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Self-advocacy: Techniques for asserting your needs

Self-advocacy: Techniques for asserting your needs

Self-advocacy is the practice of representing yourself and your interests, needs, and rights in various aspects of life, particularly in situations where your voice needs to be heard and acknowledged. 

Being a good self-advocate can improve life satisfaction and overall well-being, as it facilitates empowerment and allows you to take care of your needs through effective communication, self-awareness, and confidence.

What Is the Meaning of Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocacy involves understanding your strengths and challenges, being aware of personal needs and preferences, and effectively communicating these to others in a way that promotes personal well-being and autonomy. 

What lies at the core of self-advocacy is empowerment, which enables individuals to take control of their own lives by making informed decisions and standing up for themselves in various contexts, such as:

Self-advocacy is about self-awareness and assertiveness. It requires individuals to recognize their own worth and to be confident and firm in expressing their opinions and desires. This often involves a combination of skills, including clear communication, negotiation, problem-solving, and the ability to seek out and use resources and support systems. 

For those with disabilities or facing systemic barriers, self-advocacy can be particularly crucial in ensuring their specific needs are met and their rights are protected.

What Are Self-Advocacy Skills?

Self-advocacy skills are the essential abilities required to effectively communicate needs, desires, and rights, and to foster greater independence and self-determination. These skills encompass a range of competencies that, together, empower individuals to navigate personal, educational, professional, and social landscapes more effectively. 

Key elements of self-advocacy include:

  • Self-awareness: This involves recognizing one’s strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and values. By understanding these factors, individuals can better identify their needs and the best ways to address them. 
  • Assertiveness: This is another critical skill that helps effectively convey thoughts and needs clearly and confidently without aggression or passivity. This skill ensures one’s voice is heard and respected in various interactions. 
  • Effective communication: Using verbal and non-verbal communication can help to convey messages accurately and make sure responses are understood. Good communication also involves active listening, which means paying full attention to the speaker, understanding their message, and responding thoughtfully. 
  • Problem-solving/decision-making: Self-advocates must be able to assess situations, consider various options, and make informed decisions that best meet their needs. This often involves gathering information, weighing pros and cons, and anticipating potential outcomes. 
  • Negotiation skills: The ability to negotiate is important, especially in scenarios where compromise is necessary. Being able to negotiate effectively means finding mutually beneficial solutions while still advocating for one’s own needs and interests. 
  • Resilience: Resilience and persistence are key. Self-advocacy often involves overcoming obstacles and facing resistance. The ability to stay focused on one’s goals, maintain motivation, and adapt to challenges is vital for effective self-advocacy.

These skills are vital for effective self-advocacy, and provide the necessary tools for people to take care of themselves and their needs in virtually any situation with poise, grace, and confidence.

What Is an Example of Self-Advocacy?

An example of a scenario where someone applies self-advocacy would be when a college student with a learning disability seeks accommodations to ensure their academic success. The student recognizes their specific need(s) and takes proactive steps to address it. 

First, the student schedules a meeting with the college’s disability services office. They come prepared with documentation of their disability and a clear understanding of the accommodations they require, such as extended time on exams, note-taking assistance, or access to recorded lectures. 

During the meeting, the student effectively communicates their needs and explains how these accommodations will help them succeed academically. Once the accommodations are approved, the student follows up by informing their professors about the agreed-upon adjustments. They would then ideally provide the necessary documentation and discuss how the accommodations will be implemented in each class. 

Throughout the semester, the student maintains open communication with both the professors and the disability services office, ensuring the accommodations are properly provided and addressing any issues that arise. 

How Can People With Disabilities Improve Their Self-Advocacy Skills?

Developing and improving self-advocacy skills can empower people with disabilities, as it enables them to effectively communicate their needs, secure necessary accommodations, and assert their rights. In a world that is not built for them, self-advocacy is a vital part of a happy and successful life for many. 

One foundational step is to gain a thorough understanding of their disability and how it impacts daily life. This awareness can support clear and confident communication about needs and accommodations. Education about relevant laws and rights, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, is also essential. Being familiar with their legal protections empowers individuals with disabilities to advocate for themselves in various settings, including workplaces, educational institutions, and public spaces. 

Building effective communication skills is another key aspect. This involves learning how to express needs and preferences assertively yet respectfully. Role-playing scenarios with friends, family, or support groups can provide valuable practice and feedback when preparing to draw a boundary or assert a need. 

Joining self-advocacy or peer support groups can also be beneficial. These groups offer a safe environment to share experiences, learn from others, and gain encouragement and advice. Engaging with others who face similar challenges fosters a sense of community and solidarity, enhancing both confidence and advocacy skills.

What Are the 3 Types of Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocacy encompasses the ability to speak up and make informed life decisions. It is a crucial skill that empowers people to take control of their circumstances and pursue their goals on their terms. 

There are three primary types of self-advocacy:

  1. Individual self-advocacy: Individual self-advocacy involves a person recognizing their needs, understanding their rights, and effectively communicating their preferences and decisions. This type of advocacy is essential in everyday situations, such as requesting accommodations at work or school, seeking necessary medical care, or managing personal relationships. By asserting their needs and desires, individuals can develop greater autonomy and satisfaction in their personal and professional lives.
  2. Peer advocacy: Peer advocacy occurs when individuals support each other in advocating for their mutual rights and interests. This type of advocacy is often seen in support groups, where members share experiences, provide emotional support, and offer practical advice. Peer advocacy can be particularly powerful because it involves people with similar life experiences and can relate to each other’s challenges. This shared understanding fosters a sense of community and solidarity, often making it easier for individuals to advocate for themselves and one another. Peer advocacy not only helps individuals gain confidence and skills but also strengthens the collective voice of the group, leading to more effective advocacy efforts.
  3. Systems advocacy: Systems advocacy focuses on changing policies, laws, or practices that affect a large group of people. This type of advocacy is typically undertaken by organizations or coalitions that work to influence public policy and promote social change. Systems advocates identify systemic issues, gather evidence, and work to educate policymakers and the public about the need for change. They may engage in activities such as lobbying, public awareness campaigns, and legal action. Systems advocacy aims to create an environment where individual and peer advocacy efforts can thrive, ensuring the rights and needs of marginalized or disadvantaged groups are recognized and addressed.

Why Is It So Hard to Advocate for Myself? Why Do I Struggle With Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocating is inherently challenging for many individuals due to a combination of personal, cultural, and systemic factors. At a personal level, self-advocacy requires a strong sense of self-awareness and confidence. Many people struggle with self-doubt and fear of rejection or conflict, which can inhibit their ability to speak up for their own needs. 

This fear is often rooted in past experiences where expressing personal needs might have been met with negative reactions or dismissal, reinforcing the belief that self-advocacy is risky or futile. 

Culturally, there is often a pervasive stigma associated with prioritizing oneself. Many societies value selflessness and view the act of advocating for oneself as selfish or inconsiderate. This cultural norm is especially strong in helping professions, such as healthcare or education, where the expectation is to prioritize the needs of others. Individuals internalize these cultural messages, leading to guilt or shame when they consider asserting their own needs. 

Systemically, workplaces and institutions may lack supportive structures for self-advocacy. High demands, rigid hierarchies, and insufficient resources can create environments where advocating for oneself is perceived as adding to the burden or disrupting the status quo. Employees may fear that requesting accommodations or changes will be viewed negatively, impacting their job security or career progression. 

Additionally, effective self-advocacy can require high-level communication skills that not everyone possesses. Articulating one’s needs clearly and assertively without coming across as aggressive or confrontational to others is a nuanced skill. The lack of training or practice in these skills can make the prospect of self-advocacy daunting. 

However, good and effective communication is a learned skill, and practicing communicating boundaries, needs, and desires will improve those skills over time, even if conversations don’t go well at first. Don’t be afraid to have multiple conversations about the topic you want to address—if the other party is amenable and willing to listen, it’s possible to reach a constructive solution.

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How Do You Advocate for Yourself?

It’s important to continually reflect on factors that can impact your well-being, such as your workload, relationships, environment, and other aspects of life. When one or more of these areas begins to be overwhelming, it can quickly lead to burnout, fatigue, and emotional exhaustion. 

Because of this, it’s important to proactively advocate for your self-care needs, which you can do in the following ways:

  • Open communication with leadership: You can engage in open and honest conversations with your work supervisor or other authority about the importance of prioritizing self-care. During these discussions, you can present evidence and personal experiences highlighting the positive impact of self-care on your professional performance so they might ensure your self-care needs are understood and supported at the organizational level.
  • Scheduled personal time: Consider deliberately blocking out specific times in your weekly schedule for personal time and self-care activities. For instance, you might take Friday afternoons off to recharge and engage in activities that rejuvenate you. This scheduled downtime is essential for preventing burnout and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
  • Setting boundaries: To manage your emotions, stress levels, and other areas of your life more effectively, establish clear boundaries around what you do and do not have capacity for, as well as your ability to assert such. Try to allocate specific times for certain tasks, ensuring they do not encroach on your personal time or overwhelm your daily schedule. This structured approach can help you stay organized, focused, and relaxed, reducing stress and enhancing productivity.
  • Consistent self-assessment: You can regularly self-assess for signs of burnout and make necessary adjustments to your self-care practices. This ongoing reflection can help you stay attuned to your needs and adapt your self-care strategies to ensure long-term sustainability in what you are doing.
  • Ongoing advocacy: Advocacy is not a one-time effort; it requires ongoing dialogue and negotiation. Have regular check-ins with yourself to review how your self-care practices are working and think about any necessary adjustments. This continuous advocacy will help ensure your self-care remains a priority.

By taking these proactive steps, you can maintain your overall well-being, prevent burnout, and perform effectively without overextending yourself.

Practical Strategies for Self-Advocacy

Self-advocacy is essential for personal and professional growth. Practical strategies for self-advocacy include:

  • Self-awareness: Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, values, and goals is crucial. This involves introspection and possibly seeking feedback from trusted individuals. Understanding yourself keeps you informed on what to advocate for.
  • Research and knowledge: It’s important to be well-informed about your rights, the relevant policies, and the context in which you need to advocate. This might involve reading up on company policies, laws, or industry standards. Knowledge empowers you to make a strong case.
  • Clear communication: Strong communication skills will help you articulate your needs and desires clearly and confidently. Practice active listening, assertiveness, and concise speech to ensure your message is understood.
  • Building relationships: Establishing a network of supportive individuals can bolster your advocacy efforts. This network might include mentors, colleagues, or peers who can offer advice, support, and sometimes intervention on your behalf.
  • Strategic planning: Approaching self-advocacy with a plan can make the process more effective. Set clear, achievable goals, and develop a step-by-step approach to achieve them. Anticipate potential challenges and think of ways to address them.
  • Documenting and evidence: Keeping records of relevant communications, achievements, and incidents can provide concrete evidence to support your case. This documentation can be crucial in situations where proof of your claims is necessary.
  • Persistence and patience: Self-advocacy often requires perseverance. Outcomes may not be immediate, and setbacks can occur. Maintaining a patient and resilient attitude helps in navigating challenges and staying focused on long-term goals.
  • Seeking feedback and adjustment: After advocating for yourself, seek feedback on your approach and its effectiveness. Use this information to adjust your strategies and improve future self-advocacy efforts.

There are also resources available for you to seek independently that can help you with your self-advocacy journey, especially if you have a disability or mental health condition that requires assistance in school or work settings and/or you are a member of a marginalized community. Many workplaces have employee resource groups (ERGs) available for employees to join that provide resources, information, and community with other people in the company who are facing similar challenges.

Additionally, there are online resources you can use, often offered by organizations that work to advocate for the needs of specific groups. For example, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) is an excellent resource for people with autism to use to help them learn about how to self-advocate and what the practical applications might look like.

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Theresa Lupcho, LPCLicensed Professional Counselor
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Theresa Lupcho is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

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Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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  • Tilley, E., Strnadová, I., Danker, J., Walmsley, J., & Loblinzk, J. (2020). The impact of self‐advocacy organizations on the subjective well‐being of people with intellectual disabilities: A systematic review of the literature. JARID. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities/Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 33(6), 1151–1165.

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