologists or life-coaches talk about the importance of stepping out of our comfort zone.

But what exactly is a comfort zone?

Let’s try to imagine ourselves as surrounded by a big and transparent bubble, that defines a boundary between which experiences, behaviours and people we allow into our daily life and which ones, on the contrary, we decide to leave outside.

Inside the bubble, there is a so called comfort zone, in other words, all the elements that create a psychological state of calm, sense of control, low stress and anxiety and therefore a state of safety and familiarity. Conversely, outside of the bubble exist all the things that represent a potential danger and source of stress.

You can imagine that the bubble’s extension and walls’ thickness are very personal: For some of us, the bubble will be pretty big and with a subtle wall that will allow the person to easily step out of it, while for others, the bubble can be a tiny one, with very thick walls, difficult to cross.

The interesting thing is that the inside of the bubble is usually a reflection of our beliefs, in particular what we believe that we are able to handle or to deserve. And this acknowledgement gives us great power to expand our bubble.

Given that it is natural to create our own comfort zone, habits and routines that make us feel protected, sometimes we may create walls which are too thick for the allowing of receiving new experiences that are fundamental to our personal growth.

A very good, though extreme, example of the risks of staying too much in our comfort zone is what often happens to people suffering from panic and agoraphobia.

Suffering from panic attacks is a very intense experience that brings the person to be so scared of the possibility of having other episodes, that it is likely that they will start to avoid all the situations that have triggered the episodes in the first place.

The person will start to avoid potentially risky environments and will step back in his comfort zone. The bad news is that avoidance has the bad habit of self expanding, making a comfort zone progressively smaller and smaller. Not exposing ourselves will give us the illusionary feeling of safety and it will reinforce the idea that in the end, avoidance works, because we are not experiencing anxiety anymore. And in the blink of an eye, without even realising it, we may become slaves of our little comfort zone, enhancing the problem and not facing our fears without testing ourselves.

Sometimes, lying in our comfort zone can be a good way of charging our batteries and winding down, but it is important every once in a while to put ourselves out there, face what we fear, make mistakes and learn new things.

Only expanding our comfort zone will allow us to eventually see that this is no big deal, as we thought, and in the case it actually is, that we can make it and we can learn from our mistakes and grow.

If you feel that it is particularly difficult for you to step out of your comfort zone, you may want to seek help. Psychotherapy may help you deal with the beliefs that are holding you back and help you improve your condition.

Taking care of our relationships

Relationships: their impact on our life

The powerful effect of having positive and healthy close relationships is very often undervalued.

This can be true especially for young adults working hard in big and international cities, that are often only temporary homes where people come and go, making it very difficult to cultivate close relationships over time. Let’s add work, stress, distances, little free time… and social networks and online dating that sometimes may give people the utopian feeling of being hyper connected with a large amount of people.

But in reality how many of these connections are effectively supportive and close relationships?

In the last century, an increasing number of psychologists and scientists have highlighted the importance of healthy relationships in our well-being: from the development of our personality and identity to its positive effect in mediating the impact of stress and trauma.

Relationships, perceived happiness and life length

Recently, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger found interesting results about relationships from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a longitudinal study that surveyed the life of around 700 participants during a period of 75 years. Researchers kept track of important variables like the participant’s physical health, quality of their marriages, work satisfaction and social activities.

In this research they found out that the element that impacted the most on the participant’s health and happiness was the perception of having good quality relationships.

Indeed people having positive relationships with friends, family or the community tended to be happier, healthier and to live longer. Secondly, it is the quality of the relationships that matters for people over 30, not the quantity: unhappy married couples described themselves as less happy than people who were not married at all.

Relationships and pain tolerance

Another research study carried out by Katerina Johnson’s group found out that pain tolerance seems to be linked to social network size. Having a good and supportive social network may be linked to the production of endorphins in our brain, helping us to better tolerate pain.

These results highlight the importance of taking care of our relationships, of nurturing and cultivating them, as when they are positive and supportive they can be so beneficial for our wellbeing.
As their positive impact can be so powerful, unfortunately their negative impact can be as intense.

If you feel that you are having troubles in your relationships and you would like to understand better what is preventing you to fully benefit from your social network, you may consider talking it through with a counsellor or a psychotherapist.


Johnson K., Dunbar R; “Pain tolerance predicts human social network size”. Scientific Report 6: 25267, 2016.

Lewis T; “A Harvard psychiatrist says 3 things are the secret to real happiness”, 2015.

Being a caregiver: but who will take care of me?


No one is born as a caregiver, although it is a role that life obliges us to fulfil.

Being a caregiver means being a family member (or a paid helper) who regularly looks after a sick, elderly or disabled person (Oxford Dictionaries).

It seems that on average caregivers are women, in their mid 40s, who spend about 20 hours per week (or more) taking care of another person, usually their mother or a young family member or their own partner.

Being a caregiver implies a direct contact with different types of diseases, from dementia to physical illnesses and mental problems. Another responsibility is usually helping the person carrying out different daily tasks: from assuring the compliance to pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments to monitoring the general health of the assisted person and helping in daily routines…

The list is potentially very long, depending on the severity and type of disability.

The sure thing is that being a caregiver can become a full-time job and it can involve great responsibilities, a considerable amount of stress and very often putting the other person’s needs first with the consequent risk of disregarding our own personal needs.

Caregivers and mental health

In particular, if the assisted person suffers from a mental health condition the scenario may get even more distressful and complexed.

Mental health problems are unfortunately still marked by stigma and prejudice and the general information about them is still not sufficient. As a consequence the emotional burden of the caregivers may be even heavier and it is not uncommon for caregivers to experience anxiety and/or depressive symptoms. Scientific research shows that family members of schizophrenic and bipolar patients are particularly affected by the issue, with between 30 to 60% experiencing depressive symptoms (NAC, 1997; Heru et al, 2005).

Given this delicate and complex background, being a caregiver or living with a person suffering from a psychiatric disorder, is doubtless a tough job that implies many challenges and that can sometimes make us feel isolated and not supported enough.

If you are a caregiver

If you find yourself in a similar situation, keep in mind that your health (also your mental health) should come first, as it allows you to better take care of the other person. Plus, a very important tool is information: getting to know the specific illness that the person you are taking care of is suffering from may give you better tools to deal with it as well as foresee any possible complication.

If you feel too burdened don’t be ashamed to ask for help and cooperation to your close family and your closest friends and use the services provided by your community; very often hospitals and clinics organise support or self-help groups specifically for caregivers. Even if often we may feel lonely and not fully understood by the people who surround us, reality is different: there are many caregivers who experience the same feelings and sharing can bring a powerful relief.

On the contrary, if you are experiencing intense symptoms of anxiety or prolonged sadness you may start thinking about seeking a more specialised help and perhaps beginning psychotherapy to better deal with the whole situation.

Remember that it is not possible to take care of everything on your own; sometimes a little help could really bring much more relief than you may think.

Why intimacy stirs up conflictual emotions?


Creating intimacy with a person, either a partner, a friend or even our therapist, is not always a smooth and easy process for everyone. In this instance, the word intimacy means not only a relationship characterised by physical closeness, as we may spend a lot of time with a person without being intimate with them. For an intimate relationship is meant as an emotional relationship connoted by affection, familiarity, mutual support and sharing of our thoughts and emotions. Being intimate with someone entails revealing our deepest secrets, weaknesses and vulnerabilities: this is the reason why it is sometimes hard to get so intimately close to someone.

The role of our past experiences

Our personal way of dealing with intimacy usually reflects a pattern that we have learnt through experience during our life. Our early-years experiences and relationships seem to affect this pattern the most.

This pattern has been discovered by psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 30’s, who named it attachment style. The original theory has been enriched and expanded thanks to the work of many authors and it still remains the benchmark for understanding people and relationships.

Attachment theory suggests that each of us has its own specific attachment pattern based on deep and established expectations rooted in our infancy, but that keep on influencing us during our whole life.
These expectations include specific beliefs about:

  • how much we feel to be love-worthy
  • how much the attachment figure (our parents in our early years/our partner in our adult life) will be availableand loving
  • the outcome of the relationship: positive, rejective or unpredictable.

These patterns are usually well recognisable in our relationship history: in our adult life it is indeed very common to find ourselves in relationships where specific patterns tend to be replicated and as a consequence where specific issues are re-experienced.

In the best-case scenario, people with a secure attachment style will choose a “secure-attachment” partner. They will create long-lasting relationships based on trust and where intimacy and independency are well balanced.

But for around 40% of people, the scenario is more complicated as they carry an insecure attachment from their childhood.

Intimacy and ambivalence

Sometimes, as intimacy implies opening up to the other person and showing our weaknesses, some of us may feel intense and conflictual emotions. Indeed some of us may intensely covet being intimately close to a person but at the same time may experience intense fear of being hurt, used or rejected, or intense anger of being so vulnerable, thus the relationship will be accompanied by an intense anxiety. These emotions, if experienced altogether in a close relationship, can be very confusing but if we refer to attachment theory, these reactions are totally understandable.

Ambivalent attachment adults experienced in their childhood unpredictable caregivers, who in certain instances responded properly to their emotional needs and in others did not respond at all. This unpredictability didn’t allow the kid to form a stable image of the caregiver and of himself as love-worthy. As a consequence these kids intensely suffered separation, as they were not so sure if the caregiver would be back, and they desperately attempted to be as close and dependent as possible to the caregiver. At the same time they did not enjoy the time spent with them, as they were already fearing the future departure. This ambivalent attachment is re-experienced in adult relationships: the person intensely swings between being dependent and very close to the partner and feeling angry, jealous, not wanted or rejected.

Another type of attachment is the avoidant style: people who keep distances in relationships as a protective way for avoiding being hurt or rejected.

Even if attachment plays such an important role in our relationships, the good news is that it is not stable. Attachment style can change during lifespan: as Patricia Crittenden theorises, there are particular moments in our development that represent potential shifting points, where attachment can be reorganised towards a more secure organisation.

Change is possible thanks to its acknowledgment, new experiences, new positive relationships and psychotherapy.

Communication: why sometimes is it so tricky?


How many times have you found yourself asking: “Why is my boyfriend not getting that?” or “I said X and she understood Y. I don’t understand… I thought it was clear!”

Communication is a fundamental component of our social interactions; but no matter how important it is, it can be a source of misunderstandings and conflicts.

The art of communicating may seem so easy to learn but it can easily get tricky, especially when the content of the message implies feelings, emotions, fears and expectations about relationships. When emotions and delicate issues are involved, it is very easy to communicate in a not-so-efficient way and at the same time to misinterpret what the other person is telling us.

Why does this happen? 

First of all it is important to distinguish between two elements of communication that are always involved in each piece of information we share: non-verbal and verbal communication.

Verbal communication refers to the content of the message that is shared through language while non-verbal communication refers to the information delivered through our body (e.g. the distance from our interlocutor, our body language, etc.) and our paralinguistic (e.g. the tone of our voice, volume, speed, etc.).

Those two elements aren’t always on the same page: many times the two elements are discordant.

I guess that being mad at someone but not wanting to share it with that person happens to everyone; it is very likely that even if the content of our communication was not “aggressive”, our body and our tone of voice were signalling this anger and the other person very likely recognised it.

Scientists showed indeed that the majority of the information is delivered through non-verbal signals and only a very small percentage through verbal ones. This means that when we interpret a message we give much more importance to how the person is delivering it then to the effective verbal content.

Furthermore, communicating emotion-related information in an ambiguous and vague way (e.g. omitting information) may represent another source of misunderstandings. In front of a vague but important communication or when a potential threat is perceived, it is very easy to interpret the message applying our own personal meanings and symbols, especially when we experience intense emotional states. This means that we may apply our own interpretations based on our personal history, on our deepest fears or on our personal beliefs. In these instances the risk of misinterpreting or distorting information is right behind the corner, as well as the risk of consequently behaving in a defensive way, either attacking the interlocutor or maybe leaving the conversation. In each case these reactions worsen the communication process.

Very often many problems in relationships and in couples are triggered by distortions in communication (expressing information or either interpreting it) and in many cases just a few expedients could help preventing misunderstandings.

Either you feel like having often troubles expressing yourself or interpreting what your partner is telling you, don’t worry because communication is an art that can be learnt and improved.

Psychotherapy can help you with this issue, making you learn and experience an assertive style of communication, recognise what are the automatic personal interpretations that you tend to apply and learn how to better manage them.

Relationships: when criticism is a main character

Criticism and relationships

Being criticised is a very common experience that can occur in every relationship, at work, at home or with friends.

In particular, criticising and reproaching a bad conduct may be a natural way of expressing our disapproval for a certain behaviour and our feelings related to it. It is indeed normal to be ourselves sometimes – the ones criticising or being criticised by other people. In the end no one is perfect!
But there are different ways of reproaching.

Positive and negative reproaches

A constructive and positive way of reproaching a person is when this relates to a specific behaviour and is supported by reasonable explanations. Moreover, this type of reproach may imply suggestions on how to change and repair the “wrong” behaviour, thus putting ourselves in the shoes of the other person.

On the contrary, sometimes it may occur that the reproach is expressed in a very negative and judgmental way, without expressing what the wrong behaviour is or how it could be fixed. Furthermore, in some instances the reproaching person may shift his or her judgement to the person as a whole instead of criticising the single bad behaviour, which is often followed by a negative emotional response in the criticised person.

Let’s focus on negative criticism. Negative criticism can be defined as a constant, pervasive and repetitive tendency to reproach another person. In particular, criticism in parenting may become a style of relating to children and adolescents (Apparigliato, 2011). As anticipated, the criticising person may show his or her disappointment for a particular behaviour (or the omission of a behaviour) in order to change it, but he/she may not consider the son’s preferences and believes to know what is good and what is not for their son.

Consequences of criticism

Research suggests that high levels of perceived criticism have been linked to higher relapses in depressed and schizophrenic patients, and drop-outs in patients with eating disorders. Plus, parental criticism may develop excessive perfectionism in children, who may try harder than usual to satisfy such high demanding and difficult parents. And perfectionism is a well known anxiety-related feature.

Given what literature suggests, it can be really distressful to live with such a critical parent or partner, with sometimes negative psychological and self-esteem consequences. In particular, growing up in this type of environment, with a parent (or both) always prone to criticise and demanding to reach their own high personal standards may lead a person to doubt one’s own abilities, talents and strengths, causing suffering and distress.

If you recognise yourself in these dynamics, you may consider discussing this delicate personal issue with a psychotherapist that can help you elaborate these feelings and handle criticism in different way.

What to do

Meanwhile, here there are some little tips that you could try to use:

  • Try to take into account only the good in every reproach. If you have been negatively criticised, try to think if there can be a positive information for you in it. Sometimes a reproach, even if expressed in the wrong away, is made for a reason. So try to trash the negativity, shame, guilt or anger that you may feel and ask yourself: is there a real reason for being criticised? Was there a better or useful way to behave? Could I fix or change something of that behaviour? The answer may be no, but sometimes it may be yes.
  • Do not accept generalisations: if the blame gets born from a single behaviour but it becomes generalised to your whole person… use boundaries! You are who you are and a single specific wrong behaviour doesn’t imply a total and negative judgment of you as a human being. Try not to take it too personally.
  • Very often the problem is not yours but theirs – people who constantly and negatively criticise usually have something going on in their mind. It may occur that when going through rough times, someone may try to vent their problems in this way. In other cases instead, someone could have experienced a very reproaching relationship themselves and negative criticism may be the only learnt and well known way of expressing care in a relationship.
  • Be assertive – communicate the person when the boundary from positive to negative criticism is crossed and how that makes you feel. And if you have to make a reproach … remember the aforementioned features of constructive reproaches and try not to fall into the trick of negative criticism.

A look into emotions


It is strikingly interesting how past scientific theories on the functioning of the human body have remained so deeply rooted in our common sense.

For example Cartesian dualism regarding the differentiation between body and mind is sometimes still supported; on the contrary, body and mind are deeply interconnected and they should not be considered as two separate entities.  As a matter of fact, our body is littered with receptors that constantly report to our brain the activities of that particular area, in order to grant a better control of their tasks.

Another theory that is usually misleading is Aristotle’s concept that our heart is the centre of emotions; in the last decades plenty of scientific data widely showed how the origins of emotions rely in several and very specific areas of the brain, that activate our body for a very rapid reaction.

Emotions are internal states that accompany us in our everyday life, carrying very important and precious information about ourselves.

Every emotion implies 3 different components: a cognitive, a behavioural and a physical one.

The cognitive component is about the evaluation and the thoughts on the emotion; the behavioural is about the reaction that we will adopt as a consequence of the emotion, while the physical is about the change in our body functions that prepare our body to action.

Contradicting Aristotle’s theory, emotions rely in the body as much as in our brain.

Primary and Secondary emotions

In psychology we talk about primary and secondary emotions.

Primary emotions are:

  • fear;
  • joy;
  • sadness;
  • anger;
  • disgust;
  • surprise.

These emotions are called “primary” because anthropologically they have been present since the very beginning of the story of the human being, we share them with primates and they are universally experienced and recognised, as showed by scientist Paul Ekman.

On the contrary, secondary emotions are more recent, as they appeared when our forebears started to live in social groups; therefore they are “social” emotions: guilt, shame, envy, jealousy, …

Emotional Intelligence

The ability to recognise one own’s and other people’s emotion, to manage them and to use them in a constructive way is called Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence is considered nowadays very important as it seems that it effectively impacts our work performance and our ability to relate to other people.

Many times relational problems are indeed consequences of a difficulty in understanding the other person’s emotional world and relating to it.

Emotions are very important as they indicate our direction in the world and tell us how well we are dealing in achieving our intimate goals.

If you want to read more about why emotions are so important, click here

Related articles:

“Emotions: hello strangers!” by Ilaria Tedeschi

If you want to know more about the relation between emotions and eating habits, read:

“Overeating as a coping mechanism: Binge eating Disorder”, by Ilaria Tedeschi

Suggested links:

I am how you want me to be: when complacency comes too easy in relationships

“And you don’t know I much I loved you,

how much wasted love,

silently waiting for you to see me 

and to understand what you already know, 

that I am how you want me to be,

how you want me to be.

I am the only one you can love,

don’t you see that I am only a few steps away from you?”

“Sono come tu mi vuoi “, I. Grandi

Complacency and relationships

Being complacent is a normal attitude that in small doses everybody uses.

As a matter of fact, a little bit of complacency in our daily lives is necessary: we are not always completely free to be who we are, to say what is on our mind or to bring forth what we desire. A bit of complacency and adherence to the rules that society requires us to apply to, are the basis of living in a civilised world.

Sometimes complacency can add up to becoming much more invasive, prying into relationships and hiding our real true self. Herein, we are talking about the “false self”, a psychoanalytic concept formerly theorised by Donald Winnicott.

False self is a defensive barrier that protects us from not being hurt by others; in extreme cases it can completely conceal the true self, making it very difficult to reach.

False self can take the form of complacency in relationships, especially in a couple: acting in order to meet our partner’s expectations can be a strategy to prevent a very feared rejection.

Trying our best to avoid what we fear is a normal behaviour, it is our natural instinct that protects us from being hurt. But when complacency gets too intense, when we try our best to be who we think that our partner wants us to be and by doing so we deny ourselves and our desires … we expose ourselves to risk much more than we could imagine.

What are the consequences?

What is the long term outcome of such a relationship? Where do our desires and spontaneity end up? Can we be really sure about how our partner would like us to be?  Moreover, will our partner be really satisfied by having a faux but apparently perfect partner?

There are not straightforward answers to these questions.  Every relationship is different, it implies two extraordinary and unique human beings, bonding together and creating special dynamics.

However, we know that not listening to who we are and what we want can bring us to a long-term dissatisfaction, a feeling of emptiness, of not being alive and in the end to a difficulty in reading ourselves. In addition, we can imagine how those feelings could affect the mood and happiness of a person and consequently put the couple at stake.

The attitude of creating complacent relationships usually founds its roots in our early years and it is a signal of a suffering area, linked to the fear of being rejected, not loved or criticised when we show our real selves.

What can you do about it?

If this rings a bell, sit back and relax, there’s nothing to worry about! Being aware of this attitude is the first step to change.

Moreover, taking care of our suffering areas is the best way to build healthy relationships and, above all, to contribute to our wellbeing and happiness.

As soon as you become aware of any related dynamics like the aforementioned, take some time to think it through and if you feel like you need help seek advice and contact a psychotherapist or a counsellor.

Attachment: that special bond in our intimate relationships

Attachment: what it is

Attachment belongs to the motivational systems of the human being and it is always active in our lifetime.

It defines how we relate to the people we get in a deep relation with, involving intimate beliefs about our loveliness and other people’s affective availability, and consequently the expectations we have about these relations.

In early years, the first person who allows us to experience attachment for the first time is usually our mother. This relationship will have an intense influence on developing the first beliefs and general rules about interpersonal relations.

Types of attachment

In early years, as in adult life, we can discriminate between secure and not-secure attachments.

Different types of attachment are not be considered as separate categories but as elements of the same continuum, with different shades and characteristics.

Adults with a secure-style tend to develop long-lasting and healthy relationships based on mutual trust; the partner represents a secure base to leave in order to explore the environment and to rely on with hope and trust.

People with an ambivalent-style have usually experienced in infancy an unpredictable mother, who intermittently responded and not responded to the kid emotional needs. Those kids developed a feeling of not constant loveliness. When adults, they will probably experience the same unpredictability in relationships, where sometimes they will feel an intense love from the partner and other times and intense rejection.

On the other hand, adults with an avoidant-style were once kids with distant and dismissing mothers; they learned to inhibit their emotional needs in order to prevent rejection. They will become adults who will not experience an intense emotional involvement in relationships and who will stay at a safety distance from intimacy.

Attachment in lifetime

Attachment styles tend to consolidate during the first years of life.

But recent theories suggest that each life stage can represent for attachment an opportunity to change; furthermore, particular life events or psychotherapy processes can allow a change from a un-secure attachment towards a more secure one.


Photo credits @Rachel Kramer