Every year, I work with scores of professionals from all walks of life who come with one key problem – they can’t speak up for themselves or assert their boundaries. In many cases, their boundaries are non-existent, which translates into their allowing anyone to do anything they wish to them.
These individuals are being disrespected, devalued and trampled on, in work and in their personal lives. Further, they find they can’t make effective decisions that will help them navigate through the challenges or take the right steps to increase their success. They find they simply can’t tell their boss, “No, this doesn’t work” or speak up to their spouse and say, “Stop this behavior – it’s damaging to the family!”
Among the thousands of people I’ve worked with over the past 12 years, I’ve seen that speaking up powerfully for oneself is one of the most universal challenges human beings face today. But it’s particularly difficult for women the world over, given how our society and culture trains both men and women to think and behave, and shapes how we all perceive assertiveness.
I’ve personally lived the devastating challenge of not being able to speak up for myself. This problem stemmed from my childhood, but I carried the effects of it with me through my 20s and 30s. In the final years of my 18-year corporate career, during a time when I worked in a role that was very toxic to me, I began experiencing something called chronic “tracheitis” – a serious and recurring infection of the trachea. As one who has been a vocalist and performer all my life, this was particularly frightening to me.
For four years, every three to four months like clockwork, I’d become extremely ill with this infection. It was terribly painful and debilitating. I’d lose my voice entirely for days, and the throat and lungs would burn incessantly. I’d develop a high fever, and become debilitated to the point of not being able to function. And I literally couldn’t speak. The voice would disappear completely, and this experience would enrage me.
I remember trying to talk to my little children and nothing would come out. I would feel so helpless, and I knew something was terribly wrong, but couldn’t get to the bottom of it. Doctors couldn’t find a root cause either, so they just treated it with courses upon courses of antibiotics that wreaked havoc on my body. Interestingly, this illness literally evaporated the day I was laid off from my toxic job in October 2001. The tracheitis disappeared, never to return. I know exactly why that is now, but back then, I hadn’t a clue.
Many years later, I began to study this phenomenon of not being able to speak up and how it affects our emotional, physical and behavioral functioning. I saw too why it remains deeply challenging for women to speak up assertively. First, our culture still punishes assertive women. Gender bias is real, and there is true backlash against women who are assertive, strong and powerful.
Our beliefs and behaviors around personal communication emerge from how we are trained and treated in childhood , and the culture we are raised in. What happens to us when we try to speak up for ourselves, or when we even think we want to speak up, will shape us dramatically. Everything that you experienced as you attempted to develop and assert your boundaries as a child and teen has affected you deeply and is within you now, unless you’ve done the work to revise it, heal it, and change it. What went on then has made an indelible mark on you.
To help you take new steps to learn to speak up more powerfully for yourself, and advocate for your own needs, values, and wishes, below are five key steps to begin to engage in today.
#1: Examine what you learned in childhood.
If you struggle at all with speaking up, take some time this week and examine closely what you learned in childhood about how safe it was to speak up for yourself. Ask yourself, “What do I remember about how it went when I said to my authority figures “No,” “I don’t’ agree with you,” or “Don’t do that to me.”
If you’re in touch with yourself, you’ll most likely remember some very pivotal, emotional moments. Maybe it went well, maybe it went terribly. Perhaps you got hit or were fiercely ridiculed. Perhaps you were laughed at and told you were stupid.
Sit with it, and think about what you learned about speaking up and how you were treated when you tried to assert and defend your boundaries.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Did I have strong role models for effective, empowered communication?
- Did my mother speak in an empowered way? My father?
- How did the people around me (including my teachers, relatives and other authority figures) act when others spoke up for their rights and their boundaries? How about my siblings?
- Who did it well, who didn’t do it well? What happened when they tried?
- How did gender play into who had the power and authority in my family and life?
Then think about how all this affects you today.
If you realize that there was suppression in your childhood, read on for how to move forward to address and heal that.
#2: Get very clear about what you need to say, and have that conversation.
Decide on the one most important thing you need to say this month and to whom, and plan for it. Start with the one person who is violating your boundaries most or disrespecting you and it needs to stop. What do you need to say “No!” to today?
Start by committing to have the most pivotal conversation you need to have. But before you do, realize that the process of building our boundaries and learning to speak up for ourselves can “perturb the system,” meaning others can and will get upset by this because they’re used to walking all over you. So before you do this, get very clear about what you want to say, and manage your emotions best you can. (If this is challenging, you’ll want to get some outside help to support you.)
For example, let’s say you have a new person on your team whom you’ve hired, and they’re not pulling their weight. In fact, they’re really falling down. You’ve got to become crystal clear about what you’re going to say, and what you’re going to do. My hope is that you’d give this person another chance, if that is the right scenario.
In order to help this person succeed and for you to be the best leader and manager you need and want to be, it’s important to communicate specifically how they’re not succeeding and what you expect to see changed. The way to do that is to remove the emotion, and communicate calmly, accurately and clearly (without disdain, anger and disrespect) what you need of them, and what they’re not giving. Don’t procrastinate on this. Do it today.
Offer clear examples of the turn-around behavior you need, and share that with compassion, gentleness and respect.
#3: Be the highest version of yourself when you communicate.
What happens to most of us in very tough interpersonal situations is that, unfortunately, we become incredibly stressed, defensive or angry. And when we’re flooded with emotion, our clarity and balance fly out the window.
Someone once wrote, “You can say anything when you say it with love in your heart.” There’s great truth in that. Say what needs to be said, but don’t do it from a frail, defensive ego or with harshness, but with strength and compassion.
Be the highest version of yourself (rise above any pettiness, egotism and over-sensitivity to be the best you can be) when you’re having these powerful conversations, and it will go much better for both parties.
#4: Understand the ecosystem and the individual you’re dealing with.
Before you communicate and speak up for yourself, you need to understand exactly who and what you’re dealing with, and make your plans accordingly. For instance, what is the culture of your organization? Does it foster trust, openness and transparency, or is everyone hiding and pretending (and backstabbing)? Once you’re clearer on what you’re dealing with, you’ll know better the best approach to speak up and assert your boundaries.
Also, assess clearly the personality and behavior of this individual you have to deal with. Is he irrational or rational? Can she be reasoned with and can a compromise be reached? Is there a power dynamic that you have to navigate effectively through?
For example, if you’re dealing with an individual with narcissist personality disorder, you need to speak up very differently than you would with a healthy, highly-functioning individual. Directly challenging a narcissist usually ends very badly for the challenger. If your boss is a bully, get neutral, outside help to support you to navigate through this situation.
You also have to understand the ecosystem – whether it’s your family, or workplace, or another system. How does your company treat people who speak their mind powerfully? How do the leaders and managers feel about others speaking up about tough issues? How do they feel about women? Are there gender and other forms of discrimination at work?
Before you speak up powerfully, understand what you’re dealing with and formulate the best plan you can so that you can be heard and understood in the deepest way possible but also get what you need.
#5: Prepare for the consequences
Many people resist speaking up for themselves because they dislike angering others. Thousands of parents aren’t as authoritative as they need to be in their parenting for this exact reason – they don’t want their kids to be mad at them. The same is true of managers. so they let problems continue without effectively addressing them. But those fears make us weak and ineffective in our roles, and serious damage can be done if we’re not taking on the challenges of our lives in empowered, straightforward ways.
If you’re striving every minute to make everyone happy, then you’re not making yourself happy, and you’re not saying and doing what needs to be done to live a successful, fulfilling life. If you feel compelled every day to do more than is necessary, appropriate and healthy and get an A+ in all of it, you’re suffering from “perfectionist overfunctioning” and it’s damaging to your life. If you overfunction, then you ensure that others around you will underfunction and avoid doing their share.
Part of speaking up for yourself is accepting that there will be consequences. Prepare for them, understand what may come back your way when you speak your truth, and be ready for that. If that’s too challenging on your own, find a great mentor, sponsor, therapist, or advocate to support you through this life-affirming process.
Find the courage to speak up so you can honor your own boundaries, clarify what is not acceptable to you, and start living a happier, healthier, more empowered life.