I remember the last time I had a breakdown at work.
I was working in a small marketing agency, as the only person on the content team.
I was managing over 15 clients by myself, responsible for not only creating all their content but also doing all the admin and client services tasks. Add to that all of the meetings, events, and other time-sucking stuff that goes into a job, and it was all too much.
“I feel like I’m going to fall apart!” I remember saying to my manager, who stared at me wide-eyed and open-mouth.
That surprised look on his face changed everything for me.
I realized he had every reason to be surprised.
Even though he and I had frequent one-to-one meetings, I’d never been honest with him about how much I was struggling.
Sure, I’d mentioned my stress here and there. But I’d never told him directly that it was unsustainable—until I was at my breaking point.
That moment marks the point when I began to cultivate self advocacy. In the weeks and months after that fateful meeting, my stress went down, my career sped up, and I became a much happier, healthier person.
Knowing how to advocate for yourself at work or in life generally makes a huge, positive difference. But it doesn’t come easy, especially if you’re not used to speaking up for yourself.
It’s been over a decade since I had that life-changing moment, and since then, I’ve been actively improving how I advocate for myself. Now, I’m going to share some of the best tactics I’ve picked up, so you can start doing the same.
What is self advocacy?
Self advocacy is when you intentionally and effectively communicate your needs, boundaries, and desires to others.
To advocate for yourself, you must feel comfortable voicing your concerns clearly, while also setting expectations on how you expect to be treated.
Inversely, when you don’t advocate for yourself, you will bottle up many of your thoughts and feelings. You’ll choose instead not to “inconvenience” others, thus putting your own needs on the backburner. This is precisely what leads to burnout.
Self advocacy has a big role in your happiness at work. You will be more effective at your job if you’re able to tell others what you want and need, and your career will benefit from it.
But self advocacy is a skill that applies outside the workplace as well. You can advocate for yourself with your family, amongst your group of friends, or with romantic partners. In all cases, it will benefit you in the long run.
What happens when you practice self advocacy?
Before exploring the practical things you can do to start advocating for yourself more often, let’s look at what changes you can expect in life as you begin your journey.
You start to get what you want (more of the time)
How can you expect to get what you want if no one knows what you want?
Think back to the example at the beginning of this article. My boss had no idea I needed support to manage my job, until I was losing my cool. So as a result, he did nothing to help me.
But once I communicated to him how much I was struggling, he took me seriously. Within weeks, he’d hired a new person to join my team and help me manage the workload—which was exactly what I wanted. All I had to do was tell him.
Of course, in life, you can’t always get what you want. But as the song says, “if you try [self advocacy] sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”
People start respecting your boundaries
A big part of self advocacy is about setting boundaries. You don’t only want to advocate for yourself once the shit has started to hit the fan, so to speak. Instead, you should be preemptively advocating for yourself by setting clear boundaries with people early on.
For example, imagine you’ve started spending the night with someone you’ve been dating. As you’re winding down for bed, they spend an hour or two scrolling through TikTok at a high volume.
You could just try to ignore it and not say anything, sacrificing your own sound sleep for their habits.
Or, you could practice self advocacy with a short and simple conversation before you spend the night. It could be as simple as saying something like this:
“I’d love to sleep over, but just so you know, sleep is really important to me. I like to wind down before bed by reading or just resting quietly. If you’re happy with that, I’ll pack up my toothbrush and head over.”
No hurt feelings and no sacrificed sleep, all because you advocated for yourself with a strong boundary.
Career advancements come easier and more often
Have you ever heard the phrase, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil?” If you speak up for yourself, you get the attention, resources, and recognition necessary to advance your career.
It may sound counterintuitive at first. Wouldn’t someone who constantly complains be an annoyance to management, thus making their odds of getting a promotion less likely?
Remember this: Self advocating is not the same as complaining. Complaining is typically when you are whining about something inconsequential or unchangeable.
Self advocacy is about making your honest needs known in a productive manner. Management won’t see this as a form of complaining (and if they do, you have a toxic boss on your hands).
In fact, a good manager will see your ability to advocate for yourself as a strength. They’ll know you have the drive and confidence to acquire the resources you need to succeed, and they’ll be much more likely to promote you or hire you than they would someone who can’t advocate for themselves properly.
Stress, frustration, and anxiety go down
There is little more in this world more stress-inducing than suffering in silence. Being unable to tell people when you’re annoyed, frustrated, hurt, or struggling compounds whatever issues you’re dealing with.
Once you find a way to voice your issues appropriately, you’ll almost certainly see your stress levels go down. Rather than simply biting your tongue and trying to get on with things, you’ll get the support you need.
Side note: If you are struggling in silence and don’t feel you’re ready to advocate for yourself to those around you, seeing a counselor can help. In fact, taking care of your mental health by talking to a professional is a form of self advocacy.
I’ve already mentioned it a few times in this article, but a huge part of self advocacy is your ability to communicate effectively.
The biggest barrier to effective communication is your own emotions. If you try to advocate for yourself when you’re at the height of frustration or anxiety, you will encounter defensiveness and shock.
Instead, it’s best to approach self advocacy with a calm heart and mind. Feel your feelings, certainly, but once they are a bit more subdued, think rationally about how you can communicate what you need and want.
We have a few resources that can help you improve your communication skills. Check these out:
3. Start small and work your way up
Self advocacy can be demonstrated in many ways, big and small.
For example, telling your roommate you need them to take their clothes out of the dryer as soon as it’s done is a very small (but still important!) form of self-advocacy.
Telling your partner you need space and want to take some time alone is a much bigger, more intimidating form of self advocacy.
Though being able to advocate for yourself in all situations is the ultimate goal, if you’re new to the art form, start small. It’s just like exercise—use light weights until you’re ready to do heavy lifting, or else you may injure yourself.
Not only will you have more confidence when you’re self advocating on smaller issues, you’ll also develop the “muscles” you need to tackle the bigger stuff going on in your life.
4. Set firm boundaries, with consequences
It’s not easy to set boundaries, especially if you’re a people pleaser who likes to say “yes” to everything.
But now that you know your own values and goals, you have the guidelines to start setting boundaries. It will be challenging at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will become.
However, there is a common mistake to watch for if you’re not the natural boundary-setting type. When you set boundaries, it is vital that people who violate those boundaries face consequences.
For example, let’s say you’ve set a boundary with a colleague at work who keeps using up your time asking you things they could easily Google in a few seconds. You set a boundary, saying, “Please do as much research on your own before you come to me. If you can’t find the solution online, I’m happy to help.”
However, that coworker continues coming to you with silly questions. And because you’re a people pleaser, you give them the answers as needed. Though you set a boundary, it fell apart because there were no consequences.
Instead, this colleague could be corrected by simply adding some small consequences. The next time they come with a Google-able question, you can respond by saying, “It sounds like that’s something you can find out on your own. Please remember to do your own research before coming to me.”
In this instance, the consequence is being forced to do their own research to get the answer. Pretty minor stuff.
If that doesn’t work, you can set more consequences—speak to their manager, for example. This way, the person will learn that you take your boundaries seriously, and they won’t test them again.
5. Be open about the good and the bad
It may sound like self advocating is all about voicing your opinion about negative things. And indeed, the practice does often involve pointing out flaws and issues to help get what you want and need.
But part of self advocation also involves talking openly about your successes and achievements. Otherwise, these go overlooked, and you begin to look like a person who only has bad things to say.
For example, let’s say at work you’ve just finished a major presentation for a client, one which you presented yourself alone on a Zoom call. It felt good, especially when the client was so appreciative and happy as you ended the call.
You could simply smile to yourself and move on. That’s fine in many scenarios, but it doesn’t do you any favors if you’re trying to get ahead at your job. Instead, imagine if you brought it up during your weekly catch-up with your boss and colleagues.
You can politely say something like, “I’d like to share something really great that happened last week. I was on a call with…” and then tell the story.
This isn’t bragging, because you actually did achieve something amazing. Instead, you’re sharing your wins, so that people know how you’re doing and what brings you happiness and satisfaction. And that’s self advocacy at its finest.
6. Work on your negotiation skills
Remember when I said “You can’t always get what you want”? It’s true, but you’ll have a higher success rate when you combine self advocacy with strong negotiation.
This is particularly true if you’re surrounded by people who already are skilled at advocating for themselves. They will have their own boundaries and goals, and will be driven to get what they want as well.
Learning how to negotiate properly means you will be able to find middle ground, something that satisfies all parties equally. And you’re in luck, because we have a number of articles that can help you improve your power of persuasion:
7. Practice gratitude and pay it forward
Self advocacy is inherently a selfish act—to do it successfully, you have to focus on yourself and often put your own needs and wants in front of others.’ (And that’s not a bad thing!)
But it’s also important to balance self advocacy with compassion and empathy for people in your life. In fact, advocating for others who are unable to do so for themselves can advance your own self advocacy.
Think back to the example I used in the introduction of this article. I advocated for myself at work, and got support to do my job more effectively. After that, I had the breathing room to listen to some of my other colleagues, who were also suffering from burnout.
By talking with them, sharing my experience, and advocating for their needs to my manager, they too were able to get what they needed to work effectively. Over time, we went from an office of stress-crazed, bitter employees to a functional, productive, and happy team. And that was good for everyone (myself included).
Finally, when you advocate for yourself and end up getting something you want or need, be sure to show gratitude to those who listened to you. Thank them for their time and empathy, and let them know how appreciative you are. This is not only just the right thing to do, but will also make them more willing to help you in the future.
Everyone on this planet has value. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for some people to recognize other’s worth by respecting their boundaries and helping them get what they need. This is why self advocacy is so important—you must communicate what you need in life to get what you want.
No one else is going to do it for you, so find your voice and start standing up for yourself!