Saturday, October 30, 2010

Advocating For Yourself

One the things that I have noticed in my professional practice is that people struggle when it comes to advocating for themselves. Confrontation is one of those issues that people seem to want to avoid at just about any cost, including themselves. Instead of finding a way to ask for what we want or need, we push it down and hope it goes away. Everything could be resolved by making simple requests, yet we are afraid that the person we ask will not be open to hearing what we are saying or, worse, will reject us in some way. And, we take it personally every time someone does not give us what we want.

It would be simple for us to calmly ask for what we want/need. So, why do we not just do it? Could it be that we become so emotional ourselves that it is almost impossible to be calm with someone else? Usually we are attached to what we want from others and this gets a response from us, one that is hard to control and makes us more emotional in our asking for what we need from others.

Leslie (all characters are fictitious though based on clinical experience) came to me to reduce her stress, but it quickly became evident that she had been traumatized a great deal as a little girl. Her father would come home from work and would often stomp up the stairs to her room, dragging her out of bed by her feet and demanding she refold the laundry. She would often get beaten and told to refold the clothes over and over again until they were "perfect".

Through the course of our art therapy sessions Leslie discovered that although she was one of the toughest women I had ever met, she was deathly afraid of confrontation. She would become angry when someone would do something to offend her, but instead of confronting the offending person she would express her anger elsewhere, usually on some unsuspecting person (picking a fight with someone that was more her equal rather than an authority figure) or on her self (cutting or using drugs).

It took several attempts, but she began to realize that her fear of her father's abuse was no longer in control over her. She was choosing, instead, to work with people she felt safe with and begin to ask for what she needed, despite the anger and despite her fear. Leslie learned that asking for her needs to be met was appropriate, and that how she asked made a difference. She learned to ask in a way that expressed how she felt, rather than attack, and asked rather than be defensive and angry. It was through practice on being calm, yet assertive that Leslie found her voice.

She is still working on her goal of healthy communication and advocating for her self in appropriate ways (facing the confrontation). However, she has begun to take her sense of control/power back and her self-esteem with it.

Homework: An art therapy directive that works well with the issue of fear of confrontation is having the client make a drawing that illustrates the walls she has around her. In Leslie's case she drew four distinct walls and was able to identify each of them as specific actions she has taken to isolate herself from other in order to not be hurt by them. When you can identify what doesn't work, you can begin to change it to what does/can work.

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