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How to Start Speaking Up for Your Needs

By Lisa M. Basile
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
September 08, 2023

There may be times when you know exactly what you'd like from someone—a partner, friend, boss, or even a server at a restaurant—but somehow you can't quite bring yourself to put your needs into words. Often, knowing what you need and asking someone to help meet those needs are different skills—and frankly, speaking up can be tough for many people.

“It can be daunting to stand up for yourself, especially if you don’t have much practice self-advocating,” says Lauran Hahn, a licensed mental health counselor in Orlando, Florida.

But it’s worth it to learn how. Think back on a time when you did speak up for your needs. How great did that feel? Well, making a habit of advocating for yourself can give you that same feeling of empowerment and confidence. It can also boost your sense of inner strength and help you live in alignment with your values, explains Hahn.

And there's another bonus: Besides improving your self-esteem, asserting yourself may also improve your relationships and help you communicate better with those around you. So while you may think you’re keeping the peace by keeping quiet, speaking up for yourself may actually strengthen your connections all while improving how you feel about yourself.

Here are three ways to start asserting yourself when you need to.

1. Lean Into the Discomfort

Some people may steer clear of asserting themselves to avoid uncomfortable feelings like guilt and anxiety. But, pushing through that discomfort may yield powerful results in the end.

To get started, take a deep breath, center yourself, and make space for the discomfort, Hahn suggests. Then, check in with your values—the beliefs that guide your behavior—and ask which are driving the need to advocate for yourself. For example, maybe you value the need for quiet time alone, and so you need to speak up when someone’s asking for too much of your time. “Lean into those values knowing that no one else has the ability to make your values a priority to you, but you,” Hahn says.

Speaking up to protect these values may feel uncomfortable, but once you’ve done it, you should “relish in the experience of honoring yourself,” Hahn emphasizes.

2. Keep the Language Focused on You

When trying to be more assertive, it can be easy to slip into being overly brash or pushy towards others. But that’s not how it has to happen, says Barry Granek, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City. “When asserting yourself, it's important to communicate your own needs and feelings rather than attacking or blaming the other person,” he says.

Replace "you" statements like “You never listen to me" with “I” statements like “I feel like my opinion is not being heard” that help communicate your needs and feelings without sounding accusatory.

3. Start Small

Getting comfortable with speaking up for yourself in more ordinary situations will make it easier to do so when more is on the line. “It is helpful to start small,” Granek says.

Make a point to express your needs or opinions in low-stakes situations, such as choosing what movie to watch with a friend or speaking up when the family is deciding which restaurant to order from. You might try politely but clearly:

  • Saying no to your mother-in-law’s request to see you during a jam-packed weekend
  • Explaining to friends your need to leave an event at a certain time
  • Letting your server know the plate they put in front of you isn’t what you ordered

“This can help build confidence in your ability to assert yourself,” Granek says.

In the end, getting a little clarity on how you’re doing can help. To assess whether you’re being appropriately assertive given the situation, try getting feedback from trusted confidants. Ask them if you come across timid, aggressive, or just right. Practice and progress are key.

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