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How to Stand up for Yourself without Getting Angry

prickly succulent plant
This plant stands up for itself by having a few spines. It is not angry. It just has spines, and anyone who wants to eat it is going to have deal with the spines.

Anger Is the Least Effective Way to
Stand up for Myself

When I don’t know how to stand up for myself, I see only two options:

1. Roll over and play dead
2. Fight with lots of anger

Neither option is very good for me. If I roll over and play dead, then basically I have to do whatever anyone else wants of me. If a bully wants me to give him my cookies, then I have to give him my cookies. I absorb the difference (I put up with not having cookies anymore).

But on the other hand, if I fight with lots of anger, I’ve now created a war with someone who may be much better at fighting than me. In the end, the bully may get my cookies and I may have a broken nose too.

You can see why the most intelligent choice seems to be to concede, to roll over, to absorb the loss; it is better to lose the cookies than to lose the cookies and my nose. That’s why this has always been my default: to give up easily.

This works great for avoiding conflict. No one can fight with someone who gives up easily. But it comes at a cost of treating myself like a second-class citizen, always deferring to what others want.

What If There Was Another Way?

I’ve done The Work of Byron Katie (4 Questions and Turnarounds) on lots of these kinds of situations. And little by little, the deeper part of me has come to see that there is another option that works very well.

The Work is not about standing up for myself per se. Instead, it deals with my internal experience. When I clean up my internal experience (what I’m doing to myself when someone’s bullying me), it becomes much easier to deal with the bully himself.

What happens internally when I’m around a bully? Or even around someone who wants me to do something for them and will be upset if I don’t (a form of bullying)? I become angry. I feel the injustice. And suddenly I’m a victim.

As soon as I assume this victim role, I am powerless. I go do my default and give up. The only other trick I know is to make myself really angry and try to overpower the bully by force. But this rarely works, just like a little dog rarely scares a big dog away with its ferocious barking.

A Better Way Is to Deal with My Internal Experience

This is where The Work shines. It does not fix my external problem, but it shows me new ways of experiencing things on the inside.

When I question my stressful thoughts about the bully, for example, “He is being unfair to me,” I find through inquiry that I am doing the same thing to myself. I bully myself, shut myself down, as much or more than what the bully does to me. This is how I’m treating myself. And I’m unfair to the bully too, demonizing him instead of seeing him as a confused human being.

I attack myself and I attack the bully. I become a vicious person who might even bite the hand of a nice person if she came along. This is how I hurt myself by going into a reactive mode internally. I lose my sanity and any hope of standing up for myself.

In other words, the anger reaction is a fake version of standing up for myself. It looks strong but it is totally weak and self-destructive.

True Strength Is Something Different

True strength dawns when I see both myself and the other person as equals—human beings working with limitations—but not so very different. When I see that we both have a right to ask for what we want, my blood pressure goes down.

The bully and I both want the cookies. That’s totally understandable, they’re good!. When I see and understand that, I’m not angry at all. I understand why someone else might want those cookies too.

When I see the human being on the other side of the bully mask, I can relax. It’s just another person asking for what they want (but doing so in a demanding way for some reason).

I become more like an adult who can reason with two fighting children. (Adults can mediate fights between children because they are not angry. There is a calm sense of reason that comes in and this is often very effective.) When I no longer see myself as a victim, I too can enjoy more of this calm sense of reason and it makes all the difference.

This Doesn’t Happen Overnight

The Work is a process. There are many layers of stressful thinking related to standing up for myself. What works best for me is to take one incident at a time and write a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet and underlying beliefs to question and then spend time questioning the thoughts I wrote.

This process cleans up my internal world, one situation at a time until it gets so clear that I’m not a victim at all. With inquiry, I start to see that no one can victimize me on the inside, only I can do that to myself.

Seeing that clearly, I naturally victimize myself less and less. And as a result, I find myself calm and easy even if someone is being unfair. I don’t have to jump into anger or submission mode. I simply stand my ground in a peaceful way. I know I have a right to say no and there’s no hatred or anger in my no.

Join Us a Weekend Zoom Retreat

If you’d like to spend a weekend doing The Work, join us for a virtual retreat. Over two days, we’ll meet for 32 hours covering all time zones. Join us for as many of the two-hour sessions as you like. And bring any stressful story you want to question.

I look forward to diving into The Work with you during a virtual retreat.

Have a great week,

“Q: How can you say that reality is good? What about war, rape, poverty, violence, and child abuse? Are you condoning them?

A: How could I condone them? I simply notice that if I believe they shouldn’t exist, I suffer. They exist until they don’t. Can I just end the war in me? Can I stop raping myself and others with abusive thinking? If not, I’m continuing in myself the very thing that I want to end in you. Sanity doesn’t suffer, ever. Can you eliminate war everywhere on earth? Through inquiry, you can begin to eliminate it for one human being: you.” Byron Katie, Loving What Is

Further reading: Are You Pushing Your Abuser Down?

Todd Smith has been doing The Work of Byron Katie on an almost daily basis since 2007. He is just as excited about this simple process of self-inquiry today as he was when he first came across it. He also enjoys writing about The Work, and training others in the subtleties of this meditative process. Join Todd for The Work 101 online course, private sessions, virtual retreats, and his ongoing Inquiry Circle group.