I always feel bad for kids when they look unhappy or distressed – it is hard being a child. Your voice is pretty small, if you’re allowed to have one at all, and you’re often used as entertainment, which can have lasting effects despite our intentions as adults being pretty tame (Kids are funny, right?). It is super fun, too, playing and spending so much time with family and friends, finding your way through school and family challenges. When you are a kid, your family has to advocate for you, and hopefully they did a good job. But when you’re an adult, you need to remember to do for yourself what they did for you. Growing up doesn’t mean you should have to withstand unfair treatment, in fact, your voice is your own as an adult, so use it when you need to. It’s pretty much all we have!
Shopping the other day, I was searching for a checkout. All were packed but one. I stood with my overflowing basket in hand for a few seconds before realizing that the woman in front of me, despite being nearly finished checking out, had left her empty cart at the end of the line. She was blocking half of the belt by leaving her cart there. I smiled in her direction, she looked at me and her cart and did nothing. So, seeing that she didn’t intend to be polite, I gently moved her cart a couple of inches forward and plopped my basket on the belt and put down a separator. She glared at me, moved her cart, and I said “thank you”.
I’d like to say there was a time when I wouldn’t have done this, and maybe there was, but I don’t recall. Of course, this is an extremely petty example of self-advocacy, but it is an example of self-advocacy nonetheless. There are people in life, all over the world, who are going to seek out others to pick at to build themselves up. Perhaps in this woman’s case, she wasn’t intentionally blocking the aisle (let’s pretend she didn’t make eye contact with me). Perhaps her behavior was simply a product of no one advocating for themselves in her presence, which led her to believe as an adult that it is okay to be rude or have unrealistic expectations of what it means to share space with others. Maybe she was tired and is usually nice, I don’t know. The point is, I was not going to let her cause me discomfort to spare her feelings. Being kind is important, but relinquishing comfort to others is rarely a worthwhile endeavor. Put simply, I’d rather be seen as a jerk for the rest of my life than let others dictate my actions in the name of protecting their delicate sensibilities.
Growing up with severe anxiety, I had to advocate for myself a lot. At school, there was always some battle with administration happening – middle school lunches were occasionally spent in detention. I was not a “bad kid” by any means – I had health issues that public schools were not equipped to handle. I certainly did not belong in detention, but frankly a lot of kids who get detention are just kids with problems that staff are not qualified to handle properly. I wrack my brain trying to recall what I “did”, and come up with: “Well, yeah, I did talk too much, was frequently 2 minutes late for class, and had extreme difficulty participating in gym class.” It pains me to think of all the children going through this now, and I am thankful that more open conversation is happening regarding mental health, because let’s be honest, a child talking too much in an improper setting, running late every day, and not wanting to change clothes or shower near peers pretty transparently has bigger issues that should be looked into.
Needless to say, I do not feel that I was advocated for as a child. As an adult, I can say I’ve had nearly 3 decades to cultivate the skill. Advocating for yourself is something we should all do, always. Self-advocacy is for everyone, not just those with a disability. In fact, it’s not about that at all. We have all experienced unfair treatment, we have all been targeted before for one reason or another. Chances are, you’ll find it happens less and less when you finally decide to take care of yourself, even if it means having uncomfortable conversations or bringing less-than-pleasant things to light. As silly as it sounds, it really does start with things as simple as nudging the cart blocking the checkout. As I’m sure you know, for every cart left un-nudged, you lend credit to the toxic idea that other people’s comfort and happiness is more important than your own.
Unfortunately, we have all also met someone who advocates for themselves when it’s not warranted. This is an emotionally abusive tactic – it is not self-advocacy at all, it is the same rude behavior described above, repackaged and expertly crafted. It is weaponized self-victimization. So please, don’t think that self-advocacy is using your personal issues as a weapon – it’s not. Put simply, if there is enough room to put down your basket, put it down and shut up.