You CAN stand up for yourself
*It just takes practice
Never too young (or too old)
Yesterday I saw one of my former English students, let’s call him Adan.
He was part of an exam prep class of 13–15 year-olds. Adan wants to learn. The rest of the students want to gossip, giggle, shriek and scroll through Instagram. I could see Adan getting more and more frustrated, despite my best efforts to make up for the noise with extra one-to-one guidance.
Then, one day, he wasn’t in class. Nor the next. Nor the next.
It turns out this young teenager had gone to the head of the school, explained his frustrations, and transferred to a different (quieter) class.
The satisfaction of self-assertion
When I bumped into him, he looked different: smiling, animated, confident — in short, like someone who has just discovered the life-altering satisfaction of standing up for himself.
What he did was pretty awesome, when you think about it.
We are not routinely taught to assert ourselves. It should come naturally but the truth is, much of our socialization is focused on learning to follow instructions, fit in, change ourselves instead of the situation.
Those of us who were raised by parents who had no real clue (or desire) about how to instill self-worth, boundaries, etc are at an even bigger disadvantage. We don’t learn to identify or value our needs.
Acknowledging your needs
How can we learn what we really want and need, so we can then act on it?
It begins by acknowledging how we feel — and accepting that those feelings are valid. If, like me, you were taught to suppress your feelings and “behave” instead of expressing your needs this can be tough, but it is essential.
“ Anger is an especially useful clue…” Dr Jim Taylor wrote in Psychology Today. “Whenever you feel anger, don’t assume that it is the real emotion you are experiencing. Rather, anger is a defensive emotion that protects you from facing much more painful emotions (e.g., sadness, fear, or loneliness)… that were not adequately met as a child.”
When your emotions start sizzling, you have to take the time to look into that spitting mess and see what’s actually beneath it.
Adan was growing visibly annoyed, even angry, at the other student’s behavior. Instead of staying in a reactive cycle of coming to class — getting angry — coming back again he found a way to break the cycle.
Once you have assessed your feelings, it’s time to take action. We have two choices: try to change the problem, or trying to change our relationship to it.
If Adan had tried to change the problem he’d still be aggravated, trying in vain to get his rowdy classmates to pipe down. Instead, he changed his relationship to the problem by removing himself to a better situation.
This requires maturity and analysis. We can’t always physically remove ourselves from difficult situations, whether at home or work. However, we can mentally choose to engage in a different way.
Instead of reacting, you can proactively decide what you will say/do/permit in a given circumstance, and abide by those boundaries.
If this upsets other people — fine. They are entitled to their feelings. You can respect their views without having to change or compromise yourself.
Selfishness is social
Healthy selfishness, which drives self-assertion and promotes strong boundaries, is fundamentally good for society.
You cannot have respect or empathy for others if you haven’t first developed self-respect and self-compassion.
“It is natural to man… to do everything for his own sake,” said the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus. “[But] the rational animal can attain nothing good for himself, unless he contributes some service to the community. So it turns out that to do everything for his own sake is not unsocial.”
To boldly go…
Standing up for yourself can be hard, if you’re out of practice. It is a muscle you have to develop, a habit you need to create.
As you do, you develop the happy confidence I saw in Adan: a sense that you are a person who matters, who has agency, and who has a right to making the best of wherever you find yourself.