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Why Self-Advocacy is so Hard

A friend of mine's three year old daughter came into her bedroom in the middle of the night because she couldn't breath. They rushed her to the ER. With the proper medical attention she was able to make a full recovery.

"I'm so grateful she woke us up," my friend shared as she relayed the story.

Effective self-advocacy in a medical crisis can make the difference between life and death.

The fact is, most of us have to learn self-advocacy in less dire circumstances. But that doesn't make it any less important.

Lately, I've been hearing leaders lament that they want their team members to be more effective self-advocates. To speak up for an idea they believe in. To give voice to their needs.

To share openly when they disagree with something.

Yet, bridging this intention with action is so hard. Why is that?

To answer that question, we have to look at the deeply ingrained habits and beliefs that go against speaking up.

Our education system has rewarded compliance and villainized anyone that speaks up for themselves as being disruptive to the class or out of line. If you think this is a problem of the past, rest assured, I have personal experience that shows this remains an issue today (literally, today).

In addition to our education system, many of us have familial experiences where we were discouraged from speaking up as a kid.

I recall being told not to say something when a boundary of mine was crossed so I "don't upset" someone else. As a result, I internalized responsibility for managing the equilibrium of emotionally fragile adults over ensuring my own needs were met.

Maintaining the peace was exponentially more important than advocating for my needs to be met because otherwise I stood to lose my sense of safety and belonging in my family.

We all bring the habits from such childhood experiences into our work. But the well of understanding doesn't stop there.

Being a "good worker" has long been synonymous with doing whatever it takes to get the job done no matter the personal sacrifice. In many instances, the greater the personal sacrifice the more one is praised. Employees have been expected to "suck it up and deal" for decades because, "that's how it's always been."

In essence, there's also a fundamental disconnect between being a good worker and being a good self-advocate.

It turns out, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. The self-effacing scripts for succeeding in the modern world that emerged in the post industrial revolution are actively being rewritten.

But the reprogramming is not complete so the duality is omnipresent and you never know which side of the coin you'll get.

That makes advocating for oneself even riskier, especially in a professional setting. The uncertainty of how it will be perceived makes it feel safer to stay quiet and bide your time.

This is especially true when vocal self-advocates have experienced retaliation.

The onus is on the leader to foster conditions for effective self-advocacy and to model it.

A wholehearted leader is aware of this predicament. She seeks to create conditions where self-advocacy is appreciated by making space for it to happen.

That means working through the messy middle of hard conversations, because speaking up in this way isn't always easy or pretty. Feelings get hurt, misunderstandings happen, and confusion can abound.

Becoming an effective self-advocate isn't something we check-off the to do list. It's more of a practice, a process of re-learning.

We each face new situations that challenge us to work the edges of our own discomfort. To identify and name our needs first to ourselves. Then to others. And to stand firm in the event we are questioned, dismissed or ignored.

Self-advocating is a courageous act.

It is courageous because in so many ways and for so many of us, self-advocacy goes against how we were raised. Be quiet. Be easy going. Be compliant. Do as your told. Don't make such a big deal out of nothing. Don't hurt anyone's feelings.  And above all else, fit in.

Luckily, the scripts we are all living from were written with dry erase marker, not sharpies. And our courage grows stronger as we take steps to rewrite our inner scripts so we can showup as the leader, partner and parent we aspire to be.

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