Being an Effective Self-Advocate

Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What is Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocacy is the ability to understand and assert one's own needs, rights, and interests effectively. It involves communicating, negotiating for oneself, and making informed decisions. This skill is crucial in daily life as it empowers individuals to take control of their personal and professional situations, ensuring their voices are heard and their needs are met. By practicing self-advocacy, people can navigate complex social and institutional structures to achieve desired outcomes, enhancing their autonomy and capacity to influence their life paths.

Believe in yourself.


The first step to becoming an effective self-advocate is believing in yourself. Believing in yourself means you are aware of your strengths, know that you are worthwhile, and are willing to take good care of yourself. Many people who have troubling emotional symptoms or who have a disability struggle with self-esteem. To ask for what you need and want and to protect yourself when others treat you badly, you will need to support your self-worth.

You will want to assess, appreciate, support, and improve the way you feel about yourself.

  • Assess: On a 1-10 scale, what is your self-esteem? If undecided, give yourself a 5.
  • Appreciate: Give yourself credit for as much self-esteem as you have. It can be really hard to hold one's own in the world, and you deserve appreciation for every point you've been able to hold on to. Forgive yourself for the points that lie between you and a 10. You've done the best you can. Also, give yourself credit for reading this.
  • Support: What do you do for yourself that supports your well-being? Write down those things, like eating well, making sure you have fun regularly, or pursuing your goals. Write only the good things you do right now, appreciate yourself for them, and vow to continue. Supporting yourself also means having a good external support system. Write down names of healthy, positive people who you can check in with and get feedback from as you work toward building confidence.
  • Improve: Think of something you'd like to change for better well-being. It can be just one small thing that's easy for you that you'd like to stop doing or begin to do, such as exercising more, signing up for a class, or watching less television. It may even be getting out of bed. Sometimes, deciding is enough, but here, it is helpful to make a step-by-step plan of how you are going to change if you need to.

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Exercises to raise Self-esteem

Here are practical strategies to boost self-belief:  

  • Get together with a trusted friend. Divide a block of time in half. For instance, 20 minutes divided in half would be 10 minutes each. Then, take turns telling the other person everything good about them. Just think, 10 minutes of compliments!
  • Buy or borrow a book on building self-esteem. Do any of the suggested activities that feel right.
  • Repeat the affirmation over and over: I am a unique and valuable person. I am worth the effort it takes to advocate for myself, to get what I want and need for myself, to protect my rights, and to insist that others treat me well. Think of other affirmations that you could say to yourself.
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes. Then, write everything good you can think of about yourself. After your time is up, read what you have written. Then, fold it up, and put it in a convenient place, like in your pocket, purse, or next to your bed. Then, read it over before you go to bed, when you get up in the morning, and every time you have a spare moment. If you can't think of enough things to write in this exercise, ask your friends for ideas before you begin.
  • Do something nice for someone else or your community. Take fresh flowers to a friend, visit a person in the hospital or in a nursing home, or clean up the trash in a park.

If you don't believe in yourself because you are feeling bad, have a trusted friend or healthcare provider remind you that they believe in you. Erin L. George, MA-MFT, says, "It's important not only to surround yourself with supportive people but to be open about what you're working on. Don't be afraid to ask a trusted person to practice with you. For example, if you are worried about going to an upcoming doctor's appointment, ask them to role-play how you will communicate your medical needs to your provider. Practice will help build your confidence."

Decide what you want or what needs to change.

Think about your life. What is it that you need and want for yourself? Make a list of these things. For instance, you may want to:

  • Get a new or better job
  • Find housing in a safe neighborhood
  • Learn through online courses or go back to school
  • Change your medications or treatments
  • Discover ways to make more money
  • Ask for a raise
  • Get fit
  • Buy a new car
  • Have a partner
  • Take sick time
  • Be treated as an equal by your healthcare provider
  • Be treated with respect in your workplace

Your list may be very long. Review the list and take the following steps: 

  1. Which of these goals could you achieve or try to achieve by advocating or speaking out for yourself? Circle those.
  2. Which of your circled needs and wants is most important to you? Put #1 beside that want or need. 
  3. Number the others in order of priority. For instance, your #1 might be going back to school. Your #2 might be getting a better job, and #3 might be making more money.

Through this simple process, you have identified your needs or goals and how important they are to you in your life. It would be a lot of work to begin working on all of your goals at the same time, so start working on meeting these needs and goals by beginning with your top priority, labeled #1.

After you have met that goal or are progressing well with that one, you can begin working on another need or goal. Keep in mind that your needs and goals may change from time to time. What seems like a high priority now may not seem like such a high priority in several months when something else could take precedence over it.

Get the facts.
Gather information, and make sure it's accurate. There are many ways to get information:

  • Ask people who have done something similar or who have been in a similar situation—a peer, coworker, or friend.
  • Talk to someone who has expertise in the area you are working on. For instance, if you want to go back to college, visit with a college advisor, disability official, or a student support program. If you need safe housing, talk to someone in your town's housing authority.
  • Study books and other resources you can access online or through your library and related organizations.
  • Contact various agencies and organizations, especially those that specialize in advocacy and education and that serve people with disabilities.

If this is hard for you to do, ask someone you trust to help you, such as a friend, family member, or healthcare provider. Once you have the facts you think you need, write them down or make copies. Keep them in a file or other safe place where you know you can find the information when you need it.

Use your common sense to decide whether a source of information is believable. If you are unclear, ask someone you trust or a person with expertise in the area to help you decide if the information you have found is accurate.

Plan your strategy.
Now that you know what you want and you have information about it, what do you think is your best strategy for getting what you want or for achieving your goal? What steps do you need to take?

You may want to set a timeline and decide on small goals to achieve by certain dates. Think of several ways to address the obstacle in case one attempt at reaching a goal doesn't work out. Ask supporters for suggestions. Get feedback on your ideas. Then, choose a strategy or strategies.

Erin L George, MA-MFT, says, "It's okay to ask trusted supporters to come with you if you aren't sure you're ready to advocate for yourself right out of the gate. Obviously, they can't go with you to a job interview, but consider bringing them along, even if they wait in the car, if you think it will help. Ask them to let you do the communicating but to be there to help if you get flustered."


To illustrate self-advocacy in action, here are two hypothetical examples:

Tom, a man in his 40s, had been out of work for 10 years due to severe depression and anxiety attacks. He wanted to return to work part-time in his field as a graphic designer. Through his research, he found there were openings for graphic designers in his community. However, he also learned that in the years that he had been unable to work, all graphic design work had become digital. His computer design skills were very limited. His strategy was as follows:

Goal 1: Learn needed computer skills

  • To be achieved in 1 year

Objectives to meet goal:

  • Inquire about the availability of courses through adult education programs and local colleges.
  • Inquire about services and accommodations for people with disabilities.
  • Find funding for courses through vocational rehabilitation programs and financial aid.
  • Enroll in classes.
  • Develop a study schedule.

Goal 2: Get employed

  • To be achieved in 18 months

Objectives to meet goal:

  • Meet with people at local employment agencies.
  • Become familiar with possible employment options.
  • Develop a resume.
  • Update your wardrobe by frequenting thrift shops or other shops for good buys.
  • Talk with graphic designers about possible employment.
  • Fill out applications.
  • Set up interviews.

Jane, a woman in her 30s, had always had trouble speaking up for herself. She was often harassed at her workplace, a large discount store, by a coworker. This coworker teased her about her disability and went out of her way to make Jane's job difficult. She had not spoken up about this for fear of losing her job.

Goal: Get better treatment from her coworker without losing her job

  • To be achieved in 1 month

Objectives to meet the goal:

  • Ask friends, family, and healthcare providers to get recommendations on how to proceed.
  • Call the state agency of protection and advocacy or the Job Accommodation Network at (800) 526-7234 and get recommendations on how to proceed. 
  • Ask the coworker to stop the harassment (teasing).
  • If necessary, file a complaint with the HR department to ask that the harassment be stopped or be moved to a position away from the coworker.
  • Read books on assertiveness when dealing with difficult people.

Gather support.It is easier and usually more effective to work on getting what you want and need for yourself if you have the support of one or several friends, family members, or healthcare providers. You may even want to join a group of people with issues similar to yours, such as self-help, peer support, or online groups. If necessary, call your protection and advocacy organization for assistance. A good supporter is someone who:

  • Likes, respects, and trusts you, and whom you like, respect, and trust
  • Allows you the space to change, grow, make decisions, and make mistakes
  • Listens to you and shares with you,
  • Respects your need for confidentiality so you can tell them anything
  • Lets you freely express your feelings and thoughts without judging, teasing, or criticizing
  • Gives you good advice when you ask for it, assists you in taking action that will help you feel better, and works with you to determine what to do next in difficult situations
  • Accepts help from you when they need it
  • Does not take advantage of you

Tell them you're working on becoming a better advocate for yourself. Ask them if they would be willing to help you in this effort by listening to you, giving you advice and feedback from time to time, and being with you when you take some challenging steps. If they agree, put their names and phone numbers on a list and post it in a convenient place where you can easily find these phone numbers when you need them. However, don't overwhelm your supporters with your problems and needs. And be there for them when they need your help.

Keep in mind that even the very best friend may inadvertently let you down from time to time. No one is perfect. Try to forget the incident and continue with the good relationship you have.

Target your efforts.
Who do you need to deal with to get action on this matter? Talk directly with the person or people who can best assist you. It may take a few phone calls to discover which organization, agency, or person can help and to find who is in charge, but it is worth the effort. Keep trying until you find the right person. The right person may be someone as close as your spouse or another family member. It could be the head of your local town council. Perhaps it is a State official. It might even be a Congressperson. It could be the head of the company you work for.

Keep going up the chain of command until you reach the person who can help you. Remember that you are a very important and valuable person, and insist that the right person make the time to deal with you and your issues. Treating the person who is respectfully helping you will help you to get what it is you need for yourself.

Ask for what you want.
Make an appointment to see the person or people who can help you get what you want. Don't just show up. Once you have made the appointment, be sure to keep it. If something comes up so you can't make it, call ahead and reschedule.

Dress neatly for the appointment. This gives the person the message that this is an important meeting. Be on time. Look the person in the eye and shake hands firmly in greeting. Call the person by name. How you say something often makes a greater impression than what you say. Use the person's formal name (Mr. Jones or Mrs. Corey) or ask them how they would like to be addressed.

When you are asking for what you want and need, be brief and concise. Say what you need to say as clearly and with as few words as possible. Give only the information that the other person needs. Don't confuse them with things they don't need to know. Don't go on and on about it -- just say it. Stick to the point. Don't allow yourself to be diverted. State your concern and how you want things changed.

State your message clearly and simply. Tell the person exactly what you want from them. Explain why you need it. Tell them why it is in their best interest to respond to your request. Speak loudly enough to be heard without shouting. Expect a positive response. Plan ahead of time what points you need to make. Practice with the help of friends, tape recorders, or mirrors if you feel unsure of yourself.

Consider the following examples of a person telling someone else what they need or want:

"I have learned that many people who have taken certain medications for long periods need a complete battery of thyroid tests. I would be happy to share this information with you. I also know that I have many symptoms which are common to people who have certain thyroid disorders. By reviewing my records, I have found that I have not had any thyroid tests. Therefore, I would like you to order a complete battery of thyroid tests for me."

"I live in one of your subsidized housing units. The locks on the front door and several of the windows are broken. I have asked the building manager to repair them three times in the last month. It has not been done. In addition, the high crime rate in the area is making it difficult for me to sleep. I need to be transferred to a housing unit in a safe area where the building, especially the locks, are kept in good repair."

Listen and respond. 
Listen to the other person's response. If you don't understand, ask questions for clarification. If you feel you are not getting anywhere, tell the other person that you wish to pursue your issues further and ask to speak to the person's supervisor.

Sometimes, the person you are speaking with will divert your attention by talking about something unrelated to your request or telling you that what you want is not possible. Politely bring their attention back to your request by restating what you want. Remember to keep a friendly but firm tone. Raising your voice or becoming angry won't help you get your clear message across. If you need to, take deep breaths before repeating your wants and needs.

At the end of the meeting, restate any action that has been decided upon, so you both understand each other clearly. For instance, you might say, "As a result of this meeting, you are going to order a thyroid test for me." Or, "As a result of this meeting, I understand you are going to change my status to active."

Send a follow-up note thanking them for meeting with you and summarizing any agreed-upon action. This will be a reminder to ensure that you both have the same understanding of the result of the meeting.

In some cases, it may not be possible for you to ask for what you want "in person." Distance, lack of transportation, lack of resources, and illness or disability may make that difficult. You may have to make your request by phone, via email, or in a letter.

Send emails or letters.
If you are going to make your request by email or letter, make the message short, simple, and clear. Long letters or messages may not be read. Make sure it is easy to read.

In the first paragraph, tell them exactly what you want. Then, add details or more information in the rest of the letter.

If appropriate, send copies of your letter to others you want to inform, such as your legislator or advocacy agency. Put "cc" (which means copies circulated) at the bottom of the letter with a list of others to whom you are sending copies. You may also choose to send "blind" copies that you don't inform others about. Keep a copy of the letter in your file for future reference. It's a good idea to follow up a letter with a phone call to make sure the person got the letter and to discuss the situation further.

Keep a record of all your communications and calls.

Make phone calls.
You may need to make your request by phone. Letters and visits may be initiated with or followed by phone calls. Use phone calls to gather information, to keep track of what's going on, and to let people know what you want. When calling:

  • Make a list of the points you want to make in your call and have it in front of you to refer to during the call.
  • Identify yourself. Ask the name and position of the person you are talking to.
  • Briefly describe the situation to the person who answered and ask if they are the right person to deal with such a request. If they are not the right person, ask to be transferred to a more appropriate person. If that person is not available, ask that they return your call. If you have not heard from them by the next day, call back. Don't be put off or give up because your call is not returned. Keep calling until you reach the person you need to speak to.
  • Once you have reached the appropriate person, make your request for action brief and clear.
  • If the person cannot respond to your request immediately, ask when they will get back to you or by what date you can expect action.
  • Thank the person for being helpful when that's the case.
  • In some cases, when a person has been particularly helpful, it is a good idea to send a card of thanks. This opens the door for further contact on related issues.
  • Keep a written record of your calls in your file. Include the date of your call, who you spoke to, issues addressed, and promised action.
  • If you do not hear back from the person when expected, the promised action is not taken, or the situation is not resolved, call them back. Persist until you reach the person, the promised action is taken, or a resolution is reached.

Assert yourself calmly.
When you are speaking up for yourself, you may get very frustrated and angry if the other person is very negative or difficult to deal with. Stay cool. Don't lose your temper and lash out at the other person, their character, or the organization. If you lose your temper, it may make it more difficult to get what you want and need for yourself. It will help if you treat the other person or people courteously.

Repeating these affirmations over and over may help:

In the process of advocating for myself, I will keep calm because this increases my effectiveness. In the process of advocating for myself, I am committed to speaking out, respecting the rights of others, and listening to what they have to say.

Be firm and persistent.
Don't give up! It may take a very short time and little effort, or it could take persistent effort over time. Repeat the following affirmation:

I will be firm and persistent. I will stick with it until I get what I need for myself.

After your appointment or communication, arrange to meet a friend or therapist so you can tell someone what happened. It will help reduce your stress and keep you feeling well.

Be sure to write down the next steps to resolve the issues that may still be outstanding after the communication.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is self-advocacy important?

Self-advocacy is important because it empowers individuals to take control of their lives, ensuring that their personal and professional needs are met. It leads to increased self-confidence, autonomy, and a better understanding of one's rights. It also enables people to contribute to decisions that affect them, leading to more satisfying outcomes in healthcare, education, and workplace environments.

How can I improve my self-advocacy skills?

Improving self-advocacy skills involves practicing clear and assertive communication, understanding your rights and responsibilities, learning how to negotiate effectively, and becoming informed about the resources and supports available to you. Building a support network and seeking feedback can also enhance your self-advocacy skills.

Can self-advocacy be learned?

Yes, self-advocacy can be taught and developed over time. Educational programs, workshops, and therapy can help individuals learn the principles of self-advocacy, including effective communication, understanding legal rights, and strategic planning. Practice and real-life application of these principles further refine and strengthen self-advocacy skills.

How do I advocate for myself in a professional setting?

In a professional setting, advocating for yourself involves clearly expressing your career goals, seeking growth opportunities, negotiating for fair compensation or workplace accommodations, and addressing conflicts directly and professionally. It's important to be well informed about your organization's policies, your job description, and your rights as an employee.

Sourced from Speaking Out For Yourself: A Self-Help Guide, SAMHSA booklet SMA-3719

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