Five Strategies To Help You Learn How To Stand Up For Yourself

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Standing up for yourself is a life skill that can be useful in many scenarios. Without this ability, you may end up in uncomfortable or even dangerous situations, or resentment for your own needs not being met may build over time. Often a person will feel angry when letting people walk all over them, and this can push them into acting passive aggressive. However, many of us can learn to take small but powerful steps to learn to be more assertive and avoid being a people pleaser. Let’s explore why some of us have trouble standing up for ourselves and look at some strategies that can help improve this skill.

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Why it can be hard to stand up for yourself

Some people find it harder to be assertive or speak up for themselves than others. It can feel scary to stand up for yourself if it’s not something you’re comfortable with. If it’s a challenge you find yourself facing, there may be several contributing factors—many of which overlap or intertwine with each other—including:

People-pleasing tendencies

Those with these tendencies feel pressured to prioritize the needs of others over their own. They may have trouble saying no and might even alter their personalities to fit what they believe someone else wants. 

Low self-esteem

This quality may go hand-in-hand with people-pleasing. Low self-esteem may make you believe that your needs and desires are fundamentally less important or valid than those of others, leading you to contort to suit the needs and desires of everyone else. In this situation it can be difficult to recognize that your own thoughts and feelings matter. 

Fear of rejection or anger

Standing up for yourself can upset other people, which is a price some are unwilling to pay—even to their detriment. It may be linked to low self-esteem or past experiences where they felt or witnessed rejection or anger resulting from themselves or a loved one attempting to stand up for their needs.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a broad mental illness that can manifest in different ways. For someone who struggles with how to learn how to stand firm in life situations, overanalyzing can lead to a build-up of fear, making it hard to maintain eye contact or vocalize their concerns. It could involve social anxiety, which can cause distressing or debilitating mental and physical symptoms even in neutral social situations. It could be worrying about saying the wrong thing, stemming from perfectionism. Simply put, anxiety symptoms of many different types may hold people back from asserting themselves in the moment.

Cognitive distortions

These are flawed patterns of thinking that can cause difficult emotions. They’re often associated with mood disorders like depression and anxiety. For example, the cognitive distortion of catastrophizing may make someone predict the worst possible outcome of a situation, even before it plays out. Overgeneralization could make someone who had one negative experience trying to stand up for themselves assume that outcome for all future cases. These are patterns, much like a knee jerk reaction, that can be rewired to encourage different expectations and behaviors.

They are interacting with a manipulative person

Some people may be skilled at convincing others to change their opinions or guilting them into doing so. Interacting with someone like this can make someone less likely or unable to stand up for themselves, as they find it difficult to explain why their feelings matter. 

Negative past experiences

Any of the factors listed above could stem from a negative experience. Someone who grew up in a volatile and abusive environment may have witnessed frightening outcomes from a parent or caregiver standing up for themselves. Or someone may carry fears and anxieties about being assertive due to a past toxic relationship.

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How to further explore the roots of this behavior

If being assertive is a challenge you’re facing, a trained therapist can help you to realize potential reasons for it—which is often the first step toward being able to change behavior. They might help you develop strategies for building self-esteem, communicating, or resolving conflict. They may help you spot red flags in relationships and address past trauma. They might also help you manage symptoms of any mental illnesses contributing to this challenge, such as anxiety or depression.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Online therapy, often facilitated by licensed clinical experts, has become an increasingly popular option for people who prefer connecting with a therapist from their home. Research suggests that it can be an effective and cost-effective treatment for conditions like anxiety. If you’re interested in being matched with a licensed therapist who can help you work through the challenges you may be facing, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp is one option. Your goal should be to find the therapist and therapy method most comfortable for you.

Other strategies for becoming more assertive

Try to think objectively about your own needs

Before you assert your needs, you’ll have to know what they are. Self-reflection can be a valuable tool in this process. It may also be helpful to try and peel away the influence of comparison or expectations. For instance, just because your partner or friend can comfortably commit to social engagements five nights a week doesn’t mean that’s a universal quota that anyone should be happy with.

Practice getting in touch with what you want, independent of what those around you prefer. Cultivating this sense of your own desires can also be an important part of self-care and improving mental health. 

Envision positive outcomes

Some people may not react well to someone else standing up for themselves. This is certainly a potential outcome; however, it may help to remind yourself that it’s unlikely this will be the case every time. Those who care about you should generally be supportive of you communicating your wants, needs, and boundaries. Some people may even be happy or relieved that you said something, either because they were thinking the same thing or because they genuinely want what’s best for you. Most people respect a person who clearly communicates their needs. If someone in your life behaves the opposite way and shows signs of trying to control or manipulate you and your choices, this is likely a sign of an unhealthy dynamic. 

Remember that being assertive is not the same as being aggressive

Some people equate the two, perhaps because it’s common to mistake assertiveness for aggression. However, this may lead an individual to mistakenly think that if it’s not their style to get in someone’s face and demand what they need, assertiveness is not for them. This perception is not accurate. Being calmly assertive is likely to result in more positive outcomes than being loud, pushy, or otherwise aggressive. A few tips on the art of being assertive may include:

  • Keep it brief. As you may have heard, “No” is a complete sentence.” In general, you’re under no obligation to offer a long explanation for making the right choice. Sometimes, doing so can even give the other person fodder for arguing with your decision. When expressing your intention, it’s usually best to keep your words simple and concise.
  • Use “I” statements. In contrast, “you” statements can come off as accusatory. Focus on information about what’s within your control: you and your choices.
  • Delay your answer. Some people may have trouble standing up for themselves because they may not always know what they want. If you need time to consider your options and decide on a specific point, don’t hesitate to delay responding to a request. “Let me check my schedule and get back to you” is one example of how you might do this.
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Want to learn to be more assertive?

Practice in small ways

Standing up for yourself, especially to set boundaries, is a skill like any other, which can start to come to you more easily with practice. Practicing assertiveness in small, low-stakes ways can help you build the confidence and ability to do it in more effective forms in the future. Research suggests that practicing this skill can indeed make a difference. One study found that teenagers who underwent “assertiveness training” experienced lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, perhaps because they felt more comfortable speaking up and had their needs met more often. 

For example, if you often struggle to speak up when your waiter gets your order wrong, or when a co-worker dumps a load of work on you, start with small actions. Next time you go out to eat, you might ask the server for no mushrooms in your salad rather than picking them out yourself. It may seem like a small, inconsequential action, but it can help you build momentum over time. 

Another way to practice might be using assertive body language, such as maintaining steady eye contact, standing tall with shoulders back, or using open gestures when communicating. “Practice makes perfect” may not be true, but “practice makes better” certainly is!

Be prepared for feelings of guilt

If you’re accustomed to consistently putting the needs and desires of others first, it may make you feel guilty when you start to prioritize your own. If you anticipate this possibility, it might help you avoid getting sidetracked. Recognize that this feeling is a remnant of an unhealthy and untrue pattern of thinking that says that you don’t have the right to choose the best choices for your own well-being. Becoming an assertive person doesn’t happen overnight, but it can be achieved through consistent work. Notice any feelings of guilt, acknowledge them, and see if you can practice letting it go.

Takeaway

Standing up for what you want or need isn’t always easy, and for a lot of people it takes practice. If this is a challenge you consistently face, some of the tips here might help. You might also find it constructive to speak with a therapist who can help you work through some of the blocks you may be encountering, work on building your self-worth, and offer ideas for working through difficult situations.
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