The Practice of Self Advocacy: What it is, how it can help, and why give a damn
What is Self Advocacy?
Self Advocacy can be defined as the practice of communicating your needs so they can be better met. Brief examples:
“Excuse me, would you back up? I need a little more room, thanks!”
“I’m going to turn up the lights so I can see more.”
“Is there a table in a quieter part of the room? I’d really like to be in a quieter section so I can hear.”
“I like to watch shows with subtitles on; let me know if you need me to turn the volume up.”
For many, self-advocacy is practiced every day, often multiple times per day. The term “self-advocacy” may seem like a newer concept, however it’s been around for nearly 60 years! The concept originated in the 60’s-70’s, growing out of the disability rights community’s need to have their voices heard and respected, which remains a constant struggle today.
There’s a well-believed idea that most folks share the same needs, most of which can be met in the same ways. For plenty of people, “I’ll have what they’re having,” is a fine way to live--most of the time.
Until one day, it’s not fine to need what everyone else does. A sudden change in circumstance can be the catalyst to require new ways of advocating. Temporary situations like a broken leg, or ongoing changes like increasingly strong prescription glasses, or being diagnosed with a chronic illness, are a few examples of catalysts that can thrust us into new and uncomfortable situations.
The moment we realize that what used to work, won’t work anymore, can be rough. We humanfolk tend to like our routines and coming to terms with changes means going against the grain. Additionally, when we’re used to being accommodated without having to apply much effort, needing something else or something more can even feel threatening! We’re likely running headfirst into our own (and others’) internalized judgments. More on navigating that in the Tips and Tools section.
As much as we Americans value our individualism, we also hold deeply embedded judgments about anything different from us. We like our “us versus them” stories quite a lot. Something we overlook habitually is that when someone is different from us, they will have different needs.
It sounds simple, yet this basic understanding is constantly overlooked in many conversations. This demonstrated lack of desire to change also shows a refusal to learn. “Learning” partly-defined here as requiring change in order to take place. Another way to look at it, is a society-wide inadequacy of empathy. These symptoms help perpetuate the social stigma that people who need something different from the majority are wrong, bad, asking the impossible, etc.
Brief examples of how this concept shows up in daily society:
“Just accept what you’re given (like the rest of us/everyone else),”
“You’re so/too needy.”
“I’ve never heard of that!”
“If you work hard and/or do “the right” things, you won’t need that anymore.”
“There’s something wrong with you.”
“I don’t understand you anymore.”
These are just a few examples of when our own insecurities help perpetuate the stigma facing those who communicate that what’s working for everyone else isn’t enough, or isn’t suitable for them. It’s extra challenging because in doing so, we literally set ourselves apart from the group anytime our needs as individuals differ from the majority of those around us.
For many, this author included, there’s also often a sense of pride in not needing help, and in not needing to ask for it, either. That sense of ego is tied in part to the belief that when we’re different, there’s something wrong with us. And when there’s something wrong that can’t be “fixed,” we’re seen as deficient, broken, less important, etc. These messages come from all angles in society, infiltrating our language, music, culture, and very own private thoughts.
No two people are exactly alike; even identical twins have their own thoughts and minds. So it follows that no two people can have exactly the same experience, either. Eradicating the idea that everyone is served equitably in systems built inequitably is a key to moving the self-advocacy conversation forward.
Why get better at Self-Advocacy?
Everyone can practice self-advocacy, and it’s applicable across all spheres of our lives. Additionally, if you’re a person already living with challenges different from the majority, you probably know from experience you have to practice it, if you want to increase the chances of getting your needs met in the first place.
What can we gain when we get better at practicing self-advocacy?
1. Increase your confidence by regularly practicing advocating for yourself.
You can’t get a, “Yes!” if your needs aren’t known! Even and especially when rejected, it’s important to remember that we gain valuable information in the process, regardless of the outcome.
Of course, being denied something we need is incredibly challenging--and for good reasons! That being considered, they’ve done us a favor by saving our valuable time; we can stop wasting our equally valuable energy and invest it in finding, creating, and nurturing connections with the people and situations that can, will, and DO provide what we need--without making us feel anything but positive about it.
2. Gain clarity about your needs through regular self-reflection.
Self-reflection is a cornerstone of a balanced self-advocacy practice. It’s easier to identify what our true needs are when we’re comfortable being honest with ourselves.
When we insist we’re already comfortable or honest enough, or that we have more important things to focus on, we miss opportunities to build this skill set and impede our ability to accurately self-advocate. Clarity comes in bits and pieces with practice, which helps positively reinforce reflections over time. Being able to accurately name your needs is one of the first steps to getting them met!
3. Your network can support you better when you need it most.
When surrounded with people who respect and welcome your advocacy, they show they’re excited to understand and are willing to learn how to best support you. Sometimes, they can also help educate others and advocate on your behalf, even when you aren’t present. This is part of what it means to practice allyship.
4. Help make it easier for those who follow you to succeed.
Change is hard and often takes a lot of time and energy. When we communicate our needs clearly, we introduce others to alternative ways of doing things. Over time and with repetition, these so-called “alternative” needs become more normalized.
Beliefs that keep us from practicing.
Even when we’re excited to communicate our needs, it can be difficult to get started. Abundant myths and stigmas baked into our daily lives can be discouraging, however we must unpack them for ourselves overtime to stay in touch with current needs.
Fear, in its many assorted flavors, is one of the most common things holding us back from advocating for our needs to be met. Fear of rejection influences folks to keep their needs to themselves, even when accommodations are available (if likely underfunded).
Everyone gets to make their own decisions as to what’s worth their advocacy, and what’s not. This kind of mental math can be revisited every time there's an opportunity to advocate...and you have the ability to decide at any point that now is, or is not, the time.
Here are some of the most common objections to practicing self-advocacy I come across:
1. “I’m not good at asking for my needs to be met.”
Self-advocacy can be practiced any, and every, day! While practice doesn’t make perfect (and perfect is a fake ideal anyway), it gets easier over time, coming and going in phases as we muddle through our own particular learning cycles. Like all skills, it’s developed over time--not overnight. Start with something small and go from there.
2. “I don’t know what to ask for.”
That’s okay, you’re already practicing simply by acknowledging that there ARE things that could help your needs be better met. Ta-da, you’re doing it!
Seriously though, there are many different ways to approach this. Ask someone you trust to listen to you practice communicating your needs out loud, instead of just inside your head. Write it down first, if that’s helpful. Research related online interest groups; often there are established, well-cultivated groups with relevant resources to comb through. Need “reasonable accommodations” for work? Check out this extensive resource to get you started.
3. “I won’t get what I need, or what I ask for.”
We adults already know that life’s not fair, so this one is partially correct, leaving out a keyword. We won’t always get what we ask for. One little word opens up so much possibility!
No one can tell you, “Yes!” until they know what you need and how they can help you get it. Of course we don’t always get what we ask for... but we might be able to get most or even part of the way there, and that’s still valuable. Let me give you a personal example.
At an outdoor event with cocktail tables only and no seating, I may ask a host for some type of chair. In the extremely unusual circumstances one couldn’t be procured, I’ve wound up with makeshift seats, like an upside-down bucket with a jacket for a cushion. Often, what I end up with after advocating for myself is better than the situation I was in prior to having spoken up.
Additionally, options I hadn’t considered or known about may be available. Even if there’s a posted sign that says, “This is standing room only. We have no chairs. Do not ask for one,” when a seat is what needs to be procured, chairs are hardly the limit to what’s available.
Tips and Tools to Support Your Practice.
The backbone of a balanced self-advocacy practice consists of 4 components:
1. Knowing yourself.
Get and stay curious! Find ways to prove to yourself that you’re interested in getting familiar with the messages our brains and bodies send. Ask yourself questions that start with “Why,” or “What,” to help get unstuck. Drawing a blank? Search for a list of “getting to know you” questions from a dating site and answer them for yourself. Go from there!
2. Figure out what to ask for.
Whenever possible, assume others can and will help you. Those of us with trust issues will balk at that, but I’m serious that being able to start off with this intention is a soft skill with concrete benefits. We generally pick up on the social cues when someone isn’t giving us the benefit of the doubt, and so will others.
Use the internet. Google all your questions to see who’s asked them before. Strike up conversations with trusted confidants with a bold, “So, segues are weird. How about X, Y, or Z?” Check out interviews with people who are known for being good at things you want to be better at.
My personal favorite tools originate in Mindfulness practices, such as the body scan, which can help build awareness between the mind-body/body-mind connection. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)’s “Wise Mind” is also great for observing our thoughts.
Remember, once you know what you need, you can ask more specific questions like, “Who’s likely to be able to help me with this need? Do I need help accessing a resource? What’s blocking the people or support systems I could/should be able to access, and what can I do about it?” Support from trusted professional sources like a therapist can be incredibly helpful for those to whom it’s available.
3. Knowing (kind of) how you could get it.
Do your best to assume that there IS a way to get your needs met, even if you aren’t clear on how to accomplish it just yet. It’s important to note the influence of extreme biases that negatively impact many, such as racism, sexism, ableism, etc. These -isms and others are baked into our culture, our social support systems, and more, negatively impacting people who differ from majority powers at large. Self-advocacy is one of the tools that can be most helpful to people in marginalized groups, however the power dynamics remain in play at all times.
It’s important to remember the burden of educating others, and advocating the most needs, often falls on the shoulders of the most marginalized communities. Be mindful as you go about your practice to uplift these voices, and learn from and with them, while taking 100% of your own responsibility to grow.And remember, this isn’t a contest to win or a clock to beat. It’s part of your journey, not your final destination, so cut yourself a break from time to time. Deal? Deal.
4. Communicating #1-3 to others in an effort to get the need(s) met.
As clearly as you’re able, share your needs with the person, group, etc. you think most likely to both say “Yes!” to you and be meaningfully helpful at the same time. If you need to write it down ahead of time, do that, or whatever else may help you feel more assured.
Surprise opportunities to self-advocate are to be expected, and in those cases we can only do our best. Laying the groundwork of self-exploration and learning can help us feel more prepared than if we have no practice and very little self-awareness and knowledge.
Self-advocacy requires us to identify our needs and communicate that to others in an effort to have that need better met. Every time we practice self-advocacy, we have the potential to have that need met. While there’s also the potential to not get our needs met in part or whole, we won’t know for certain until we communicate.
As we develop a regular self-advocacy practice, we can gain confidence, clarity, more supportive networks, and help make a path for others to succeed with greater ease in the future.
Fear and judgment from ourselves and others can make it difficult to practice. As best you can, don’t let other people’s ideas about what’s an acceptable need cloud your judgment.
No matter who you are or what your situation is in life, you are a person first. You have inherent, unalienable rights. Practicing self-advocacy can help you gain confidence, generate clarity of thought, and increase the chances of getting your needs met, all while chipping away at the harmful stigmas and biases we face daily as individuals and global community members.