I find it difficult to be assertive. How can I change to become a more confident person?

Eleanor Gordon-Smith
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Album/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Album/Alamy

I’m 35, well-educated and world travelled. Yet I find it difficult to be assertive and question myself all the time. Whenever someone has a different thought/opinion to me, I end up conceding verbally, even if in my head I know for a fact they’re not right. I don’t come across as sure of myself and that’s affecting my professional life.

Now that I am working from home, my husband says he doesn’t even recognise me on the phone or in video conferences. He says I become submissive and coy. I believe a part of it is that I am female, have been mansplained to and gaslighted many times before, shushed for laughing too loud and was repeatedly told in my childhood/teenage years to be less impulsive. How can I change to become a more confident person?

Eleanor says: Years ago I was in a meeting with three women. Sitting around the table were an older power figure in broadcast television, a 30-ish-year-old journalist with bobby socks and a habit of giggling, and me. In response to “tea or coffee?” the young journalist said something like “oh I don’t ever mind” with a laugh and an actual finger-twirl of her hair. The older journalist didn’t look up or even pause as she said: “You can stop now, there aren’t any men here.”

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It was brutal and rude. The younger woman told me later she’d been taught what you’re struggling with now: that docility purchased basic needs. She had not been lucky enough to have a childhood or a professional environment that gave her positive attention for being herself. Instead she learned that performing cheerful acquiescence was a way of avoiding punishment and securing esteem. The problem was, she realised after that meeting, that she hated the act almost as much as the people who’d taught her to perfect it.

It is horrible to realise that a mask other people made us wear might have become our face.

But you can become a more confident person the same way you became a less confident one – by honing the act. Write phrases and scripts for the things you find hard to say and practise them out loud, literally. Say “I don’t think that’s quite right” and “I’d rather not” over and over – find an inflection you’re happy with that sounds polite but firm. That way when a real situation makes you start to shrink, you don’t have to simultaneously find your words and calm yourself. You can just reach for the performance and deliver it through the nerves. Being confident is like any other skill: better when you’ve practised, and best trained before trying it in front of a crowd.

Find and cultivate dynamics where you feel like your unshrunken self. It sounds like you’re more free in front of your husband – try to observe as much as you can about how that looks and feels. What pitch is your voice? How fast do you speak? How’s your breath? What do your extremities do? Once you have a snapshot of that feeling, try to extend it bit by bit – go from a conversation with him to one with a stranger at a bus stop or a cafe, trying to keep the feelings you had when you were being your bigger self.

Being more confident might annoy or confuse the people who knew you to be submissive. They might ask what’s wrong or why you’re angry. This will be difficult, especially if it means enduring little reminders of the social censure that made you afraid to be yourself in the first place. It’s hard to feel you’re not as liked or approved of as you could be. But try to hang on to the lesson that many of us learn too late: it’s not worth chasing other people’s esteem if we have to forfeit self-esteem to get it.


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