Standing Up For Yourself

I had a client once who was struggling with assertiveness issues. It was difficult for her to say no to people when they wanted her to do something she didn't want to do. It had been that way for as long as she could remember. We would talk about situations she'd be in with her boyfriend. The guy was sort of self-centered so far as I could tell; not violent, but not sensitive either. I was interested to see her tense up while talking about one of her interactions with this fellow. Though removed from that feared interaction in a fairly safe therapy environment, the threatening interaction was recreated in simulation in the form of her voice going soft, her body posture going submissive and anxious. She wasn't merely recounting what had happened to herself so much as she was re-experiencing it.

I had been reading some of the old Gestalt Therapy experiential literature at the time, and it hit me that an experiential sort of intervention might prove helpful. So I asked my client to explicitly imagine her boyfriend sitting there with her: What did he look like? What was he saying? How was he standing? She became quieter still, reported that she felt small, and took hold of her knees with her arms so as to become smaller in her chair. I interrupted her reverie after a few moments, calling her attention back to our therapeutic interaction and asked her if she liked feeling small. "No", she said. "You know", I said in response, "you can stand up if you like – you can stand up for yourself". And a neat thing happened. She unfolded herself, stood up out of her chair and got into a sort of joking caricature of a boxer's stance. A slight grin came across her face. It maybe had never occurred to her that she could literally stand up to her relationship partner and that things could go differently between them.

No particular magic occurred in that moment – no lasting change was necessarily created, and certainly no magical technique was on display. However, a little flash of insight was created in that moment that would hopefully later prove useful to this woman. The insight for my client was twofold; abstract and quite literal at the same time. The abstract point was that she didn't have to be satisfied with being passive – that it was okay for her to assert and defend herself -- that her own desires and wishes were important and need not be submerged beneath the desires of her boyfriend. The literal point I was making was that she was literally not standing up for herself. Her passive and frightened attitude was quite literally reflected in her posture. Hopefully she had learned (at least for that moment) that she could become aware of her feelings and gain the perspective she needed to change them by paying attention to her posture. By changing her physical posture, she could help herself to change her emotional and behavioral one as well.

Today's little essay, then, is about posture. How the way we carry ourselves tends to mirror and express how we feel about ourselves in relation to other people. And also how the way we learn to carry ourselves in relation to people we've known can end up limiting how we relate to new people we meet.

Posture has to do with how you hold yourself up. Generally, it refers to your physical body; how you stand or sit. As I'm using the term today, however, it can also double as a reference to how you regard yourself; to the state of your self-image. Sometimes there is actually a correspondence between how you stand and how you feel about yourself. Someone who understood this correspondence was probably responsible for coming up with the popular phrase, "Stand up for yourself".

Posture never occurs in a vacuum. It is always shaped by something else. It is always in relationship with something else. The way we stand physically is shaped and determined by gravity. When we slump into a couch at the end of the day, the curve we find our backs settling into is determined by gravity's pull, by the support offered by the pillows and cushions, and also by the strength of our back muscles. Whether or not we end up with a backache has to do with what sort of shape we're in, and what sort of support we were able to find for ourselves.

Emotional posture is determined by relationships with other people rather than a relationship with gravity. However, the way we stand in relationship to others is similarly determined by interactions. When we find ourselves angry, that is likely to be as a result of someone offending us. When we find ourselves happy it is likely to be the result of someone treating us well. While emotions do occur spontaneously, they occur with much greater frequency in response to how others treat (or don't treat) us.

Every time we assume a particular physical posture, we are practicing it, and as the saying goes, "practice makes perfect". Over time, it becomes very easy for us to assume postures we have practiced a lot, and harder and harder for us to get into postures we have ceased to practice. As an everyday illustration of this principle, take myself and my own posture repertoire. I have an office computer job. Every day I practice sitting on my butt with my hands hovering over a keyboard. As a result of holding this posture all the time I have become a world-class sitter, able to stay in my chair for hours without flinching. I also have ended up with aching shoulders and a tight neck. It would be very difficult for me to touch my toes if I didn't practice that most days. It is difficult for me to sit Indian-style (cross-legged) these days although this was not the case when I was a child. If I don't continue to practice sitting cross-legged from time to time, I'll probably lose the ability to sit that way altogether. If you think about what you used to be able to do as a kid, and what you're able and not able to do today you'll probably have a similar story to tell.

Emotional postures benefit from practice as well. We become better at expressing emotions and sentiments that we get to practice a lot. At the same time, other emotional potentials that are seldom practiced may never develop.

Emotional practice happens as we live out our relationships. The quality of our relationships determines which emotions we get to practice and which we do not. We get to practice loving emotions in loving relationships. Vice versa, we get to practice abusive and hostile emotions in abusive and hostile relationships. Kids who grow up in loving environments tend to learn how to love readily and easily, while kids who were abused tend to have a more difficult time trusting others. Relationships aren't the only things that influence us to be easily loving or hostile - there are also individual temperamental (instinctual personality) differences – but relationships are highly influential causes just the same.

Who you are today, physically and emotionally, is in large part a result of the relationships you've had up to this point in your life (with gravity, and with the other people you've known). Certain postures have become easier for you to hold than others, and certain other postures have atrophied for lack of practice. It may be easier for you to sit in a chair these days rather than sit cross-legged. It may be easier for you to feel frightened of a selfish boyfriend than to stand up for yourself. That one posture is easier or less painful than the other doesn't mean it is healthier, however, and this is the critical point against which any posture we take up must be judged.

In the case of the woman client I described above, it was normal for her to act passively in relation to her boyfriend (and to other people she wanted to please), but not helpful or healthy for her. She continued to behave passively not because it was good for her, or felt good, but because that was a posture she had a lot of practice with and would just collapse into without effort just like slouching into a couch at the end of the day. It was not a good posture for her, however, and she developed the emotional equivalent of a back ache in response. She had come to therapy for help in learning how to better manage her anxieties. Part of helping in this case was helping her to recognize that indeed she wasn't happy capitulating, and that feared alternatives such as standing up for herself weren't going to be as difficult to do as she had thought. My intervention was designed to communicate these observations in a compact and personal way that made visceral sense – sense that felt correct. And that is probably why when I pointed out that she was literally making herself small and might alternatively stand up for herself (that there was a more satisfying way to handle the boyfriend situation available to her if she was willing to practice it) that she smiled in recognition.

What about you? What postures define your interpersonal life? What relationships shaped those postures? How have those postures shaped your relationships for better or worse? What has it taken for you to be able to change your unhealthy postures?

  • Anonymous-1

    amen sister

  • Betty

    I am currently going through a divorce after 20 yrs of marriage. It is not pleasant as we disagree on who our 16 yr old daughter will live with full time & who should keep the house. I am guilty of not standing up for myself throughout my marriage until my daughter turned 12 and then I tried to intervene when he became too controling and critical with her (he calls her fat, chub, dummo, etc). Because I waited so long to fully voice my opinions, my daughter shows a submissive attitude, also. I realize the damage that I have done by not taking action quicker. She currently gets very upset with me because I don't just agree and make the tension of this divorce just go away.

  • Janice Cheeseman

    I agree with Dr. Dombeck's commentary that his lady client made herself "small" and chose to placate her boyfriend. She lacked assertiveness skills. I wonder why no one else ever talked to her about her submissiveness, before she went to Dr. Dombeck? Maybe her behavior was rewarding to other people in her life? I would be interested to know what her mother was like. I am just curious.

  • tay

    I lack when it comes to being assertive.All my life I have said yes when I really mean no.Ine of my co workers is always getting at me about my posture and I have begun to realize that my posture is poor much like my attitude towards life and every thing .I have a whatever attitude which has allowed me to go with the flow even though I don't want to . I rarely stand up and tell my true feelings unless it is to my kids or their father. which leaves them to suffer, I am working on it now and hopefully I can overcome this issue and STAND UP FOR MYSELF.!

  • K

    For the last two years so many things have happened to me at a time Moved to a new location to start living together with my spouse and a 3 yr old Son, couldn’t find a job for six months, worked as a cashier in a gas station for 6 months(have Engineering degree + 9yrs IT experience), 90% of the communication with my spouse is arguing, screaming and yelling, spouse controls everything, every financial activity, got a better professional job but again it was a night shift(7pm to 7am), couldn't adjust to this schedule and became isolated, got a car accident- my fault, missed very important appointments, unplanned second baby is on his way, lost this job after we signed everything to buy a new home, got another much better job after writing 264 e-mails and 4 interviews, without a plan my mother-in-law started living with us, have now the worst communication skill in dealing with clients by phone or in person and due to this might loose this job any time - When all is happening I was only saying YES and OK to everything and not standing for myself- I need help!!!!

  • ljubica

    i have alsways been the quiet on, someone who makes no waves... but now i think that it is hard to be assertive esp. when people have never seen you in that light before...

  • Anonymous-2

    I just get choked up when it comes to stuff like this. The other day I had the opportunity to stand up to this person who came over my house to stir up trouble, and I just got tounge tied. I am a guy and my partner thinks I should be more agressive, but I am always trying to please people. This makes me look like a wimp to her, and to myself. Very frustrating.

  • Kim

    I am 35, female. I have experienced a lot of distress in life, although it has been well hidden from those around me. WIth the aid of my spiritual counselor, I went back to my childhood and quickly saw that I had a lifetime pattern of not standing up for myself. The most aggravating thing about that is that I finally realized that that behavior was passed down to me by both of my parents. I'm not exactly sure how to begin to stop this, but for me, it's not just been one or two instances. It's been a lifetime of this. I'm in the process of trying to recall every memory of someone hurting my feelings or criticizing me and I'm allowing myself to FEEL the emotions of those interactions. Once I feel them and release them, they are no longer a part of my biological and psychological make-up. I would imagine that with a lifetime of memories engrained in ones' psyche that it would be difficult to JUST change that behavior. I recommend therapy and innter child work for everyone - plus journaling all of this. If you write it and go back and read it, it's extremely powerful.

  • Wanda

    I am a victim of domestic violence and managed to escape a nightmare of 7 years. Now several years later, I am in a new relationship and have been seeing a therapist since leaving my abusive marriage. My therapist has helped me see those "red flags" as she calls them. It is extremely difficult to stand up for yourself after years, basically all my life, being raised to be a victim. The self-doubt I get when I feel I need to stand up and say soemthing and say it so he/they don't react as if they are being attacked. Seems most of the time I bring something up, it's after the fact because I think about it over and over and want to make sure I'm asking for or standing up for myself like I should OR if I'm being demanding or making too much out of something little......does that make sense? It's like I need someone to confirm my feelings that I should say or do something. I know I still have work to do and I am still seeing my therapist it's just that it does get expensive! Any online steps that I could follow or work through would be great, especially if there is no charge since I'm broke because I'm still paying for my attornies (divorce was very rough and violent). I've always been the "don't rock the boat" kind of person and I hate conflict but I would like to feel secure with myself and how I think I should be treated.

  • LearningToStand

    I'm the younger of two sons and I've always been (or at least felt like) the lesser of the two, he's never bullied me or made me feel that way though. Our father was and still is very demanding and close-minded to any point of view other than his own. I've thus developed in a very submissive way. I'm now married and although my wife is a wonderful person and not the type to take advantange of my timidity, I also find it virtually impossible to say "No" to her. Same thing with my father, when he calls for anything, including to "borrow" money, I tense up and normally give in. My wife keeps telling me that I should assert myself and remember that I've left the nest and need to think about US and not let him stress me out the way he does with his wordsmithing. I say yes, but next time the same thing happens. But I've recently started to find my own voice and am beginning to assert my rights and my point of view.

    How? Well I've recently started training in kung fu, and it's helped me find not just a physical strength but also an internal strength that seems to have been dormant all these years. I still have a long way to go, but kung fu has become a vehicle for the long journey to a healthy self-concept that I've been missing. Thanks for this space.

    Editor's Note: We're really glad we can bring it to you. Your solution is awesome!

  • Anonymous-3


  • Nick

    I would just like to briefly speak about the wonders of hatha yoga and stretching on the posture. It has been really good for me to do yoga, and I've not only gained an inch in height, but I have also gained balance, strength and flexibility. Once the body get locked into a stiff postural hold, yoga asanas can help to undo the holding. A lot of times, this holding is based on outdated psychoemotional and physical patterns. I am hoping that this is helpful. Namaste.

  • Tina

    There was a magical moment when I uttered the small, but powerful word "no" to my family of origin. I come from a family that made me feel confused and scared all the time. I bonded poorly with an abusive mother and alcoholic father. I try very hard not to be like my parent's, I allowed them to abuse me, because I thought that's the way all people lived. now that I am older I see thats not true, Parents don't have that right to disrespect or treat children as their property. I'm glad that I managed not to be as abusive as they were.

  • holly

    My whole life I have been playing the victim role. I know that I have to just not allow people to run over me. I am anxious over every small aspect of my day. I must say that changing my posture does seem to help me some. It forces me to not allow myself to be invisible. I have practiced being invisible for so long that when someone speaks to me, it takes a second longer to talk. I use a headphone at work to tune the world out, and just live in my head. Posture recognition is a good way to help me break out of my inner prison, but forcing myself to speak is the real challenge. I just want to change.

  • Majorshadow

    Song Title: "stand"

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    A song about making your stand in life

  • Anonymous-4

    loved this!