1. Define it
There are many reasons why you may have trouble standing up for yourself. Identifying the underlying cause is beneficial to tackling the issue because it affects how you approach changing the behavior. Plus, naming your dilemma can be a relief itself. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety or social phobia causes “fear, anxiety, stress, embarrassment and humiliation on a daily basis.” On the other hand, shyness is a personality trait. Barish expands on that definition by saying there are “people who experience shyness.” This phrasing avoids labeling people with a static description. Whether you suffer from social anxiety, experience shyness in certain situations or fall somewhere in between, defining it gives you more power over it.
2. Visualize it
What does standing up for yourself look like? Again, this answer will be different for everyone. Answering it will clarify your approach even more. Perhaps standing up for yourself means being more honest with friends and family. It could mean tossing your idea into the ring during a work meeting. Maybe there’s a bully you’d like to confront. Visualize yourself practicing assertive communication. Beware of “fortune-telling,” or imagining the worst case scenario. You can’t predict how others will respond; focus on yourself.
3. Start small
“Often, when thinking about standing up for ourselves, we may only pay attention to the ‘big’ things when in reality there are many moments where we may stand up for ourselves that we miss,” says Barish. Before riling yourself up over incredibly daunting scenarios, look for tiny instances throughout the day to assert yourself. “For example, maybe you have plans with a friend to grab dinner and they want Chinese food, but you don’t want that cuisine. Sharing your desire for something else is a version of standing up for yourself.”
4. Set a date
For larger, potentially more difficult conversations that require extra courage, request a date and time with your audience beforehand. Make sure they’ll be available to listen and discuss without interruption. This could mean scheduling a meeting to ask your boss for a raise or inviting your partner on a phoneless walk so you can talk about your relationship. You deserve undivided attention and uninterrupted time.
5. Get comfortable saying “no”
This is a big one. Many people are afraid to disappoint others, so they say “yes” to everything. Some of us don’t like confrontation, so we avoid it at all costs. However, saying “no” is a healthy and valid response to requests you either cannot or do not have the capacity to fulfill. In a professional setting, saying “no” can be more difficult. But, if you’re overwhelmed, some alternatives to saying “no” are requesting an extension, getting assistance from a co-worker, or asking your supervisor to prioritize tasks.
6. Surround yourself with power phrases
Carl Richards of The New York Times writes that he keeps a notecard with the word “No” on it in his pocket. It serves as a nice reminder that he is allowed to reject opportunities. Richards also notes the practice of saying “No” allows him time to say “Yes” to the projects he does want in on. Whether it’s a giant “No” or “You can do it,” or “You deserve it,” surround yourself with phrases that inspire you to stand up for yourself.
7. Give yourself a mantra
Similarly, choose a mantra to help you push through uncomfortable situations. Mantras are slogans or meditations you can tell yourself over and over throughout the day. They keep us on track when our focus shifts and they remind us what’s important. If you’re afraid to speak up in a conversation, repeating your mantra to yourself should bolster your courage to say what you’d like to say.
8. Practice empowering body language
Body language is the unconscious, nonverbal communication device that gives us away instantly. How you stand, where you put your hands, the angle of your head tilt—all of these movements tell the story of what is going on inside your head. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist known for her research on body language, says how you hold yourself has a direct effect on your brain. Stand tall and take up space, and your brain automatically believes you are more powerful. Practice getting comfortable in poses that communicate confidence, authority, and earnestness. Start by uncrossing your arms, rolling your shoulders back, and faking it ‘til you feel it.
9. Set boundaries for yourself
You’ve got to know what your deal-breakers are. You simply cannot negotiate or assert yourself without understanding your limits. This could look like setting aside one night per week that is all yours—no meetings, no parties, no exceptions. Maybe it means not checking your email after 8 p.m. Whatever it is, think of it as a guide to confident decision-making.
10. Set expectations for others
While similar to boundaries, expectations are different in that you communicate them to others in advance of an event. Expectations should fall within your boundaries. Expectations can feel like entitled ultimatums; however, they are great opportunities to openly communicate with others. Plus, many people are grateful for the information. Calling your parents before Thanksgiving to let them know you’d like vegetarian options is setting an expectation (within your boundary of “I do not eat meat.”).
11. Practice frequent exposure
Barish recommends practicing exposing yourself to situations in which you need to stand up for yourself in order to get better at it over time. It might sound like Fear Factor at first, but hear us out. Exposure is like exercise. Just like going to the gym, begin by lifting small weights before grabbing the heavy-duty stuff. Maybe you begin with simple declarations of personal opinions or wants. “I don’t want pizza. I’d prefer spaghetti.” Gradually increase the frequency of these less intense statements. Ideally you’re exposing yourself to some type of situation that requires you to stand up for yourself every day.
12. Increase exposure intensity
After you’ve practiced exposure to less intense situations, increase the intensity. Each person’s hierarchy of intensity is going to be different. “We measure SUDs (Subjective Units of Discomfort) from zero to 100,” says Barish. “When it comes to exposures, consider ways to elevate your SUDs levels. This doesn’t mean doing something that is a 100 right off the bat! Instead, try to think of something that might fall around a 60. At a certain point, if the exposure feels too intense or not intense enough, adjust accordingly.”
13. Consider the duration of exposure
Challenge yourself to stay in an exposure longer than might be comfortable. Double down on a request or repeat yourself to ensure you’ve been heard. “Try to stay for even one extra minute [at a party] to prove to yourself that you can do it,” suggests Barish.
14. Be OK with diSagreement
As part of The New York Times’ guide on living better, Catherine Saint Louis encourages folks everywhere to get more comfortable disagreeing with each other. You simply cannot please everyone. Disagreement may feel uncomfortable, and that’s okay. People will recover from a disagreement - and chances are they will better respect your boundaries moving forward.
15. Avoid superiority or aggression
Assertiveness is not aggression. Insisting your needs, ideas, thoughts or opinions are superior to someone else’s will put them on the defensive and turn you into a bully. Instead of resorting to aggression and superiority or giving in to another’s aggression and superiority, it’s OK to agree to disagree.
16. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes
Prevent yourself from coming across as superior or too aggressive by putting yourself in the other party’s shoes. Who is your audience? What do they value and what are their boundaries? This not only leads to a more compassionate discussion, but it often results in a more positive outcome. When people feel heard, they tend to be more willing to hear from others. (Pro tip: This also means using the listening skills you’ve likely acquired as an introvert to your advantage.)
17. Use “I” statements
Using “I” statements like “I need…” and “I feel…” instantly humanizes the speaker. They make for succinct and direct communication, which leads to stronger dialogue and more clarity. Saint Louis also notes these types of phrases work better than “you” statements, which can sound accusatory or patronizing.
18. Disregard those who disapprove of your new-found confidence
Shy people who start standing up for themselves may startle those closest to them. You may get questions like, “Where is this coming from?” Guess what? It’s coming from you! Don’t let anyone’s negative response or attitude towards your character shift deter you. If they can’t handle it, they were probably taking advantage of you before.
When in doubt, look to the many experts who have written and discussed extensively on the topic of standing up for yourself. These are books, podcasts, and articles that speak to the tips and tricks we’ve listed.