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How to stand up for yourself (and why you find it so difficult)

For some of us, standing up for ourselves doesn’t come naturally – in fact, it might even feel impossible. Maybe you’re someone who doesn’t like to “rock the boat” so you swallow any opposing thoughts or feelings to avoid confrontation. 

Going along with what other people want just feels like the better – or easier – thing to do.

But when we allow people to walk all over us, it’s going to leave us with a bad taste in our mouth. We’re going to be left with anger and resentment. We might wonder why people are so inconsiderate… Why they don’t just know what we want. 

Standing up for ourselves is about having boundaries, and importantly, knowing how to assert them. When we don’t do this, we become passive – we allow life to just “happen”, often trampling over us along the way.

If you find it difficult standing up for yourself, you’re probably out of touch with your own needs – and overly attuned to other people’s. When this happens, you leave yourself wide open to being taken advantage of.

You might relate to any of the following:

  • You fear you’ll be faced with rejection or anger if you don’t give in to other people’s wants and needs. 
  • The idea of standing up for yourself fills you with dread. You know that deep down you want to say something but the words don’t come. Or maybe they do come, but further down the line, at the wrong moment and in a burst of anger and frustration.
  • You generally prefer to play second fiddle instead of taking the limelight.
  • You likely overcommit yourself at work e.g. working long hours, taking too much on etc.
  • You feel lost or directionless
  • You avoid confrontation at all costs
  • You might feel guilty when you do manage to stand up for yourself
  • You’re a people-pleaser. In fact, you’re comfortable pleasing everyone but yourself.

Why do I struggle to stand up for myself?

The first step in learning how to stand up for yourself is to understand why you feel this way. Regardless of whether you’re more naturally introverted or extroverted, expressing and asserting yourself should be relatively instinctive. When it’s not – and when it feels overly-challenging – it’s usually rooted in the past.

Somewhere along the line you might have learnt that it was bad to have needs or that your needs weren’t as important as other people’s. This belief might be so deep-rooted that you’re not even aware of it at a conscious level. But deep down, it holds you prisoner to the needs and wishes of everyone but yourself.

Perhaps your parents weren’t very tuned into your needs growing up. You might have looked after a parent who was unwell (mentally, physically or emotionally) and who over-relied on you. Maybe you were overly empathic towards them. You worried about hurting their feelings or making them feel bad if you were to express how you felt or what you really wanted.

If you relate to this, you might find yourself grappling with a lot of guilt – perhaps even today.

Alternatively, you may have grown up with very strict parents where standing up for yourself was out of the question. A parent – or both – ruled the roost. When you expressed what you wanted or how you felt, you were shot down – punished, ignored or abandoned. Over time, you learnt to make yourself small, and suppress your needs altogether.

If this feels familiar, you might find yourself in similar relationships today. Perhaps it’s a micromanaging boss, a controlling partner, an emotionally draining friend… We tend to seek out similar dynamics to the ones we experienced in childhood because they feel “familiar” to us. 

How to stand up for yourself and break the pattern

Pinpoint why you find standing up for yourself so difficult – did you relate to any of the above? See if you can clearly identify what experiences in your childhood might have led you to undermine your own needs. When we understand why we behave in a certain way, we open the door to changing that behaviour. 

Make a note of all the ways you might be giving too much – in your relationships, at work, home etc. If you’re not sure, try identifying any areas in your life that make you feel angry or resentful. Once you know where the imbalances are, you can gradually start to level them out, one by one.

Get clear on your needs – if you’re not sure what they are, try brainstorming on a piece of paper, writing statements like, 

“I would really love it if…” 

“I want….” 

“It’s important to me that I feel…” 

Considering – and prioritising – other people’s needs has probably become second nature to you. Shift the focus onto you and what you want. You might find that you need to do this over and over again. The brain is a muscle, it’s going to take time to retrain it into focusing on you.

Start small and build your confidence up slowly – assertiveness is a skill which means you need to practice it. It’s likely to feel scary at first so start with the smaller things that don’t feel so intimidating.

Use “I” statements when asserting yourself – this is rule number one in the healthy communication handbook. Some examples of this in action:

“I don’t appreciate it when you take that tone with me” 

“I sense that you’re unhappy with something at the moment. Please can you let me know what’s wrong?”

“I’m not prepared to talk about this today” 

“I’m overworked at the moment and I need you to delegate some of my responsibilities to other members of the team”.

Expect to feel guilty, and push on through anyway – watch out for any guilt, and simply acknowledge it when it comes. Remind yourself that it’s just an old feeling, and not relevant or helpful right now. If it helps, you can visually imagine yourself locking your guilt away in a cupboard/empty drawer in the house.

Consider whether you might be stuck in any unhealthy relationships – if you are, you need to find a healthier balance. Ideally these relationships will naturally shift into a healthier place as you build your assertiveness. If they don’t, you might want to start therapy or consider walking away. The people who love and care for you will want to see you grow. If they don’t, it’s time to fill your world with people who do.

Your desires and needs are just as important as everyone else’s. They might not have been recognised as such when you were younger but you have the power to make sure that they are now. And as you begin to fight your own corner, you’ll find that things begin to shift in your favour.