My whole life I was instructed to proceed with caution, err on the side of politeness, and, when all else fails, apologize. The words "I'm sorry" felt as commonplace as my name, the response as deeply engrained within me as brushing my teeth before bed. I truly had convinced myself that when things go awry, it's always better to blame yourself and avoid conflict. But the first time that I stood up for myself instead, I experienced a mental shift.
After attending an all girls school for the majority of my life, I remember entering my first-ever college (co-ed) classroom, and feeling overwhelmed by the extent to which the male voices in the room seemed to seamlessly overpower their female peers. It was then that I resolved to never to back down in a debate: I continued to raise my hand with vigor and enthusiasm for the duration of my four years.
Women and men are raised from a young age to learn different behavior — and young girls are taught to be pleasant, never raising their voice. "We still socialize females, in general, to be more passive/receptive/submissive, whether in dating or professionally,” therapist Nancy B. Irwin told Bustle. “Males are generally more socialized to be assertive, ask for what they want with no apology."
This is a by-product of being raised in a gendered society, deep rooted with subtle sexism. But that doesn't mean it's not possible to overcome this. Below, women share the first time that they stood up for themselves, and the impact it had.
"For years, I was bullied and manipulated by my supervisor. Even with unprecedented results, she always thought I wasn't doing enough for the greater good. She interpreted my success as a threat and used it as a weapon against me — making me feel like an ungrateful narcissist for my accomplishments. She would not allow me to stand in my light and being proud of the wins — she just constantly reminded me that she was giving me these opportunities and I needed to 'know my role'.
After seeking professional mental health support, I realized that the only way I would continue to be bullied would be if I accepted her behavior to be the truth and allowed her manipulation to successfully influence me! So, after gaining the courage to start to talk to her like a peer and not a weak subordinate, I said, 'I hear what you're saying and at the end of the day you're my supervisor and I'm not going to go against your wishes. However, I don't agree with this direction and want to make sure you know where I stand. If you'd like to understand my perspective I'm willing to share it.'
We then had a thoughtful conversation which led me to realize where she was coming from and her own insecurities that were at play. From that day forward I felt empowered to speak my truth, even when my voice shakes. I was far from 100 percent successful, but definitely had a major shift in our dynamics."
"This happened when I was at school, when I was 13. There were massive protests all over the country, and we were hopeful and excited. Someone brought small homemade posters into the classroom. One of the teachers was mad about that. She asked who brought it in, and then she said she knew it wasn't me. It wasn't me — I was too shy to do this. But still, I felt offended. I interrupted her telling that I could bring them, because I was there in the city square and I share protesters' goals. Then, I broke down and started crying. By the end of the lesson, I had to recite a poem, while still crying. I felt both scared and proud. The next few days, my classmates told me how strong I had been. I told this story to my parents a year after, when I had changed schools."
"My dad always taught me to be bold and stand up for myself and those around me. I first stood up for myself was when I was seven, after a misunderstanding with my music teacher. I stood up for myself — I still remember hearing my voice shaking as I spoke — and she actually apologized to me a few days later."
"The first time I stood up for myself I was 16 years old. I was a sophomore in high school, and dating a senior. We had dated for a couple of months and everything seemed fine, then one night, when he was taking me home from a date, he decided to take the long way to my house. ... Suddenly he pulled onto a side road, off of the gravel road. I was understandably nervous and ask what he was doing. He said he wanted to talk and I had time before my curfew.
Well, he didn’t want to talk. He began kissing me and pressuring me to do more. I told him no, but he didn’t listen and insisted if I cared about him I would let him continue. I slapped him in the face, got out of his car, and began walking home. We were still a mile from my house and there were no street lights. He pulled up beside me as I walked down that long, dark, frightening road. He begged me to get in his car, so he could drive me home. He didn’t want my parents to know what had happened. I agreed to let him take me home, only on the condition he never call me again. He did as I asked and I never spoke to him again.
Looking back now, some 36 years later, I realize how dangerous that situation was and how brave I was. That experience changed me forever. I now have two daughters of my own and I made sure they knew how to protect themselves."
"I literally began standing up by facing my paralyzing stage fright and becoming a stand-up comedian after a series of painful circumstances, such as the death of my mom in my 20s, cancer, and a brutal divorce. In an effort to nurture, and further the careers of my fellow female comedians, I founded Four Funny Females, an all-female stand-up comedy troupe based in Dallas."
"My most striking moment of standing up for myself came recently. I was at a bar in Quebec City with a bunch of women from a travel conference. Sexual harassment in bars is always just something I tolerated, and would remove myself from if it became too much. I can’t remember a time when I have actually called out a guy for being gross or touching me, etc.
I was having a conversation with another woman and our body language definitely read, “We don’t want to talk to anyone else”. I had my hand on a ledge that I was leaning on to fully box out intruders. This certain gentleman came up to my back and shouted, “Where are you from?” ... We turned to him and said we weren’t interested and turned back around.
He shouted it a few more times, and when we didn’t respond he decided to start stroking my hand. I turned back around to him and said, 'Do not touch me, please leave us alone.' To which he responded, “You’re in a bar, not your living room, your pussy is fair game.' ... I immediately yelled in his face, 'Do not touch me, do not speak to me, that was insanely rude and disgusting. You have no right to my body.'
And then I went up to the bartender and told him what had happened. He had seen him being creepy already, so was ready to kick him out as soon as I started talking. I don’t know if it was because I had been at a travel conference with 400+ strong, confident women who openly talked about harassment in the travel industry and how to deal with it, or because I was surrounded by them at that moment in time, or because this was my breaking point but I’m so happy I stood up for myself, and hopefully spared another woman a similar or worse fate."
"The first time I remember standing up for my value was about 16 years ago, when I turned down a job offer from a firm I wanted to work for due to money. I interviewed with the firm and was assured the job was mine, however, when they called me to make an offer, it was $20,000 less than my minimum requirement. At the time, I had experience, certifications and passed the aptitude text with flying colors.
In the past, I would have accepted it and found a way to convince myself that if I worked hard enough, one day, they would pay me what I was worth. On the day they called, I was filled with fury and felt insulted over the phone as I made it clear that "I am worth every dime of what I asked for. Thanks, but I am insulted by the offer."
The feeling of standing up for my value was liberating and marked a new unapologetic chapter in my life of speaking up. Today, I operate a very successful firm for women leaders that focuses on giving women the skills, tools and confidence to negotiate their way into the c-suite."
"My supervisor and bosses were considering me for a promotion, and they wanted me to undergo a series of personality tests and assessments. I felt that the tests were superfluous and didn’t truly speak to whether I could do the job or not. I told my supervisor as much. I essentially told him that either they wanted to hire me, or they didn’t. (I had already worked with them for years.) They didn’t need a test to decide that. They agreed, and I was promoted.
Today, I’m not afraid to stand up for myself by speaking my mind, and I’m also experienced enough to know when standing up for myself is best done by holding my tongue. Being able to make that distinction goes over time."
"I was tired of seeing the health care and therapy clinics that I worked in taking advantage of the system and getting away with it. I finally worked up the courage to take a stand, then left to create my own path. At my previous job, I began to notice things were not quite right. I was nervous to question their ethics — afraid to stand up since a previous job had fired me for refusing to break ethical standards and questioning their billing procedures. It took about a year before I realized I did the right thing. Looking back, I think my experiences actually grew my confidence in myself and doing what was right. I was able to stand up again and this time walk out. The relief was amazing and I have never felt better. The hardest part was finding out other staff knew what was going on but turned a blind eye.
I can happily say I have opened new doors and continue to stand up for myself in all aspects of my life. Truly the hardest part is taking that first stand and speaking up — even if it means doing it alone."
"I was 13. I wrote a book report for class. The teacher I couldn't have written it and I must have copied it from the book jacket. She gave me a failing grade. I walked out of class and brought the book to the vice principal, who read the book and my report and sided with me! He made her give me a passing grade."
"During my time [at a startup], I experienced discrimination based on my gender and disability. I have epilepsy and during a period when I was both seriously ill with the flu and I had a breakthrough seizure after years of being seizure-free, I was told to stay at home and rest while simultaneously being blown up on Slack for deadlines and assistance on projects ... [The men at the company] made inappropriate jokes at work, overlooked, and under-appreciated the work we women contributed, and all the while continued to overwork us. ...About a year in, when I realized I was going nowhere at this company because I was neither learning nor growing, and I spent most of my days completely unhappy because of the disrespect and "bro culture," I decided I was going to quit. ... I created a detailed log of every discriminatory comment, every instance of betrayal, every moment (in recent history) when a male colleague had been congratulated for work I largely contributed to. I jotted down the dates, so I could read them off one by one. The end goal to say: I worked my ass off here and I tried to make it work, but these are the reasons why it went too far. So, I quit, and I hope you can learn from it. But I wanted to make sure I got the last word in because I had been stepped over far too many times at this company.
So I scheduled back-to-back meetings with my manager, COO, and CEO. ... I set my phone down on the table and said "I'm recording this," and I read off the infractions one-by-one — some of which could've been viable causes to sue. By the time the CEO came in, he had gotten wind of what I was doing and refused to talk with the recorder. By then, I had said most of what I needed to and gotten my point across. In true character, the CEO retaliated after I quit, attempting to erase me from the company's history, even going as far as changing my bylines to my manager's name! I kept an eye out on things and made sure they knew I was watching (I got them changed back).
To this day, it has been the most empowering, liberating, and badass experience of my life. Standing up for myself if that way was something I'll never forget, and it laid the groundwork to my future persona. ... I will never put up with that type of behavior again, and that experience changed my life because I know that in the end, everything will work out OK if you believe in yourself."
"I'm a huge fan of soccer and I attended a viewing of the Champion's League (a popular soccer match) at a local bar. ... We were getting into the game when a team scored. The man in front of me flung his beer everywhere in celebration. I was annoyed and wanted to say something. His friends defended him saying that he was a nice guy and that he wouldn't do it again and that he was just getting into the game. (So was I, but my drink remained in my hand and not on everyone around me).
Twenty minutes later, his team scored and he threw beer all over us again. I had enough so I went to tell the bartender so something could be done. One of their friends followed me and tried to defend his actions. The bartender even said that that should be expected from men at these games.
I don't know how love for a game turns into actions that disturb others (it sounds like a 'boys will be boys' excuse). He was not happy with me and neither were his friends, but we enjoyed the game and celebrated without affecting those around us."
"In 1979, I was offered a job in Boston. The salary was amazing, and the jump from small market radio to major market radio was too good to pass up. So on the day after Christmas, I flew into town to start my new on-air job.
Very early on, the program director made it abundantly clear that he was expecting a lot more from me than just on-air performance, if you catch my drift. When he crossed the line instead of just dancing up to it, something my parents instilled in me kicked in — a sense of self-worth.
I told him that was not part of my job description and wasn't something I was willing to do in order to keep the job. He backed off right away. I was ready, willing and able to ask for my old job back — thankfully that wasn't necessary."
Standing up for yourself can feel scary at the time — especially if you have something to lose. But remember, nothing is worth sacrificing your happiness, health, and integrity. Don't be afraid to speak your truth, and if need be, reach out for help.