I have many “me too” stories. It is never easy to write or speak on these topics but I know that it’s vital to do so for this pattern to change. Sadly, my first me too story was when I was only 14 years of age. When I was in ninth grade, an assistant male track coach twice my age tried to kiss me and come on to me. I was alone with him in his car because he had offered to drive me home after practice. Until that moment, I had believed that I could trust him, that the encouraging words he dished out during practice were authentic and benign. He had even become a sort of role model to me. I pulled away from him that night and told him to take me home. But I never told him how I really felt (disgusted and afraid), and I never reported the incident. In part, I worried no one would believe me, or worse, they would blame me. I also remember feeling powerless and embarrassed, which is probably how he hoped I would feel so I would stay silent. I was only fourteen, and life was forcing me to grow up too fast. Looking back, I wish I’d had some sort of how-to manual for handling scary situations.
As children, we are taught to tell the truth, and, once upon a time, that task seemed simple. We might admit that we ate the chocolate we weren’t supposed to touch until after dinner, or confess that we tripped our classmate on purpose. However, as we grow older and life becomes more complicated, we learn that the truth is not always easy to tell, nor is it necessarily about admitting a mistake. Truth also involves being fair, setting boundaries, and protecting ourselves as much as—if not more than—we protect others. This is where the notion of a personal truth arises; we can voice this truth to say “no” when confronted with any situation that contradicts our feelings, values, or convictions, and to speak up for ourselves when no one else can or will.
Unfortunately, voicing our personal truth can be difficult. Many of us find that going with the flow is much easier than rocking the boat. As teenagers, we learn that saying “no” to our peers can subject us to ridicule, or worse, alienation. But saying “no” to our peers is just one problem; saying “no” to our superiors seems almost forbidden. Early in life, we learn to respect our elders and to do what they say. Later, to our dismay, we discover that not all adults naturally have others’ best interests in mind. Rarely, we might even encounter an adult—like my assistant track coach—who has harmful intentions. These are situations to which we might rather turn a blind eye; however, this is precisely why it is critical for young people today to understand the importance of using their voice and speaking their truth.
As a teenager and a young adult, I faced numerous tests that begged me to stand up for myself. Sometimes those tests involved pressure from adults; other times, peer pressure was the culprit. Sometimes I failed those tests, as in the one noted above, which, granted, is an extreme example. Luckily, I emerged unscathed. Although, it has haunted me my entire life because I didn’t speak up in that moment. Yet, soon after that incident, the most dangerous test of all confronted me on a mountaintop in Lake Tahoe. By ignoring my intuition and jumping off of a cliff into the lake, I nearly lost my life. But that experience inspired me to slow down and get to know my personal truth so that in future tests, by voicing my convictions, I could prevail.
So what can young people—and people of all ages—do to enhance their assertiveness and speak their truth under high-pressure circumstances?
1) Know Yourself – Become familiar with your likes and dislikes, your values and goals, and understand the boundaries you want others to respect.
2) Be Prepared – Life is full of surprises and unpredictable situations, so be mentally prepared for times when you will need to stand up for yourself and speak your truth.
3) Listen to Your Intuition—Practice trusting that gut feeling that tells you whether a situation is right or wrong (I will be writing a future blog post about how to strengthen your intuition).
4) Be Clear and Firm – You can practice a few of the following lines ahead of time, and alter them accordingly:
• “I don’t like that. I need you to stop.”
• “I am uncomfortable. I need to leave now.”
• “I don’t want to do this. I am just not interested.”
It is important to remember that you can be clear and firm without being disrespectful. By using “I” statements, you are taking ownership of your feelings and asking the listener to focus on your needs. In the end, if you don’t stand up for yourself, the only person you risk disrespecting is yourself.
While ignoring a problem might seem more convenient in the short run, confronting troubles head-on in the moment can minimize our pain and suffering later on. What can you do now about past situations when you failed to voice your truth? As with any test in life, even if we think we failed, we still win if we benefit from the lesson. That lesson, for me, was to speak up next time.
Wishing you peace through empowerment,