Standing up for yourself

By: Arthur Wenk , Jul 03, 2012

How can I learn to stand up for myself as an adult?

Do you ever have the feeling that the rest of the world acts as if you're not there? That you don't really count? This happens when you have a core belief that says "I don't matter."

How does this happen? Infants expect to receive certain vital messages from their caregivers: "You are valued. You are accepted. You are loved. You are understood. You are respected." Children who receive these messages develop self-confidence and a healthy sense of their own place in the world.

Children who fail to receive these messages know (emotionally, not rationally) that something is wrong, and they are entirely correct. But they go on to an incorrect conclusion: if something is wrong, it must be my fault. (Remember, this takes place well before the development of a child's powers of reasoning.) In response to this belief a child adopts one of the following strategies:

(1)  Become invisible (if I can't be seen, maybe the problem will go away or I won't be blamed).

(2)  Numb out (if I can't get the affection I need anyway, it's better not to need affection).

(3)  Become perfect—perfect in behavior, in school, in sports, or whatever (if I'm perfect, they'll have to love me).

Underlying all of these strategies is the basic belief: I don't matter; I don't count.

Years of this approach to life produces a philosophy, if you can call it that, of "I'll have whatever you're having." This pattern makes for a very docile, easy-to-get-along-with person, but one completely lacking in self-esteem and incapable of being a partner in the best sense of the word.

As an adult, how can you reverse this pattern? Long-held core beliefs are difficult to change, but we have a powerful tool in the form of cognitive dissonance. The emotional and rational sides of the brain hate to be in conflict (cognitive dissonance). When conflict occurs, the emotional brain (your inner five-year-old) invariably wins, as the rational mind invents reasons—we call them rationalizations—to justify the capitulation.

You've probably heard the phrase "Fake it till you make it." If you consistently act in a way that contradicts your core beliefs, the rational mind eventually comes around and adopts a new self-belief to accommodate the actions.

Here's how it works: in every possible situation, ask yourself "What do I want?" This simple question may prove difficult to answer if you've spent years saying "I'll have whatever you're having." You may not even know what you want. But you can develop self-awareness and self-esteem like any other underused muscle. Just keep at it. 

You may find the second part of the exercise more difficult: you must announce what you want. I'm not saying you must demand it or insist on it-you're never going to become a controlling, bossy person—but you must voice it. After all, isn't everyone entitled to give an opinion? That everyone includes you.

So when the group discusses where to eat or what movie to see, you will no longer sit out the discussion and wait to go along. You will now announce, "I'd like Chinese," or "I'd like to see the new George Clooney movie." These simple words may dismay friends who have always thought of you as someone who can't say "Boo," but remember, everyone is entitled to hold and voice an opinion.

And when you express your opinion, for goodness sake don't end the statement with a question mark, as if to apologize for the amount of air you consume. Sit or stand up straight, look someone in the eye, and declare your desires in a measured, confident tone. (Hearing that voice for the first time may surprise you, too.)

If you want to accelerate the process, buy a copy of Patrick Fanning's book Self-Esteem, or Harriet Braiker's The Disease to Please, and do the exercises as you read. You may also require the assistance of a psychotherapist, but just teaching yourself to "walk the talk" may have a dramatic effect.

Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.

Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.

Art currently practices at Wilson Counselling Associates in Oakville, Ontario.