Things happen. You order food at a restaurant and when the meal arrives, it isn’t quite what you asked for. Or, way worse, you’re in the hospital and someone is supposed to come draw your blood at midnight but no one shows. How people respond to these situations differs. Some are quick to point out the error. Others stay quiet to avoid appearing fussy.
If your go-to response is the latter, you’re not alone. Whether being served the wrong meal, feeling unheard by a medical professional, or not getting a coveted assignment at work, many women are reluctant to speak up for the things they need or want. Dr. Laurel Steinberg, New York-based relationship therapist, explains, “Women are often afraid of turning people off by speaking up in ways that would make them seem unladylike, which is likely, because assertiveness in women has been looked down upon for ages.”
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf agrees. “From a young age, women are generally taught to live according to certain societal norms, such as the woman as the peacemaker, nurturer, or comforter.” Women may be uncomfortable with any type of confrontational behavior because they see it as disruptive, but you may find that as you grow older, you’re more apt to stand up for yourself. (Warning: The people in your life may not like it — and that is OK!)
“Older women have more life experience, so they feel more confident about how they respond to things.”
Though that’s not true for everyone. Ageism can cause women to feel silenced, says licensed counselor Ellen Bachmeyer. Women in their 50s and older may feel invisible and without a voice in a society that puts such a strong value on youth. “I am surprised by the great number of [women] who have become silent at this stage of their lives. They say to themselves, ‘What’s the use? It won’t make any difference,’” she says.
But the opposite is often true (and we’ve seen it in our own lives). “Older women have more life experience, so they feel more confident about how they respond to things,” Steinberg says. As we age, we tend to care less about what people think of us and pleasing others over ourselves.
Advocate Without Being an Ass
Bachmeyer tells her clients, “You can and should make a difference. Your needs are important, and you are the only one who can speak them. Don’t wait for someone to guess what you need.” If you want to speak up for yourself but aren’t sure how, consider these tips.
Understand What Advocating Is and Isn’t
Steinberg says standing up for yourself isn’t bullying. “Advocating is not overpowering or abusing another. Advocating is making sure your message is heard without having to resort to foul language or yelling.”
“Often when women want to speak up, they are unable because they get triggered by experiences or messages from the past that were intended to silence them,” Bachmeyer says. Don’t let conflicts from the past stifle your ability to speak up in the present.
Please Yourself, Not Others
“When we are focused on pleasing people, we can end up sacrificing our self-identity, morals and values, and mental health,” Leaf says. Sure, when you stand up for yourself, you run the risk of upsetting people who like the status quo, but “we can’t let what other people think about us stop us from standing up for what we believe in.”
Don’t Get Emotional
“All genders tend to get emotional when they feel passionate about something. But when we react emotionally, it can be hard for people to hear what we are saying or respond positively, even when we are saying is just. This is why delivery is so important,” Leaf says. Easier said than done, however. Just try your best to stay rational and present.
Believe You Deserve What You Are Asking For
“Go into every interaction with the understanding that you are coming to the table deserving of success,” Steinberg says. In other words: You are worthy.
Change Your Measure of Success
Successfully advocating for yourself doesn’t always mean getting what you want. Failure is a possible outcome, Steinberg says. The important thing is that you become assertive in your life.