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How to assert yourself at work when you have anxiety

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Simple changes in the way you speak can help you feel more assertive. Photo: Getty

Whether it’s simply knowing what you’re worth or saying “no” to taking on too much, being assertive at work can help you push ahead with your career and goals.

Being able to speak up for yourself, politely and confidently, is important — but it can be easier said than done.

“It can be difficult to assert yourself at work, particularly so if you have anxiety. Anxiety is a fear-based condition characterised by parlaying worries,” according to Melanie Phelps, a psychologist and member of the Counselling Directory.

“Sufferers tend to be very much future-focused whilst also having a negative mindset. The anxious person therefore will be constantly considering all potential negative future consequences and outcomes of any course of action or conversation,” Phelps said.

“This in itself is mentally exhausting and compromises logical decision-making and the ability to think straight when put on the spot.”

If you’re anxious, you may also be more likely to feel fearful of judgement, making a mistake, or upsetting others by saying something wrong, Phelps said. This might mean you feel better in the short term, but avoiding doing or saying anything could hurt in the long run.

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“Assertion is about speaking up, compromising, negotiating, considering the other person's point of view, and starting a conversation without knowing what the outcome will be, which is extremely difficult for someone with anxiety as they have less mental energy available and their mind is constantly working overtime in trying to consider and predict all possible future outcomes,” she explained.

So how can you assert yourself?

Simple changes in the way you speak can help you feel more assertive. Using “I” in statements can help keep things clear when you’re talking or making a request. It can also leave less room for people to take advantage of you.

It can also help to recognise that assertiveness doesn’t come naturally to everyone — we all have to work hard to stand up for ourselves at some point.

“If you feel comfortable speaking to others at work or in your friendship circle, this can help normalise how you feel,” Phelps said. “Many people suffer anxiety and it’s very common. Knowing others have experienced, or are also experiencing this, is validating.”

Phelps also recommends mindfulness as a helpful skill to enable people to be present in the moment, which can help keep you calm when you’re under pressure.

“Simple techniques can help such as taking awareness of your feet by noticing how they feel in your shoes and how the ground feels beneath your feet or when you wiggle your toes,” she said. “This can be revisited to keep grounded. We liken the mind to a wandering puppy that needs to come back to heel — focusing on the feet naturally takes awareness away from what is going on in the head.”

It can also be helpful to identify how you act, according to Counselling Directory member Peter Klein, who specialises in treating problems such as stress, worry, anxiety, depression, and OCD.

“Relevant situations could, for example, be avoided all together, or people could excessively apologise for standing up for themselves or avoid eye contact. All of those behaviours confirm that assertiveness is something unmanageable (even though it may be the easy option in the short term) and keep the problem going,” Klein said.

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“The next step is to slowly reduce those behaviours and to be fully aware when engaging in more assertive behaviour,” he said.

“One way of measuring if the above is working is to evaluate one's own emotions. If a tingle of anger starts replacing anxiety, then that's a good step forward. One last point to remember is that unassertive people often worry that they may go too far and become aggressive.

“This is never the case as healthy assertive behaviour will at the beginning feel like they are going too far, as their mind is trying to trick them to going back in their comfort zone.”

If anxiety has a serious impact on your life, there are a number of steps you can take. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you identify negative thought patterns and behaviours and change them. Your doctor can help advise you on the best course of action to take.