By: Sasha Ottey

What exactly is self-advocacy? Self-advocacy is standing up for yourself, but it is also much more than that. According to Sasha Ottey, founder of PCOS Challenge and advocate for all, self-advocacy is also setting boundaries – especially during the holidays. 

See more from our Q&A with Sasha below:

Why is self-advocacy so important?

We each have different needs, triggers, likes and dislikes. Self-advocacy is important because it establishes boundaries, teaches others around us how we prefer to be treated as individuals, and also manages expectations. Most of us practice self-advocacy in some form almost on a daily basis by sharing our views or how things or actions impact us. Sometimes, this is the only way people get to learn from other people’s perspectives. Self-advocacy is important for each of us in order to maintain healthy relationships with other people.

 

What about the holidays makes self-care and self-advocacy more complicated?

Many of us grew up with holiday traditions that keep us connected to our families, culture, and/or religion. Holidays, especially the big ones such as Christmas, Hanukkah, and Thanksgiving, are generally centered around family, food and special customs. Many of us look forward to this special time of year and carrying on traditions. It is often described as the most wonderful time of the year, but this may not be the case for everyone.

Some of these are societal “rites of passage” that most of us experience, but other times self-advocacy is necessary when health, sense of self or peace is being impacted.

There are many people dealing with struggles that impact physical or mental health, or just life challenges that seem magnified during the holidays, exacerbated by so many people wanting a “status update” on your life, or the feeling of loneliness if not surrounded by loving family or friends.

One of the biggest examples of why many people in the PCOS community may find the holidays challenging is the lines of questions or comments that many family members may make. One woman told me that holidays with her family is one of the hardest things for her as she struggles through infertility and pregnancy loss. She has not shared her struggles with polycystic ovary syndrome and infertility with many people, so it is especially painful and lonely to endure the questions about when she was going to have babies, and witnessing others in the family expand their own families while this wasn’t happening for her and her husband.

Most of us manage our health through food and lifestyle. Sometimes traditional holiday foods and the quantity of food consumed may no longer align with a person’s lifestyle or dietary choices. Other times, people, such as those with eating disorders, may have a more complex relationship with food. In instances where a person may feel pressured or triggered by food, or other people’s expectations around their food consumption can present an even greater challenge at the holiday table. These are issues that people may not be aware of if they have not experienced similar challenges; therefore, self-advocacy is extremely important!

  

What advice do you have for those just starting to advocate for themselves

You have the right to advocate for yourself in any situation. Advocating for yourself does not mean being combative or negative. It means expressing your views and standing up for yourself, setting boundaries with others, and showing that you should be respected and taken seriously. Ultimately, you want to get to the point where those who interact with you understand the fundamentals of harmoniously relating to you.

Privacy 
Sometimes people may not advocate for themselves because they do not want to disclose specifics about their health challenges or other struggles. You can still maintain your privacy while advocating for yourself. For example, if a pushy family member makes a comment about your food choices, you can tell them in your own way that their comments are unnecessary and unhelpful, and you would appreciate it if they would refrain from making further comments about your food. If someone comments about your body in any manner that makes you uncomfortable, express this as well. You may even use humor to address the issue if that is your style; however, the point is to set boundaries about what behaviors and comments you are willing to tolerate. 

Medical Providers
Many of us, especially women, people with language barriers, people of color, and people with disabilities, have had some unfortunate experiences with members of the healthcare or medical community. If you feel unheard, dismissed, insulted, or not taken seriously by a healthcare provider, you are not alone. Millions of people experience this. I even know doctors who have had similar experiences with their own doctors. It is important to remember that doctors are people too. If you have doubts or questions about what you are being told, ask for clarification. If you feel insulted by something that your doctor said to you, you may tell them in that moment and explain why you feel the way you do. If you do not have the opportunity to react while in the office, or don’t feel comfortable, write them a note or a letter and hand it to the receptionist or send it via mail, email or fax.

Healthcare providers and patients should be working together in partnership. If that is not the case, generally speaking, patients should take steps to find other providers that are a better fit for their needs and well-being. 

Adjust or Move On
Let’s be honest, though, sometimes people get offended when we try to correct them, so there may be push back whenever we advocate for ourselves and loved ones. Sometimes, people refuse to correct their offending behaviors for various reasons including feeling entitled. This helps us to understand other people’s headspace and give us the opportunity to adjust how we interact with them in the future.

 

You are not only a great self-advocate, but also an advocate for others. What is your advice to those who are looking to step in and advocate for a loved one at a holiday party or dinner?

Assess the situation and choose how to respond. If you notice that your loved one is uncomfortable with a comment or a situation, you may choose to step in and tell the person off advocate for your loved one in the manner that will get the point across to the offending person and hopefully change this behavior. Each situation is different but be clear and direct about why the behavior is not acceptable. Depending on the situation, this may prompt a broader discourse about how family members or friends should treat each other moving forward.

 

Is there anything else you find helpful or believe people should know about being their own best advocate?

Self-advocacy is an ongoing part of the human condition. It can sometimes be uncomfortable to advocate for yourself and this may lead to enduring or ignoring behaviors that may cause us harm. Sometimes, people do or say harmful things without knowing the pain they are causing.

Whether it is with family, friends, coworkers, or healthcare providers, self-advocacy is your way of choosing to take action that may help to improve your overall quality of life. The people around you may also appreciate having a better understanding of things that matter to you.

 

 

Sasha Ottey is Founder and Executive Director of PCOS Challenge: The National Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Association

Sasha is a Clinical and Research Microbiologist with a Bachelor’s degree in Clinical Laboratory Science from Howard University and a Master’s in Health Administration from the University of Phoenix. Prior to founding PCOS Challenge, Sasha was a contract research microbiologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).