How to stand up for yourself

Standing Up for Yourself: The Right Way to Be Assertive

Someone says something that feels wrong, crosses a boundary, or is offensive to us, and we let it go because we were too surprised or shocked to speak up.  Whether it’s a derogatory comment, hurtful judgement, aggressive taunt or unfair criticism, we fail in that instant to stick up for ourselves and be assertive.  We think about what we should have said only after the fact, when the moment is passed and the opportunity is lost.

We all have these experiences, and if we don’t act on them, they build up.  Left for too long they can erode your self-esteem and damage your sense of self-worth. 

You may tell yourself that by not responding you are taking the high road, that they’re not worth the effort, but you’ll be inwardly informing your unconscious mind that you’re just not strong enough, clever enough, or quick-witted enough to defend yourself. 

Your outward behavior and self-talk is constantly informing your unconscious mind about who you think you are. Eventually, it will listen and start sending up messages that reinforce those negative thoughts.

The truth is that you are not honoring yourself.  By not being assertive and sticking up for yourself, you are letting others know that as well.  You may even begin to see patterns emerge where more and more people take advantage of you the same way.  These unresolved injustices will fester, and in the longer-term may lead to irrational outbursts, rash decisions, and even anxiety and depression. 

You don’t have to be an expert at snappy-comebacks to defend yourself, and you don’t have to be a jerk to be assertive.  Using these 10 effective techniques you can shift people’s perception of you, and even shift your perception of yourself.  This is a case where you can take conscious action to remain in alignment with your unconscious beliefs.

You will not only feel better about yourself; you will actually become stronger and you will see it affect all aspects of your life.  Follow these simple techniques to stay on top of the conversation, be able to easily express your worth, and become that nice person that nobody wants to mess with.   

When someone says something to or about you, privately or in a group setting, socially or at work, that strikes you as aggressive, disrespectful, or just plain out of bounds, follow these steps:

 1.  Stop Them and Make Them Own It

The most important thing is not to let the moment go by without it being addressed.  What makes you refrain from this is not knowing how to react or what you want to say. 

The good news is, you don’t have to know.  You just need to highlight the moment and call into question what is being said, letting others know you are prepared to assert yourself. 

When you hear that innuendo or underhanded comment, just say, “Wait. What did you say?”  Make them repeat it back to you the way you would if you hadn’t heard it or needed clarification.  When they repeat it, it’s going to put a great big spotlight on it, and also give you a moment to react. 

If it’s a simple slight, all you may need to do is say, “That’s not appropriate.” You may even be able to say why.  “I feel you’re not being appropriate, and here’s why.”  If you are not prepared or there is more to it, go to step #2. 

Another option is a pause and a non-reaction.  If by doing so you can open a gap in the flow of conversation, just your non-verbal body language can be very assertive and convey a message stronger than words can convey. 

Remember that even if the conversation is flowing fast past the offending moment, you can, and should, interrupt, “Hold on, back that up, what did you just say?”

2. Don’t React, Defer

If it’s something more involved such as a policy change, an action they took, or a decision that was made, it may require a discussion you want time to prepare for.  The answer is to defer. 

You can calmly state that you will revisit that comment/decision at some point.  If you are in a group setting, you have just earmarked that part of the conversation in a way that lets others know you are not only capable of sticking up for yourself, but polite enough about it to want to speak privately with the individual in question. 

If you are encountering someone more aggressive and bullying, have a few statements ready to toss back at every taunt that will not allow them to engage you. 

  • I am not going to respond right now.
  • I will be revisiting this with you.  
  • That’s interesting you said/did/decided that.
  • I’m sorry you feel that way.

Notice that these are statements NOT questions.  This is very important.  If you are not used to asserting yourself, questions will slip through your mouth very easily, be careful.  It is not assertive to say, “Can I revisit this with you later?”  Questions give the receiver the option to decline.  Do not give them an option.  You have already decided what will happen.  Make statements. 

It’s important here to remain emotionally neutral.  Don’t be reactive, snide or passive-aggressive.  That will only give them fuel to engage you in a discussion you are not yet prepared for.  That’s the fun part, you don’t have to be reactive.  You have simply commanded respect and attention.

You will feel the power dynamic shift, and know that you have bought yourself time to decide what you would like to do next.

3. Take Time to Navigate Your Emotions.

While you are still in a charged state take a moment to examine your emotions, and decide how to communicate your needs.  Use these steps to navigate your emotions first:

Is it my baggage?  First, know whether you are just being human or if you are reacting to your baggage.  What is baggage?  Baggage is an accumulation of unresolved emotions from the past.  How do you know if you have baggage?    A sure-fire way to know is when you overreact in a situation.  Are you processing emotions in the moment?  Or are you responding to unconscious baggage, in a way that is unwarranted or disproportionate to the situation. 

Lean in and feel your emotions.  When an emotionally charged scenario presents itself to you, just be okay with acknowledging how you are feeling in the moment.  Lean in to those emotions.  Feeling your emotions is how you metabolize them and keep them from obscuring your clarity.

Ask yourself, ‘What just happened?”  Ask what just happened.  Be as objective as you can. Just the facts, like a journalist.  Like an alien reporter.   DON’T get into a story (This person’s a jerk, I can’t get a break, the universe is out to get me, etc.).  Then answer the question: How do I feel right now?  (I am feeling _______).  You are now in a more powerful position.

What is the positive emotion that I want to feel instead?  Now ask yourself: “What do I want to feel instead?”  What is the positive emotion that I want to feel instead of being …angry…sad… fearful…hurt…etc.  How do I want to be instead? (loving, patient, happy, confident, congruent)

4. Get Clear on What You Want

Now that you know what unpleasant feelings have been triggered in you, and have a handle on them, ask these questions:

  • What injustice do I feel took place and why does this matter so much to me?
  • What values, ethics and morals do I have that are being violated here?
  • What should/should not have occurred?
  • What is the outcome I desire?

Remember that the injustice you observe and experience is coming from your perspective and the framework through which you see the world.  Here is where you must devise how you will express your viewpoint.  How will you express why you don’t agree, and what is the outcome you are asking for? 

Get clear on your values. It is crucial that you understand within yourself first, the nature and reason behind the battle you choose to fight.  Your values will guide you in any ensuing discussion. 

Show up for yourself

5. Show Up for Yourself and Have the Conversation

The easiest thing to do at this point is put off having the conversation.  Do not.  You may tell yourself, she was only joking and didn’t really mean it, or I can handle him, or it’s not worth the effort.  Don’t take the bait.

Sticking up for yourself can seem scary and uncomfortable; we may feel unrehearsed, fearful that we will fumble and look weak, or that we will “lose the argument.” 

Being assertive and sticking up for yourself means honoring your truth, whether or not it’s convenient.   A good rule of thumb is to do it the very next day after the event. 

I’m going to give you a very easy technique that will get you around all of that emotional reluctance. 

Don’t be YOU, be an advocate for you.  This means quite literally imagine yourself standing next to you as you speak, as though the you who is speaking were an advocate for someone whose welfare you care deeply about, it just happens to be you.  This mental game is called dissociation, and it does a very nifty job of removing the emotional element from your approach, making it easy to talk. 

You think of yourself in the third person (Gary is very concerned about how he is being treated) only you speak in the first person (I’m very concerned about how I’m being treated).   Feel and visualize yourself as another person in the room, and maintain that feeling throughout the conversation.  (Just don’t gesture towards invisible you, because that would be weird.) 

It’s so much easier to defend another person than it is to defend ourselves.  You can even imagine your you following along behind you as you march into the boss’s office.  Try it, it works! 

Make it spontaneous.  As for the timing of that meeting with your offending boss, coworker, friend, or family member, make it casual and make it a surprise, if at all possible.  Don’t set up a time to talk, that only gives that person time to set up their defenses.  Part of being assertive is giving yourself the advantage.  Just pop your head in their office, sit down at the lunch table, or stop them in the hall.  Choose a “spontaneous” time when you know there should be time to talk. 

Here are some other ways to gain an advantage.  Make no precursors like, “I’d like to discuss what happened yesterday;” make no lame disclaimers like, “I don’t want to bother you but…,” and for God’s sake don’t ask if it’s a good time to talk.  If it isn’t, he/she will tell you, and if they know they are going to be confronted, of course it’s not a good time.  If they blow you off, it’s okay, because the way you began already set the terms for the next time you bring it up. 

So how do you begin?  You begin with what I call your mission statement.   Notice I said statement not question.  Your mission statement includes a) your viewpoint, b) the action/understanding you are looking for, and c) the outcome you desire. 

  • I want to help you realize how your commentary is hurtful and inappropriate, and I need you to lighten up and practice more kindness.
  • I need you to know how the employment policies here are nepotistic and sexist, how they affect the overall productivity of the company, and I want you to consider some changes.
  • I want you to stop treating me as an inferior; I have proven abilities and I demand your respect. 

Your mission statement should be a positive statement.  “I want you to stop making rude innuendos.” is far better than “I want you to stop being such an asshole.” 

Find the right time, find an unplanned time, and sling your mission statement at them.  You will immediately be in a power position, ready with your balanced and calm rationale, and they will be on their back foot trying to defend something you have already framed as indefensible. 

Be authentic and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Renowned social researcher Brené Brown explains how facing and admitting vulnerabilities and insecurities is actually a demonstration of courage.

She describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” It’s that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control.

 “What most of us fail to understand…is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave,” says Dr. Brown. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy courage, empathy, and creativity.” So, while going to that new yoga class may feel uncomfortable, you’re also opening yourself up to the opportunity to make new friends and learn a new, healthy habit.  But if you run away the second those shaky feelings arise; you’re just reinforcing the voice in your head that says I’m not good enough.

Have the conversation

6. Seek to Understand Before Asking to Be Understood

Despite your power position, you will never come to terms unless you first show that you want to understand their position. 

A hallmark of successful people is their ability to appreciate another person’s model of the world.  Ask yourself what drives this person.  Try seeing the world through their eye for a moment.

Stepping into the other person’s perspective is not about dismissing your feelings or compromising your values and principles. It’s about helping you to communicate in a language the other person will understand.

Your efforts to be assertive will have far greater impact when you actively consider what could be going on for them and invite them to share their position. You will diffuse aggressive energy and resistance between you and create a positive space to exchange your points of view and differences.

Never invalidate the other person’s point of view even if it does not make sense to you. It will only serve to set up new barriers that will work against you.  Seek common ground, mutual respect, and workable solutions.

7. Agree If You Can, Set Boundaries If You Can’t

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that being effective in asserting yourself means “winning” or convincing others to adopt your values and point of view.  Asserting yourself does not mean changing the world to suit your way of thinking. 

It’s true that people will not always agree with you, and it’s also true that no one can agree with you if they do not know what you stand for. 

Even if you can’t find agreement, you can usually find better terms with which to move forward, and at the same time give others a sense of what they can and cannot get away with when it comes to you.    

An important part of being assertive then is stating your boundaries and clearly illustrating the line you do not want the other parties to cross.  Be prepared to give clear and unambiguous examples of what is and isn’t permissible for you.

8. Best Practices in Crafting Your Response

You don’t want to over-cook your response.  Give it warranted attention and energy, as viewed from a calm distance, but don’t become that person who always has a self-righteous hill they are willing to die on. 

Choose the optimum energy. Be smart about asserting yourself and think about how subtle or explicit your response needs to be. Remember, assertiveness is open, calm, confident, and positive.

Sometimes a simple comment like “Hey that’s not okay with me” or “I don’t appreciate what you said” or even a friendly “You’re out of bounds there, pal” can be enough to assert your disapproval and change the offending parties’ behavior next time. 

Use story and metaphor to convey meaning. Support your reasoning with specific examples.  When possible use story to convey your point. Stories are powerful because the listener will unconsciously relate to the main character, and will experience the message as though it applied to them.

Finding a good metaphor can also convey your meaning in a way that merely laying out your reasons can never do.   If a coworker‘s volatile moods distract you from your work and makes your day uncertain and emotionally draining, you might do better to say, “When you’re moody, it makes me feel like I’m walking through a minefield.”

Don’t use blame language. Be mindful when you use the word “You.”  “You did this,” “You made things worse,” “It’s your fault,” “You didn’t listen,” are all ways of laying blame. 

This will put your offender on the defensive and make them unwilling to hear you out.  They will feel they are being attacked, and they’ll be correct.  They will then focus on attacking back. 

Stick with the facts and describe their impact . Just as you did for yourself in #3 describe the facts of what happened, and don’t get caught up in the story or drama of it. 

Describe the circumstance in a factual and balanced way, how you felt as a result, why you feel what happened was an injustice and then state the change you wish to experience.

If you can make them understand or at least appreciate your position, you may reap benefits thereafter by having a greater likelihood of your assertions being well-received and adjustments occurring from your action of standing up for yourself.

9. Never Feel Obliged to Let Someone Invalidate Your Experience

Despite being told “you’re taking things out of context” or “you need to lighten up and accept I was just joking,” never forget that your experience is your experience. What you felt and how you were affected, matters. You have every right to dissent to experiencing the same impact again.

For difficult, arrogant and bolder, toxic personalities, beware also the dangers of being gaslighted. Assert your views, opinions and boundaries within your own personal truth, and answer narcissistic projections that it’s really all your fault, or it never really happened, by using these narc-busting responses:

  • You’re allowed to feel that way.
  • Thank you for letting me know how you feel.
  • Well I just wanted to let you know how I feel.
  • I hear you.
  • Thank you for expressing your viewpoint.
  • I’m sorry you feel that way.
  • I agree to disagree.
  • I choose to see things differently.
  • I can live with your faulty perception of me.

You don’t need this kind of person’s stamp of approval to hold onto your reality.

Standing Up For Yourself

10. Use Assertive Body Language to Be Compelling

As a stage director and student of human behavior, I’ve written a lot about how to be powerful and communicate effectively, but here are a few easy and effective tips on how to look assertive while you are being assertive, because there is little worse than speaking assertively with your voice while appearing timid with your body.  

You’re not looking to be intimidating, but you do want to appear as being strong. Here’s how:

Adjust your vocality. Yes, your vocal quality is part of your physicality. Speak lower and slower. Nervous people tend to raise their natural pitch and speak faster. You don’t have to imitate James Earl Jones, just focus on being slower and more resonant in your voice. Watch your inflected endings of your sentences. Don’t make them an upward inflection as in a question, “One time?, at band camp?” This will make your statements sound like questions. We ask questions when we are not sure of ourselves or of what we’re saying. You will convey that weakness. Use an even tone.

Square your stance.  Square your shoulders to them, don’t stand facing at an oblique angle to them.  You’re speaking to them directly so you should be facing them directly. 

Don’t weave.  As you are facing them, refrain from shifting your weight from one side to the other, it makes you look nervous and self-conscious (probably because you are).  People tend to do this unconsciously to burn off nervous energy.  People actually waddle in place, it’s weird, and distracting. Breath and relax, imagine your legs as tree trunks firmly and comfortably rooted in the ground.  The crazy thing is, this visualization actually makes you feel less nervous and self-conscious. 

Keep your head still.  Being expressive is good, however, refrain from gesturing with your head.  Why?  It makes you look less confident.  Imagine seeing yourself on video at fast forward.  You’d look like a bobble head.  Bobble heads look silly, don’t be a bobble head. 

Keep your chin down.  Most people lift their chins when they talk in public, on camera or in a stressful situation.  (If you take bad selfies, this is probably one reason why) It accents your mouth and makes the bottom half of your face look bigger.  Even though you are speaking, you are really communicating your meaning through your eyes.  Dipping your chin brings your eyes forward and lends more intensity and focus to what you are saying. 

Look them in the eye. Yes, look them in the eye. Don’t talk to their mouth or forehead, and don’t look out the window. You can look at both eyes, or one eye, you can break the gaze occasionally and look away as if gathering your thoughts (this is natural eye movement), but don’t over use it, stay engaged. If you really want to creep them out, look not at their eye, but behind it. Look through their eyes as if you are focusing on the inside of the back of their skull. It’s actually easier to maintain, and it makes you seem as though you are peering into their soul!

Relax your shoulders.   When we are nervous or anxious, the shoulders come up and sometimes hunch forward.  It has the unconscious appearance of a shrug.  People shrug when they are not sure.  Tight shoulders are a result of stress, the answer is to take a breath, roll them back, and relax into a more normal position.  Think of a string (like a puppet’s head string) attached through the crown of your head and to your sternum, holding you up. Let your shoulders relax naturally around that.    

Don’t touch your fingers.  Fingers are the easiest things to move, so when we are anxious, they start doing all kinds of tricks; they wiggle, they clench, they pick at each other, get twiddled, tucked, and bitten.  None of that inspires confidence.  You can prevent yourself from doing all of those things by keeping one thought—don’t touch your fingers. 

Gesture with your palms.  Okay, so what can we move?  How do we gesture and convey meaning physically?  Think palms.  Keep your palms open, letting those fingers flow from them, straight and relaxed.  Then gesture with your open palms.  There is virtually no gesture you could make that you cannot make with a set of relaxed open palms.  Try it now… see?  My, my, you are so expressive, clear and confident.  Nice work!

Don’t forget to breath!  Perhaps the most harmful reflex of being nervous or anxious is the tendency we have to stop breathing, or breathing in shallow, rapid upper chest breaths. It makes our muscles tighten, adds to stress, changes our vocal tone, and makes us look uneasy and awkward.  Breath from your diaphragm (think stomach) not from your chest (chest breathing will lift your shoulders). Slow, full breaths. It’s okay to take the time to take a breath––it actually makes you look more in control.

A friend of mine used to give this great advice: “When you’re scared…breathe, when you’re angry…breathe, when you’re sad…breathe, when you’re happy…breathe, when you’re excited…breathe, …just BREATHE! 

Put all these tricks together in front of a mirror and you will be amazed at what you see!

If you’d like all this great info in one easy place, click this link and download our free reference guide Standing Up for Yourself

Final Thoughts

Sticking up for yourself and being assertive is the best way for others to know who you are, and for you to be heard, respected, valued, and loved.  Never deny yourself or others that great gift.  When you fail to stand up for yourself, you are complicit in the act of your being overlooked. 

You can be assertive without being rude or hurting anyone, and you can do it with joy and humor as well.  People will love you for your honesty, your vulnerability, and your power. 

Next time the occasion arises, use these techniques to become that nice person that nobody wants to mess with.