People, especially women, don’t advocate for themselves enough. We’ve been taught to trust the experts, to be nice, to make others feel better about themselves, to not make waves. But we aren’t taught something even more important – to stand up for ourselves, to speak up when something isn’t right, to demand to be heard. We’re not taught self-advocacy, and that’s such shame. It’s crucial.
What is Self-Advocacy?
Self-advocacy is the act of advocating for one’s self. It means speaking up at the dr.’s office when they aren’t listening to your symptoms or telling your partner that they crossed your boundaries. Those seem like very different things, but they all ultimately lead back to advocating for yourself.
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Why is Self Advocacy Important?
It’s important to self-advocate because you’re the one who knows yourself best. You’re always going to be your own number one fan and your own biggest cheerleader.
Let’s face it. Many people are inherently selfish. They are going to look out for their own self-interests above everything else, and you should too.
Now, I’m not saying that you should just be like, “screw everyone else, I got mines!”. Advocating for yourself doesn’t have to mean being self-absorbed and not caring about everyone else. It’s about making sure that your own tank is full. Think of it as putting your oxygen mask on before helping others. It doesn’t mean you aren’t going to help others; it just means that you have to help yourself first. Being healthy and happy will give you the energy to help others even more.
What are the Three Parts of Self Advocacy?
To appropriately advocate for yourself and your needs, there are three main things you need to consider. You need to know yourself, know your own needs, and know how to get those things that you need.
To best advocate for yourself, you need to know yourself. Learn your own strengths and weaknesses. Know what you can and can’t achieve. Listen to your body, and try to understand what it’s telling you (this is extremely important when advocating for yourself at a dr.’s office!).
You will know yourself better than anyone else on this planet. I know we like to refer to experts, especially in healthcare, but they are experts in medicine; they aren’t experts on you. You are the only expert on you. So, you need to gather all the information you can so that you’re armed with your own expert opinion on what you need.
Know Your Needs
Now that you know yourself, it’s much easier to identify your needs. Perhaps you’ve struggled with advocating for yourself in relationships. Now is the time to sit down and really think about what you need from a partner.
Do you need someone who will help with childcare and daily chores, or do you need someone who is a good provider? Maybe you need someone who pulls their weight in both areas, or you need someone to be your cheerleader and support.
Whatever you need out of a partnership is personal, and it’s fine. However, you can’t expect everybody to bend to your needs. There is a partner out there who fits with you and can provide exactly what you need. Don’t settle for someone who won’t.
Compromise and Abuse
I think it’s important to discuss the difference between compromising, abuse, and setting needs/boundaries. These things can get muddled up, especially in relationships, and someone may think they are just “setting boundaries” or “getting what they need” when they are, in fact, abusive. The opposite could be true as well. People often compromise on their own needs and end up being abused because they think compromise makes a healthy relationship.
There is a fine line between setting a healthy boundary, compromising, and abuse.
If your boundaries are controlling, i.e., they prevent your partner from ever doing what they want to do (you police their outfits, you decide who they talk to and when they aren’t allowed to have friends), that crosses the line to abuse. However, your boundary needs to be that your partner contributes to the household, and it isn’t abusive to tell them that they need to pay their share of the bills. They are actually abusing you if they don’t contribute to the bills and claim it’s unfair of you to tell them how to spend their money. This is a form of financial abuse.
These things are tied so tightly together that it’s sometimes hard to see when a boundary crosses a line into abuse or when you are compromising so much that you are actually being abused. If you can’t tell the difference or feel like something might not be right, see a therapist. They can help you set healthy boundaries and identify abusive behavior, both in yourself and your partner.
Know How to Get What you Need
The final part of self-advocacy is knowing how to get what you need. Oftentimes, this is as easy as speaking up when something isn’t right. Unfortunately, easy is a relative term.
When I was so sick that I couldn’t eat and was vomiting after nearly every meal, I went to the emergency room on numerous occasions. Each time, the ER doctors said it was just GERD, that I needed to see a gastroenterologist, get an endoscopy, take pills for GERD. I did get an endoscopy that found nothing wrong, I was referred to doctor after doctor, and none of them would listen to me about what I thought was wrong.
Finally, I spoke up. I told them that I was fairly certain it was my gall bladder. Every older family member had theirs removed, and the symptoms were the same (pain in the side, indigestion, etc.). They decided to listen and test me for gallbladder issues and discovered that it was so inflamed it needed to come out. I was taken from the ER up to surgery, and my gall bladder was removed that very day. Astonishingly, I haven’t had any serious issues with indigestion or vomiting since.
I knew that the only way I would get the doctor to test my gallbladder was by speaking up. This is often true when advocating for yourself in relationships, in the classroom, and at work. Sometimes, speaking up is not enough, and you will need to switch providers, speak to a therapist, or even end a relationship. Being willing to follow through with these drastic steps is key to successfully advocating for yourself.
Self-Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities
Self-advocacy is often discussed when talking about individuals with disabilities. The sad truth is that the disabled often have to be their own self-advocates because society isn’t built to help them be successful.
Although the ADA (American Disability Act) is meant to protect the disabled and ensure their access to equal protections and reasonable accommodations, many employers (and other members of society) don’t know the full extent of the law. They will do what they can to skirt regulations. Part of advocating for yourself is knowing the rights of the disabled under these laws. Unfortunately, many disabled people have to fight tooth and nail to have their legal rights acknowledged and provided for, and that’s just one aspect of self-advocacy.
Those living with invisible disabilities sometimes have a harder time getting a doctor to believe them. My cousin has a rare genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome with hypermobility. This disorder leads to a host of problems, including extreme fatigue, allergies, and chronic pain. She has also been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.
These symptoms made finding a doctor who would listen exceedingly difficult. Many told her that it was just anxiety; the symptoms were in her head. It took her years of doctor’s visits, referrals, requesting second opinions, and more before she finally got an appointment at the Mayo Clinic, where they diagnosed her.
The fact that she had to fight so hard to get a diagnosis is horrifying. Many disabled people are in the same boat, struggling silently with hidden illnesses that nobody takes seriously. Our medical system wasn’t designed to help them, and they often can’t afford the care or treatment they need to be successful in their lives.
Advocating for yourself goes beyond advocating at a doctor’s office or for a reasonable accommodation at work. It also means advocating for equality under the law and for access to the care that you need. Advocate for yourself at the voting booth by choosing representatives who will fight for your rights and at public forums where changes to the law are discussed. It’s a never-ending battle.
Why Don’t we Advocate for Ourselves More?
There’s a host of reasons why people don’t advocate for themselves more, and many people may have their own individual reasons as well. However, I think a main reason why women, in particular, don’t is that we are conditioned not to.
We’re taught that expressing our own needs and setting healthy boundaries is selfish. We’re told not to make waves, to kowtow to people making unreasonable demands of us, and that if we do speak out, we will be seen as “bitches” or “bossy.” Our entire lives, we are taught to put ourselves second. Is it any wonder that we struggle to speak up as adults and end up in abusive relationships?
Advocating for ourselves in a professional setting is just as difficult. Not only are we all, men and women, taught to trust the experts, but women, in particular, are dismissed by doctors. Our pain is not taken as seriously, so even when we do speak up, it often doesn’t help. Some women may decide that it’s pointless to advocate for themselves because it doesn’t help. And while it may be true that it doesn’t solve every situation, it will help in the long run.
How Can I Advocate for Myself More?
It’s challenging to change years of conditioning, but it can be done. There are a few things you can do to advocate for yourself more.
Know Your Stuff
The first thing is to arm yourself with information. Part of this is knowing the three parts we discussed above. Know exactly what you need, why you need it, and how it will help. This is incredibly important when advocating for tests at a doctor’s office or for a reasonable accommodation at work. When you know the law, know the symptoms, generally know exactly what you are talking about, it’s harder for experts to dismiss you.
Know Exactly What You Are Asking For
The next thing that will help you advocate for yourself is knowing what you are asking for. Don’t leave it up to the other party to decide how to help; ask for exactly what you need. If you need a wheelchair ramp to get into the office, ask for it. Be upfront about what you need.
In relationships, this is similar to setting boundaries. Be clear with your partner about what you need out of the relationship and what your boundaries are.
Get it in Writing
When advocating for yourself in a professional setting, a great way to ensure that nobody forgets what was discussed is to get it in writing. Make the doctor write a note in your chart that you requested a certain test. Have an HR representative available at the meeting where you discuss any reasonable accommodations, and send a follow-up email about the meeting to confirm what was discussed. Create a paper trail of your requests whenever and however you can.
It’s hard to speak up for ourselves, and sometimes we can’t do it on our own. It’s okay to ask for help. Have someone come with you to the doctor to help you discuss your symptoms. Hire an attorney to help you navigate the disability laws at work. See a therapist if you have trouble setting boundaries in personal relationships.
Another way to get help is to have a support group that you can bounce ideas off of. You can find advocacy groups for most things online. Others in the group can help you understand that your requests are fair, and it’s okay for you to ask them. It might go the other way, and the group can help you see if you are being unreasonable. Finding people who will be your support system is key to being able to advocate for yourself.
Believe in Yourself
Believe that you are worthy of whatever you are asking for. You don’t deserve to live a life of pain and suffering. You deserve a healthy, happy relationship and a workplace that will make reasonable accommodations. Believing that you are worth it will help give you the confidence you need to fight for whatever you are asking for and not accept anything less.
One of the hardest parts of self-advocacy is being firm. You will hear the word “no” in a variety of forms when trying to speak up for yourself. People will do everything they can to not have to change, not have to spend extra money, not have to go the extra mile. You will hear excuses, variations of “we can’t” reasons why what you’re asking for is unreasonable.
Don’t let all of these knee-jerk no reactions deter you. Stand firm in what you need. Be prepared for it to cost you. If a partner refuses to abide by your boundaries, be prepared to leave them. It’s hard; trust me, I know it’s hard. But in the long run, it will be better for you to be alone than to be with someone who treats you like you don’t matter. Be prepared to seek a second opinion when your doctor isn’t listening, involve HR when a company doesn’t follow the law and request a new teacher when yours isn’t listening to your needs.
Doing these things may hurt the feelings of whoever you are currently working with, and I know that’s hard. We’ve been conditioned to care so much about other people’s feelings that we neglect our own, and we want to bend over backward to make sure nobody else feels bad. I get it. I’m the same way. But we can no longer light ourselves on fire to keep someone else warm. We need to stand by our boundaries and advocate for what we deserve, and if that hurts someone else’s feelings, that’s their problem, not ours. We deserve to be taken seriously.
Start Advocating for Yourself
I know that what I’m asking isn’t easy. I’ve struggled with self-advocacy all my life. It’s hard; it’s painful, it’s uncomfortable. I know, god do I know! But I also know that it makes your life better. I’ve been happier and healthier since I started setting boundaries and standing up for myself, both professionally and personally. It’s a difficult journey; I’ll never tell you that it’s not. But the end result is oh so worth it.
So try. Start advocating for yourself. See how much it improves your life. You’ll be kicking yourself for not trying sooner.
Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life.