Ten Ways to Use Therapy in Becoming Your Own Advocateby Shonnie Brown, MFT
Self-advocacy: knowing what you want or need and having the ability to speak up for yourself to get your needs met. Self-advocates know their strengths and weaknesses; they take responsibility for ensuring their needs are addressed.
One of the things I enjoy most in my online practice is working with young adults who suffer from anxiety and social anxiety. Many children, teens, and young adults don’t feel competent in the skillset required to survive in social situations. Because of a history of anxiety, shyness, poor self-esteem, and a well-developed inner critic, at their foundation they are not comfortable advocating for themselves and often don’t even know how to begin.
Recently, while working with a young man who I will call Jeremy, I realized how deeply interwoven were his social anxiety and his inability to take advantage of his time with me. I then thought of other young adult clients with similar issues. With clear goals in mind––such as becoming self-motivating, taking risks, developing positive self-esteem––I created a list of ways that my clients could use therapy to practice self-advocacy. All of these suggestions came from my personal experience of what clients were doing and not doing for themselves in our work:
Scenario #1: Jeremy
Jeremy was a no show for our phone session. He responded 20 minutes late because he forgot. He apologized for his lateness while telling me that he didn’t finish his work project due that day. He got lost in overthinking, self-imposed pressure, and resulting anxiety. He didn’t know what he needed help with.
I inquired further, and Jeremy told me about the pressure he felt to perform in the workplace. Everything felt unmanageable, and overthinking had led to catastrophizing. (He irrationally focused on the worst things that could happen in future situations.) I knew that he feared repeating a recent panic attack.
I suggested he get a pen and paper to take notes while we talked. Rather than mentioning his lateness, I suggested we make the best use of the time we had. I structured the session by checking in on his therapy homework from the previous week. He first focused on the unfinished project and his poor use of time. When I asked, he mentioned that he had called a work colleague he barely knew and asked for clarification––something we’d talked about for weeks. Knowing that it was difficult for him to own this victory, I did not hold back my own excitement and encouragement!
After celebrating his victory, we talked about easing the pressure by breaking down work projects into small, manageable goals. I suggested using a daily calendar to write down everything, to plan and organize his time. We discussed how to manage stress by setting doable daily tasks. When Jeremy focused on that day’s tasks only, he felt a reduction of stress. When he shared his schedule with me he could see that he had followed a plan of his own making.
Scenario #2: Maggie
Maggie was overwhelmed and preoccupied with all the planning she had to do for a family vacation. Her relentless anxiety and overthinking hindered her sleep and her ability to keep up with her college courses. She was needlessly anxious when she should have felt excited.
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” I asked. “Your planning and packing doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Maggie had already made a long list of things to check off. We talked about prioritizing tasks and using a calendar to focus on daily goals, rather than creating overwhelm by ruminating on the large picture.
“Talk to yourself,” I suggested. “Look at your daily schedule. Say, ‘this is what I have to do today.’ Focus only on that and let the rest go. Reduce your stress by setting doable, small goals in advance.”
Together we came up with a list of positive self-talk for her to use each day that week. She wrote down these affirmations. We also talked about the fact that we were working on life skills.
“Having to manage your time by making lists and breaking work down into smaller tasks is something you’ll use every day. Remember, anxiety is all about feeling lack of control,” I reminded her.
“I’ve just been creating worry for myself,” Maggie reflected. “I understand what your saying, but how do I stop that?”
We reviewed several tools I’d given her previously––relaxation and calming techniques, positive self-talk, challenging irrational thinking and the false notion of perfection. Maggie was dwelling on feelings of guilt for taking a vacation in the first place. “I don’t feel like a responsible adult,” she stated.
“Let’s challenge that,” I suggested. “A responsible adult takes care of herself by scheduling time off to have a balanced life. I think your inner critic just doesn’t want to let you off the hook.”
“I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to feel deserving,” Maggie echoed my thoughts as our session came to a close.
She had introduced a foundational issue. I validated the importance of her statement and made a note to return to it the following week.