Self-advocacy by definition means knowing your needs and how to ask for them to be met. It requires assertiveness and negotiation skills and is an essential part of self-care.

First things first: this blog is a companion post to Be your own Valentine: how self-love improves your relationship with yourself and others. When we wrote that blog, we realised that self-advocacy, an essential aspect of your self-relationship, needed a blog of its very own. The other areas we covered in the original blog, self-love, self-care, and self-worth, are pretty familiar to most people. The area of self-advocacy, however, is much less known or understood. So, in this post, we share what you need to know about self-advocacy and how to do it. And, if you haven’t read our previous blog yet – check it out once you’ve read this one. It will help you understand the bigger picture.

What is self-advocacy?

Self-advocacy may not be a term you are familiar with, but it’s one of the most powerful skills you can develop for your own health and well-being. Self-advocacy skill is the ability to know what you need and how to ask for it. It’s about believing that you have the same rights as everyone else and that you deserve to have your needs and wants to be met.  

Sounds simple? Well, most of us struggle with this in at least some areas of our lives. We see this most obviously in terms of health and the ability to self-advocate with health professionals. But, in fact, this is a skill that can help us in all areas of our lives because when we don’t have it, we struggle. 

You need self-advocacy when you return something to a shop, when you negotiate your fee with a client, or when you make sure that you are getting your fair share of the cookies on the table. It requires the ability to know what you need, the skills to articulate that, and the courage and confidence to ensure that you get it. That’s the art of negotiation.

how to practice self-advocacy?

When do you need self-advocacy?

You need self-advocacy all of the time. And that starts with you. You are constantly negotiating your needs with yourself. You are making choices about whether to do this or that all the time. Consciously or subconsciously, you are always asking yourself how to use your resources, such as energy, time, focus, love, and attention. When making these choices, do you speak up for your own needs and make sure you meet them? Or are you more likely to prioritise the needs of others? And, is that helpful?

We create dynamics and ways of being with those closest to us that can be detrimental to our needs. Do you say what you like and what you don’t like? How do you participate in choices about what to eat, do, watch, and so forth? Look around your home. Does it take into account your needs? Or is the space designed mostly around others in your household?

The same applies to your social connections like friends. Do you share in the choices that you make about spending time together? Or is it mostly on their terms? What about other social connections like with colleagues and other peers? Do you speak up for what you are willing and able to take on? Do you ask for help? 

Self-advocacy is key to accessing the support and services you need for your health and well-being. When it comes to health professionals, being able to name what you need and engage their help to ensure that you get what you need (or at least have a shot at it) is vital. Research is still woefully sparse on this. Existing research focuses primarily on areas of mental health but we can project those lessons across all areas of health. Here the results are clear: self-advocacy improves health outcomes. In fact, a “fundamental aspect of successful illness self-management is the ability to be a self-advocate within health and rehabilitation settings”.

Finally, it’s important to mention people in positions of authority, whether that’s local or national government or people in service or retail roles. Being able to speak up and get what you need is important, whether it’s with the tax authorities or with a shop owner. Even being able to assert your place in a queue when someone wants to jump it, is an act of self-advocacy. 

How do you do self-advocacy?

Before we introduce The Helpful Clinic’s seven steps to self-advocacy,  it’s important to honour where this word and everything it stands for, comes from. Rebekah L. Pennell traces it to the United States, where it developed as a response to the needs of people with disabilities to help them assert their own will in terms of choices in their lives. We owe a debt of gratitude to them and other civil rights movements who’ve developed how to do this and honed this vital skill. 

ISOP definition

Seven steps to self-advocacy

  1. Believe it’s ok to have needs and that you have the same rights as everyone else to seek the support to care for them.
  2. Identify what it is that you need. You may need help with this. None of us can see the back of our own heads, so ask someone you trust if you’re struggling to see what it is that you need. We all need a mirror to help us see.
  3. Get curious and educate yourself about who can help you.  This is both in terms of supportive allies and  those in position to take action on your behalf.   
  4. Lean into and cultivate your courage to seek that help – give yourself permission. 
  5. Prepare, map out a plan and make notes along the way. This is especially important in terms of health professionals, authorities, and service providers, where it’s important to be able to track who said and did what and when.  
  6. Like with all skills, it’s a question of practise. This is a form of negotiation – take what you know about negotiating and use it for yourself. Start small and build up. You don’t learn to swim by watching a documentary.  
  7. Find the opportunities within any issues you identify, or ISOPS, as we call them. When the way forward seems blocked, get curious and creative about what might be possible. Engaging your imagination can often yielded surprisingly successful results.

Are you ready to self-advocate?

Are you ready to self-advocate? It’s OK to be hesitant. Maya was. In our last blog, we talked about Maya actively cultivating her self-relationship, but we did not mention self-advocacy.  

If you check out that post later, you will see an example of self-advocacy when she negotiated a higher daily rate for her work. She did so using the steps above. It worked for her. It can work for you too.

Take a moment now to reflect on what comes up for you. Where can you see that you’re able to advocate for yourself, and where do you struggle? Be mindful that your inner critic may be spotlighting all the areas where you’re not able to do self-advocacy as well as you’d like. That’s OK; that’s the job of the inner critic. Remember to be kind though and bear in mind that your inner critic is wired to see the worst case scenario. Make sure you also bring in your inner coach to show you where you are able to do self-advocate, at least to some extent. Connect with your self-compassion, and remember it takes courage to do this. 

Consider what situation in your life now you can use to practise your self-advocacy. Give yourself the time to think through the seven steps – this is like a thought experiment to help you see what’s possible. Note what feelings come up and do an experiment applying the seven steps. Feelings are always information – and remember, it’s more helpful to be curious than critical.

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor

Thor sitting writing in his chair and Denny the dog sitting next to him and looking outside the window