4 Tips for Speaking Up, Setting Boundaries, and Self-Advocating

I did some really, really scary things in the last couple weeks.

In two separate situations, I advocated for myself by speaking up when I was uncomfortable and setting boundaries.

This has never been my strength. In fact, I have spent most of my life happily prioritizing the comfort of other people over my own needs. I am so conflict-avoidant that doing things I didn’t want to do - or not getting what I needed - felt better to me than the possibility of confrontation with someone else. I sacrificed my own comfort, needs, and even safety, time and time again...in order to protect other peoples' feelings.

It's only been in the last few years that I've realized it is not my job to protect those peoples' feelings - especially not at my own expense. It is not my job to make everyone else around me happy. I like to make people happy, and there are lots of ways that I can do that - but none of them should come at the cost of my own well-being.

Still, even though I have grown to understand this, I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea that someone is upset with me. As a recovering people-pleaser, that knowledge is a hard thing for me to sit with - which is why these recent events felt so powerful. And...terrifying.

In both situations, I knew what needed to be said. When I thought about saying it, I experienced a plethora of fear responses in my body. Racing heart. Tightness in my throat. A drop in my stomach.

And I said it anyway.

I was so proud of myself...

...for about three seconds.

See, in both of these situations, neither of the people I was interacting with reacted positively. In fact, they both punished me: one by shutting down communication entirely and refusing to speak with me further, and the other by leaving me a scathing and cruel voicemail that left me in floods of tears because it was just so mean.

So...I tried to advocate for myself, and I was met with intense negativity. What now?

When I was about eight years old, I accidentally stapled my thumb. I was playing with a stapler, not really realizing what would happen, and I pushed down and knew, instantly, that I'd made a mistake. It happened in slow motion - I felt the metal glide into the soft padding of my thumb, a wave of nausea overtook me, and I had this adrenaline rush that left me dizzy, accompanied by a sinking, horrific feeling that I'd well and truly fucked up this time. What have I done?

I bring this up because that was the very same feeling I had after advocating for myself and causing people to feel discomfort in the process.

What have you done?

Who do you think you are?

How dare you.

Horrible feelings - but they carried some valuable information. They taught me that deep down, I still struggle to believe that I have the right to advocate for myself.

I spun out for a full day following each of these incidents. It was nearly unbearable. I felt like an audacious bitch. I felt like a heartless asshole. I felt like a terrible human being - and I gave myself the space to sit in that discomfort.

It would be easy to decide that these incidents are signs from the universe: signs that I shouldn't speak up. I could view them as confirmation that it isn't safe to self-advocate. I could take them to mean that setting boundaries is nothing but trouble, and it makes people dislike me, and I should just go back to smiling and nodding and making everyone else happy, no matter the cost to my own well-being.

But deep down, I know a strong truth:

Other peoples' reactions to my self-advocacy aren't about me.

And knowing that it's more about them makes it easier to feel peace in trusting I did the right thing.

Does any of this sound familiar? Do you struggle to speak up, set boundaries, and advocate for yourself, your needs, and your well-being? If so, this one's for you! Read on...

4 Tips for Speaking Up, Setting Boundaries, and Self-Advocating

1. Remember that it's never too late to self-advocate.

It's easy to think a missed opportunity is the end of the story - but I'm here to tell you that it's not. Even if the interaction in question has come and gone, you are well within your rights to circle back to it and self-advocate retroactively - just like I did in one of the above scenarios. I didn't say what I needed to during our interaction, so I sent a message later telling the person in question that her actions had made me uncomfortable.

Could I have practiced self-advocacy in the moment? Sure - but the fact of the matter is, I didn't. Take the better-late-than-never approach to advocating for yourself, your needs, and your comfort: taking a belated stand is better than taking none at all.

2. Don't apologize for your self-advocacy.

It is very tempting to start our boundary-setting with "Sorry, but I just want to say..." or some other blow-softening lead-in. Do your best to resist that temptation. Apologizing before you even say anything gives the impression that you don't believe you have the right to speak up - and if you don't believe that, the other person isn't likely to, either.

Maybe you don't believe you have the right to self-advocate. That's okay - and perfectly understandable, especially if you're a woman in the patriarchy. We've all been taught, either directly from our family systems or indirectly through cultural messaging, that girls and women should smile, look pretty, and cater to other peoples' needs over our own. Don't rock the boat. Don't make a scene. Don't be a drama queen. I get it. I have spent my life living out these prophecies, because I was so afraid of what would happen if I didn't.

The fear is perfectly natural...and also, we all need to know, from someplace deep in our bones, that we absolutely have the right to stand up, speak up, and state our boundaries when we experience a violation. If you don't know this yet, the knowledge can be cultivated. And in the meantime...practice. Work on setting boundaries without apologizing for them. It's not easy...but it is possible. I promise.

3. Understand that you're only responsible for your self-advocacy - not for how others react to it.

I'd be lying if I said no one will be upset when you start setting boundaries and self-advocating - especially if you haven't done much of it before. If there are people in your life who have grown used to getting what they want from you, it may come as a shock when you begin to withhold.

The hard truth is, your self-advocacy will likely piss some people off. If you're anything like me - that is, conflict-avoidant to the core and scared of anything remotely resembling confrontation - this fact will probably terrify you. That's okay. It's okay to be scared.

And it's also okay to let people react how they're going to react, with the understanding that their reaction isn't really about you - it's about them.

I'll say that again.

Their reaction isn't about you. It's about them.

That scathing voicemail wasn't really about me. It was about something within the woman who left it that was deeply triggered by being called out. I don't know what that thing within her is - and it's not my job to figure it out. It's not my job to carry other peoples' baggage. My job was to speak up and tell her that her actions made me uncomfortable. The rest? That was up to her. And just because my boundary-setting did not end in a productive and healthy conversation didn't mean that I self-advocated incorrectly, or that I shouldn't have done it at all.

It just means she wasn't ready or able to respect it. Simple as that.

The same is true for the people in your life, too. The failure of others to respect your boundaries, or to react constructively when you set them, says much more about them than it does about you.

4. Know that it's okay to experience fear and self-doubt.

Don't beat yourself up for not being Self-Advocacy Superwoman yet. For those of us who never really learned how to self-advocate, or who received poor models of what self-advocacy really looks like, this shit is hard. Really, really hard. I've climbed mountains and written a book and escaped domestic violence and faced my darkest inner demons via hours upon hours of intense therapy - and still, self-advocacy is one of the scariest things I do. I've made myself vulnerable as fuck and shared extremely personal details of my life on the internet and in print for anyone to see - and still, "I won't allow you to treat me like that" is one of the most terrifying sentences I've ever spoken.

It may get easier. It may not. Either way, it's okay. You're not doing it wrong. You're just doing it - and that's huge and brave and admirable.

And, if you experience the oh-so-cruel Self-Advocacy Hangover after speaking up, remember to give yourself some grace. It's perfectly normal to experience a good old-fashioned case of the oh-shit-what-have-I-dones. In fact, not only is it normal - it's awesome.


Because this is where growth happens: when we allow ourselves to sit in our discomfort, without trying to fix it. Without trying to make it go away or numb ourselves to it. Does it suck? Fuckin' A. That feeling where you want to rip your own heart out of your chest and throw it off a cliff so you don't have to feel the painful feelings anymore? It's not exactly a day at the beach.

But, at the risk of sounding like Pollyanna and making you want to punch me in the face, that pain is valuable. That pain is the fuel for massive, life-changing growth. If we don't allow ourselves to experience it...we're not allowing ourselves to grow and evolve, either.

If you're experiencing a Self-Advocacy Hangover, deal with it however you must. Cancel your plans, stay in bed, cry, throw things (in a safe area and not directly at anyone, please), call your best friend and vent, sob into your cat's fur - whatever that looks like for you. Know that it will feel better soon, and that it's okay that it feels really shitty right now.

If you struggle to self-advocate, speak up, and set boundaries, I hope these tips are helpful for you!