Assertiveness and Guilt

December 27th, 2010


I’m writing an article for the Winter 2011 issue of Bridge on the topic of assertiveness and guilt. Assertiveness is an often-misunderstood communication style, so I begin the article by contrasting it with other styles and then identifying this mysterious link to guilt.

Guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for bad behavior. Many people aren’t used to asking for their needs in an assertive way, so feelings of guilt can arise, as if they have done something wrong. In fact, in some families, asking for your needs is like a violation of the system.

I’m posting the whole article below and welcome your feedback. Bridge is a local journal for therapists and other health care providers and is frequently read by the general public too. If you’d like to join the mailing list, just drop me an email and I’ll be glad to add you.

Assertiveness and Guilt

Clients often come to therapy when they’re trying to make important changes in their lives. This can require developing a more assertive communication style in relationships at home and at work. While it sounds easy, becoming more reliably assertive takes a great deal of practice and skill. Many people encounter a particular type of stumbling block or resistance along the way, known as guilt.

Defining Terms

Assertiveness can be defined as affirming one’s rights or point of view without either aggressively threatening the rights of others, thereby assuming a position of dominance, or submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one’s rights or point of view. (Dorland’s, 2007).

Assertiveness can be contrasted with a few other communication styles, such as passive, aggressive, and the ever-popular passive-aggressive. In a passive style, people try to avoid conflict by not expressing their opinions or feelings and tend not to protect their rights. Grievances in a relationship can easily build up. In an aggressive style, people express their feelings and opinions and advocate for their needs in a way that violates the rights of others. In a passive-aggressive style, people appear passive, but actually act aggressively in subtle and indirect ways. Ironically, each of these styles may be related to a sense of powerlessness or helplessness. (Benedict, 2010).

Guilt can be defined as a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime or wrong, whether real or imagined. John Grohol (2007) writes that guilt can be an emotional warning sign with a purpose: we have a chance to examine our behavior and how it affect others. However, he writes, “the problem arises when our behavior isn’t something that needs re-examining, nor is it something that needs to be changed.” This is known as unhealthy or inappropriate guilt. The trick here is to differentiate between feeling remorse in order to learn something and making a desired change and then noticing a sense of guilt arise.

Understanding Shame

While guilt is feeling bad about what one has done, shame is feeling bad about who one is. Laura Gollnick writes that a shame-prone person tends to be very self-focused and have a limited sensitivity to what is actually happening with others. This can lead to a depressive way of looking at the world. “Differentiating shame from guilt may also be helpful, as many clients confuse the two, and culturally, the words are often used interchangeably.” Gollnick says that shame is often decreased by sharing what has happened and how one is feeling. Because shame often includes feelings of internal badness, talking about the experience can be a usefull way to recover a sense of self. (Gollnick, 2004).

The Roots of Guilt

The Control Mastery community has written extensively on the subject of guilt. According to the model, unconscious guilt stems from distorted irrational beliefs about having harmed or been disloyal to someone we feel a special sense of attachment with, such as a parent, sibling or child. This experience of guilt produces anxiety and can erode self-esteem and self-confidence, creating a predisposition to accept mistreatment. (Bush, 1989).

Marshall Bush writes that “irrational guilt arises because children make false causal connections between their own behavior and harmful things that happen … children often blame themselves for mistreatment they experience at the hands of their parents … [and] ordinarily do not know that their parents may irrationally blame, punish, abuse, reject, or neglect them because of the parents’ own psychopathology.”

Because children need to maintain good relations with their family, they may condemn as bad any wish, idea or goal that they believe could harm another family member. This could include independence, autonomy, intimacy and even happiness. (Bush, 1989). Because this happens unconsciously, when children grow into adults they may encounter strong internal resistance to building assertiveness, especially if this communication style threatens the status quo in their early family life.

According to Control Mastery theory, therapists can help clients gain insight into their unconscious guilt by disconfirming these irrational beliefs and helping them master the traumatic childhood experiences that gave rise to those beliefs.


Assertiveness. (2007). Dorland’s medical dictionary for healthcare consumers. Elsevier. Retrieved December 10, 2010, from

Benedict, C. (2010). Assertiveness and the four styles of communication. Retrieved December 10, 2010, from

Bush, M. (1989). The role of unconscious guilt in psychopathology and psychotherapy. The Menninger Foundation.

Gollnick, L. E. (2004). Skilled empathy: creating safety through therapeutic attachment. Altadena: Wellness Plus.

Grohol, J. M. (2007). 5 tips for dealing with guilt. Retrieved December 23, 2010, from

You might also be interested in another blog post I wrote, Saying No Gracefully, which talks about saying no in ways that are respectful both to yourself and to the asker.

image courtesy of Best Art Studios 2

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