When And How To Stand Up For Yourself

There are times to stand up for yourself, and there are times when standing up for yourself prevents you from getting what you want. Here's when (and how) to stand up for yourself.
standing up for youself

When And How To Stand Up For Yourself

There’s a famous quote usually attributed to Robert Downey Jr. that states: “Listen, smile, agree… and then do whatever the f— you were going to do anyway.” Downey Jr. was quoting fellow actor Judd Nelson at the time, but the message is equal parts clear and prescient: you don’t always have to stick up for yourself by speaking up for yourself.

In life, there are times when we feel slighted by others. We’re angry, hurt, annoyed, disappointed, or dismayed. Our natural instinct may be to want to lash out and get even. We don’t deserve to be walked all over, so why should we let it happen?

In truth, it’s more complicated than that. You have to know when to pick your battles. There are times to stand up, speak out and advocate for yourself. And then there are times to be reticent—times where the very act of standing up for yourself actually prevents you from getting the outcomes you want.

Here’s when to stand up for yourself—and when to just listen, smile, agree, and do whatever you were going to do anyway.  

When to stand up for yourself

1. When absolutely necessary

There are some times when standing up for yourself is a no-brainer. If you’re in a toxic work environment, experiencing an awful relationship or dealing with a friend or family member who’s completely unreasonable, then you might choose to advocate for your own needs.

That said, even this is more complicated than it seems. You might want to go in full-throttle with a laundry list of every slight you’ve ever experienced at the hands of someone unfair, cruel or vindictive, but doing so doesn’t guarantee the other party is going to react how you want them to. 

If you’re in a truly precarious situation, it’s always better to get in touch with a professional first. Getting angry with an abusive partner could lead to potentially disastrous outcomes, so in these cases, “standing up for yourself” might look like finding the quietest, simplest exit. Same goes for a bad boss—you don’t want to tank your career by making a scene in your superior’s office.

Instead, standing up for yourself when absolutely necessary is best done in the context of a situation where you’re safe to do it AND it’s completely justified. If your normally-understanding parents are causing relationship-fracturing issues between you and your partner, that’s a great moment to stand up for yourself, because the act of doing so is both necessary and useful. 

That’s what “absolutely necessary” means: it means your life will be actively better if you do it, and that the people you’re at odds with will respect what you have to say when you say it. 

2. In important relationships

In keeping with our first point, important relationships are usually the only relationships where it’s worth it to stand up for yourself. If the people involved in the situation you’re dealing with are good friends, romantic partners, parents, siblings or other important figures, then it’s more than okay to stand up for yourself—these are relationships that matter, after all.

Think about it this way: who’s REALLY important to stand up to, and who doesn’t matter enough to waste the time and energy on? Is the annoying coworker who sends snarky emails or nitpicks your work worth “standing up to”? Or would the real victory simply be to focus less on people like that?

Same goes for other acquaintances, strangers and people you don’t normally associate with. If your friend’s husband’s cousin’s brother makes an obnoxious political comment at a dinner party, will it serve you to put him in his place? Or would your night go more smoothly if you let him make a fool of himself in front of everyone—and then laugh about it with your real friends later?

3. When it leads to what you want

You may have caught onto what we’re saying already, but let’s be clear: when it comes to knowing when to stand up for yourself, it’s about the bigger picture. Think about what sticking up for yourself does, and whether or not the final outcome is something you really want. 

Standing up for yourself FEELS good. It’s rewarding in the moment to tell others where you stand, and that they’re not meeting your expectations. But unless it actively improves your life and the lives of those you care about most, it’s usually not worth it. 

Now that we’ve unpacked when to defend yourself, let’s look at how to do it. 

How to stand up for yourself

1. Lead with assertiveness, not aggressiveness

It’s hard to stay even-tempered when you’re standing up for yourself, but the best outcomes happen when you do. Instead of flying off the handle and telling someone off, you’re better served by being sure-footed, assertive and absolutely clear about what you want.

Knowing how to stand up for yourself means knowing how to always keep your eyes trained toward your personal “North Star.” Why are you having this conversation? What is the main thing you want to accomplish here? How can you make that absolutely clear in the moment?

2. Make agreements, not boundaries

Many people think standing up for yourself means setting strict boundaries. It doesn’t. 

That’s because boundaries rarely get us what we’re really after. Boundaries keep us focused on what we don’t want; making agreements turns us towards what we do want.

Here are some examples of boundaries vs agreements so that you can see the difference:

  • Boundary: Stop smoking in the house; I hate the smell.
  • Agreement: Can you please smoke outside? I want the house smelling fresh.
  • Boundary: Don’t talk to me like that at work, or I’ll quit.
  • Agreement: When you raise your voice, I feel intimidated and stressed. If you speak to me in a calmer tone, I can do my job more efficiently and effectively.
  • Boundary: You make me feel disrespected and undervalued in this relationship.
  • Agreement: Feeling respected and valued is so important to me in this relationship. I feel respected and valued when you back up what I say to the kids and when you compliment me and acknowledge my efforts.

The distinction is subtle but powerful. Instead of stating what you don’t want, you’re asking for what you do want. You’re also giving people the tools to be successful with you. If they choose not to take you up on that, you can choose what you will and will not tolerate. 

3. Get the other person’s story

When standing up for ourselves, it’s really easy to get lost in our own world. But getting the other person’s perspective has value, too.

Sometimes you don’t know why someone’s behaving the way they are—they seem to violate your principles for reasons you can’t comprehend. When that’s the case, it’s worth getting the full picture.

Do they know they’re stepping on your toes?

Is there something going on in their personal life that’s making them act out?

Are they under some kind of stress, pressure or other situation that’s created a change in your relationship dynamic?

These are all things you won’t know unless you ask and listen.

4. Be prepared to walk away

We covered why it’s not always best to stand up for yourself—and this is why. Because when you do it, there’s a chance something could fracture beyond repair. That’s fine; it has to happen sometimes. But know that when you DO stand up for yourself, you are automatically acknowledging that in order to properly self-advocate, you may need to walk away from the situation entirely. 

Once you’ve come to peace with that in your mind, nothing can stop you.

5. Get in touch with a pro

Knowing how to stand up for yourself isn’t always easy. That’s because every situation is different. Depending on the person you’re dealing with, they may be defensive, agreeable, kind, heartless, thoughtful or thoughtless.

That’s why it helps to get an outside perspective on how to deal with something that’s become too much to bear. Get in touch with a pro—whether that’s a therapist, a work mentor, a coach, or an uninvolved friend.

These people are your lifelines during difficult social exchanges. By being removed from the situation, they can help you get a bird’s eye view of what’s really going on, instead of getting lost in the emotional nature of the exchange.

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