Joe Miller is a hardworking man who did what he thought was right. He never asked too much of others and expected to be treated the same. He believed himself to be a good provider for his wife and teenage kids and was shocked to learn that his wife was unhappy. Joe had a bit of a temper but that was only when others didn’t do what they should—especially his 19-year-old son Brian whose only activity in life seemed staying in his room all day to play video games.
Genie, Joe’s wife, is a homemaker who spent years making sure the house was the way it should be. She found great purpose in taking care of her family and now that the kids were close to moving out, she was scared that she would be left with nothing to do. She often felt disappointed in herself and others but did not know why. Joe never seemed to be aware of what she needed, and it seemed like he didn’t care.
Brian is the oldest of Joe and Genie’s three children. He graduated last year by the skin of his teeth and is not sure which direction to take in life. He really doesn’t like conflict so tries to avoid his dad because there seems to always be tension there. When Brian thinks about what he is going to do with his life he gets anxiety. For Brian, video games are the only sure thing he has going for himself.
Believe it or not, Joe, Genie, and Brian are more alike than they realize, they all mean well in the course they have chosen in life, but something underneath has been eating away for some time and they have yet to put their respective fingers on it. Joe often found himself angry and having difficulty letting things go. Genie found herself hurt by other’s lack of care and concern for what she needed—after all, she was so busy taking care of others, wouldn’t someone take care of her? Brian doesn’t know what to do so is set adrift. Like many transitioning adults, the leap from dependent to independent is wrought with anxiety and confusion.
One of the biggest patterns I see in my office has to do with individuals not advocating for themselves. When I say advocate, I do not mean making sure our voice is the loudest or that we are first among others. In fact, I would argue such actions are a result of not advocating for ourselves sooner. Self-advocacy has to do with knowing what we want and need and having the ability to articulate it with ourselves and others. To be more precise, self-advocacy has four main criteria:
What is Self-Advocacy?
· Growing in self-understanding.
· Having a voice and asking for what we need.
· Empowering ourselves through action.
· Recognizing we are safe in who we are.
What Self-Advocacy is NOT:
· Waiting until we are desperate or in a rage to express ourselves.
· Dismissing our needs and wants as selfish or frivolous.
· Desperately trying to grab for our needs above all else (Acting out in inappropriate ways).
· Expecting others or the situation to deliver us (which is very dis-empowering).
In the case of the Miller’s, they may have waited many years before realizing their anger, disappointment, and anxiety may be, in part, because they have not recognized their own wants and needs let alone expressed it to those closest to them. The pattern for Joe is that he works hard and expects others to do as he does (after all, it’s only common sense!). Many nights he will come home and the garbage will not be taken out or a few chores not done to his liking. He gets tired of asking and so takes on the task himself. This then creates a bit of anger which he then tells himself not to feel, but then is so fed up, he explodes. His wife and kids then label Joe as a hot head and lay low for a bit until things go back to “normal”—which means continued stuffing down for a later explosion.
For Genie, her desire to be a "good wife” has instilled in her the idea that she should not see to her own inner world but be wholly caught up in what everyone else around her is doing. Ask her what she would do if she had a weekend to herself and she would genuinely have no answer. In this case, the idea of being with herself is totally foreign to the point that, unless there is a child to attend to, she is at a loss of what to do with herself. This emptiness then catches up with her when the kids move out, bringing an unhappiness she will have trouble shaking.
Brian, who may have had many things done for him over the years. Now does not know how to act for himself. He then escapes in a world that he has grown accustomed to—one that does not judge or challenge. Brian too gets angry and disappointed, like his parents, because he has a hard time making a distinction between what the environment or others provide for him and what he must provide for himself. This lack of self-advocating empowerment then builds more fear and anxiety thereby getting him all the more stuck.
To be clear, each person in this story may have layers of what they need to work on, but one of the first steps in meeting such needs is the concept of self-advocacy. Without it, we may end up desperate, angry, abusive, fearful, anxious, depressed, and confused—to name a few. Self-advocacy, as stated above, involves being aware of what we need and moving toward meeting said need, before survival mode kicks in! Remember, self-advocacy is not rolling over others, it is a timely awareness of what we need coupled with action to go about meeting those needs. It respects the self as it respects others. Keep in mind I use the term “become” because we are all in the process of becoming and must distinguish from the term “be”—there is a difference (see #4). Here are five ways we can become an advocate for ourselves:
1. Become Attuned to You:
Our first and primary relationship is with ourselves: our emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical selves. If we are not able to sit and be with ourselves, we will more heavily rely on others or our environment (things) to meet our needs. For Joe, his anger may be more a feeling of helplessness and disappointment. Becoming attuned to his true feelings will enable him to express sincere emotion to his wife and kids thereby displaying less hot-head and more human. Clearing our head, becoming aware of our emotions, meaning in our lives, our thoughts and our bodies can take work if we are not used to such practice. If you are having a difficult time advocating for yourself this may be a good place to start. More will be written on this in blogs to come.
2. Become Contained (Keep the Boundaries):
Containing ourselves does not mean we must be by ourselves or do things wholly on our own. Containment is about knowing where we stop and others (or the environment) start. Both Joe and Brian have some confusion about who is responsible for their feelings (or even what their feelings are for that matter). Genie knows she is disappointed, but her feeling is about what she expects from others and is unable (or unwilling?) to ask. Genie has gone about guessing at what others may need and trying to be good enough to meet them—then expecting others to do the same for her. Our boundaries include our personal, relational, and environmental boundaries which will be spoken of in further blogs. For now, here is a brief rundown:
How we are to be contained in our emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical selves (four parts). As mentioned above, this requires knowing what emotions we are having and why; What meaning life has for us including our values and purpose (spiritual); What thoughts we are having and whether or not we need to challenge or accept them; How our physical selves react including body sensations, physical needs, and awareness. As adults, we must develop a certain degree of containment for ourselves if we are to interact in a healthy way with others.
This includes our emotional, spiritual, mental and physical selves in interaction with those around us. What other’s emotional experience is and what we expect of them; understanding the meaning, purpose and values of others; relating to and discovering other’s thoughts and internal processes; respecting others physically. Again, all of our relational boundaries require that we know what is ours vs. other’s and respecting them wholly as other people and not just extensions of ourselves—which requires healthy communication.
This refers to our interaction with our environment: all things outside of ourselves and other people. To be wholly involved in the world around us while at the same time understanding ourselves and others is very important to our mental health. If we are not connected to who we are but chase after things, we run the risk of relying on them to deliver our happiness; conversely, if we do not interact with the world around us and get stuck in our head or lean on others to be okay, we go too far in the other unhealthy direction.
3. Become Honest: with Ourselves Before Others:
When it comes to self-advocacy, the role of self-honesty cannot be overstated. Having said that I will not go so far as saying we are lying to ourselves, instead I frame it as being disconnected (or numbed) to ourselves out of confusion and desperation. Joe, Genie, and Brian are having a very difficult time being honest with themselves yet very much want to be “honest” with those round them. To be honest within oneself can bring up some very difficult emotions we have spent a great deal of time and effort avoiding. That’s okay! Such emotions are trying to tell us something about who we are. The Miller family, in a desperate effort to avoid such pain, looks to most everything (or everyone) else to change before they do. Honesty requires connection as we dig into what we feel and why. In being honest and not running we empower ourselves to grow in new ways—remember, there is no growth without some discomfort or pain. This then can generate a humility and understanding toward others which then allows us to approach them in true love and not one-upmanship. If Joe were to be honest with himself about his true feelings of powerlessness and disappointment, he can then approach his family in true connection rather than a “me versus you” arrangement.
4. Become Goal and Process Oriented:
Keeping in mind that in all these steps we are not simply being (as in already there) we are becoming, or in the process of. To be both goal and process-oriented hits on this very point. The goals we set for ourselves create a picture of being, the process is becoming. The Millers, just like all of us, have found themselves stuck in a daily cycle of action and reaction which will carry on indefinitely until they spend some time reflecting on who or what they want to be, and then move in those directions to become. This, again, requires attunement to self and proper boundaries. What often takes place is that we have goals for other’s behavior but not our own. We will readily say, “If you didn’t do this, I wouldn’t do that!” and wait for the other to change. If Genie wants to stop being hurt and disappointed in everyone else’s behavior, then she needs to find alternative mindsets and actions she can take in order to make this possible—which may mean changing her responses toward other’s behavior. For example, if she wants her son and husband to step up around the house she can ask with a loving boundary and then go about living her life, not dependent on them doing what she asks to be happy. If in the past she has asked, they have not responded, and then she does it herself only to grow in resentment, a change in her behavior could mean she stops doing it and lets them live with their own consequences. This would mean she would need to measure her own internal responses to letting them go through the hardship of their lack of action. The goal is to say, “I will not swoop in and do it anyway” the process is “what happens to me when I let the chores not get done?” Understand this is a simplified version and there are many nuances to be sure, but the idea remains. We must set goals for ourselves and appreciate and embrace the process that we go through to get there—being and becoming.
5. Become Empowered:
After we are able to communicate properly with ourselves and others, take on honest look, set reasonable personal goals and be aware of our process, we must step forward in action. Empowering ourselves means not depriving ourselves. Oftentimes, when we deprive our own needs we end up acting out in inappropriate ways. Take Brian for example, his stagnation is more than likely a distraction from the discomfort he is feeling. By distracting himself he takes away his power and can spiral further into depression—which he then wants to distract from. If he moves forward in digging into his emotions and asking why they are there he could discover that he is scared. What Brian really needs is to move, in some way, forward—in self-examination, getting off the couch, or asking for help. He may not have all the answers as he steps out, but by advocating for himself in getting what he might need, he doesn’t continue to starve (deprive) himself of finding meaning and purpose. No doubt this step for him may involve support from loved ones or a good counselor as he navigates all of his issues.
Another area that comes to mind in empowering oneself involves the importance of having fun. Believe it or not, there are many out there who have a very difficult time taking in God’s blessings and experiencing the joy therein. Those with a desire to control the environment (see boundaries) or others very often do not let themselves experience the world around them. They may forgo having a nice meal because they are budget focused, or not play on the monkey bars because it’s not very “adult”. By depriving ourselves these small things we can become consumed with avoiding discomfort and managing everyone and everything around us—which leads to more discomfort. The direction then is to let go, allow ourselves some joy, and stop our dis-empowering control (of others and the environment) and take more empowering control (of our direction and decisions).
When we move toward self-advocacy, we can discover that we need not rely on others to be safe or happy. This self-containment then allows us to have healthy connection toward others and our environment, not leaning on them too heavily to deliver us. For the Miller’s, they may come together as a family and decide they need some help, or one of them may stop the pattern by getting help by themselves—a true example of self-advocacy. It may help to keep in mind we need not wait for others around us to move with us, change can come in the system when one person makes the leap. Such change can be clunky at first but, with enough time, the effort will pay off—in changed attitudes and minds. If you have any questions about self-advocacy, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.