Reader question #68: Mama Bear vs. Wimpy Kid

Hello, lovely commenters!  I have a lot of actual (paid!) work to do, so I’m turning this question over to you since as a bunch you all seem GREAT at standing up for yourselves.

Like the questioner, I had to learn to have boundaries from scratch as an adult and I was afraid for a long time that if I said what I needed or got pissed off at people that they would leave/hate me and that I would be a big meanpants who is ruining everything. Then I got a lot of therapy and probably 50% of writing this blog my own personal daily reminder that boundaries are great and everyone should have them!  And people actually like and respect you more when you can articulate them, and if they don’t, well, you don’t have to hang out with crappy people, and it actually doesn’t matter whether or not crappy people like you.

So, take it away, readers.  Tell us how you learned how to stand up for yourself.

Dear Captain Awkward, 

I’ve just discovered your blog and I’m hoping that your grown-up, no-nonsense woman powers work on me. 

I’ve always been a shy woman trying to fight her social awkwardness and I’m proud to say I’ve been progressing very positively, except for one BIG thing: I find it really hard to stand up for myself. I try to avoid conflict at all costs to the point that it took 3 months to break up with my boyfriend because he would take advantge of my guilt for breaking it up. Something similar happens when someone’s mean to me, I’ve taught myself to shrugg it off, but I know that what I should do is send those meanies packing. Something similar happens at work, I keep making excuses for others to be mean, lazy or underachieving. I put myself in their places and think, well, I’m sure the have a good reason for it, when deep down I know it’s not true.

The weird thing is that whenever someone close to me is in trouble, either being bullied or abused in any way I react like a freaking Mama Bear. Some older kids bullying my little cousin at school, no worries, let’s have a chat. I’ll give them a lesson on manners. Some punks throwing stones at my dog, I’ll walk to those guys sitting on their bikes and give them a piece of my mind. The same goes for anyone I feel is in a powerless position, I break fights between kids on the street and remind unkind people to be polite to old ladies. Still when someone is rude to me I freeze and turn into a wimpy kid, tearing up and second guessing myself.

I’ve never met anyone with a similar problem and I’m starting to think that I’m a freak. I wonder whether there are more people with the same issues and I would love to hear your advice on the matter. What can I do to learn to stand up for myself Captain Awkward?

Thanks a lot for your help, 

A Wimpy Mama Bear

21 thoughts on “Reader question #68: Mama Bear vs. Wimpy Kid

  1. i’ll tell you exactly what did it for me. i had a job. a job that a friend of mine, who worked at the same place, will forever refer to as helljob. my job performance was great according to my boss, i just wasn’t social enough. which absolutely cracks my shit up. at any rate, they constantly belittled me, and i sucked up to them, and it was a vicious cycle that wasn’t helped a single bit by my wimpy ways.

    there was an intervention. two of my knitting buddies (one of which taught me the cathartic craft of needle felting. it’s very stabby, you should try it). sat me down and told me that if i didn’t quit, i would end up in the boobie hatch within the month. they told me to go work at a coffee shop. i countered that i had kids to support. they told me to suck it up.

    enter coffee shop job. what did i learn there? that people get bent out of shape about all sorts of things. ALL sorts of things. and they can go fuck themselves. i learned to be nice, but firm. to do my best, but not think it a personal failure if i didn’t fucking remember drizzle. there would be other drinks to drizzle, and at the end of the day? i just wasn’t willing to take on someone’s piss poor attitude about their first world coffee problems.

    i took those lessons, and i added a titch of “i am somebody’s mama now, and i need to advocate for both them, and me” with a little dash of, “i know more about my medical history than you, please treat me accordingly” and bada bing bada boom? no more wimp.

    what it all boils down to, for me, is this: if i allow people to treat me like a shitbag, than i am complicit. i am making a verbal agreement with them. i don’t have to be rude, but i need to assert that i am worth something. it’s good advertising, if nothing else. if you “tell” people over and over again that you’re crap, eventually they’re going to believe you.

    1. Service jobs are great for this. I work at a bar to supplement my office job because I love to hang out and talk to people of all stripes. And yes, one quickly does learn that not all complaints are valid or have to be listened to. It only takes one time sticking your finger in some idiot’s face and saying, “Pay your tab and get out. No, seriously, SHUT UP, PAY ME AND LEAVE” to learn some serious assertiveness skills, and that assertiveness works. I’m a very non-intimidating small female person, yet I’ve never once had to call the cops, because body language and tone are enough in 95% of situations.

      A good aspect of this for Mama Bear (and hi, yes, I too used to have the exact same issue!) is that you aren’t just standing up for yourself – you’re managing a social space. The atmosphere only works if idiots aren’t “playfully” pushing each other around, or if men know to respect a woman’s disinterest, etc. So those who can’t behave themselves have to get out… not just for your sake, but for the sake of the space. And, your customers know this and will back you up.

  2. Dude! Let me just start off by saying YOU ARE NOT ALONE! I, too, am this way. I have no problem defending my friends or speaking my mind on someone else’s behalf but when it comes to myself…I…just…can’t. I always say: “It’s easier to stand up for someone else than it is to stand up for yourself”.

    The only thing I can think to say is that it is a slow process. What I find is that while I am quick to react when it is someone else (I get a bit aggressive and overprotective)…when it comes to myself I usually take the calm “this is how I am feeling and why” approach. Standing up for yourself doesn’t have to mean getting in someone’s face (unless it is absolutely necessary). I think if you start with getting comfortable telling people how you feel and how what they do/say affects you…it becomes easier to say “Hey, this is not okay.”.

    Plus, I’d like to think people are more willing to listen when you come at ’em in a calm(ish) manner than if you ran in there with guns blazin’.


  3. Hi Reader,

    Congratulations! It sounds like you belong to the club of super empathic people! Far away from psychopath land. (If you want to know how far, check out this episode of This American Life: “The Psychopath Test.”).

    One thing I’ve learned from years in therapy land, is that we often are really, really good at giving other people the thing we want most for ourselves. You’re probably awesome at being Mama Bear for the people you care about because you need it back. Not freaky — you just need to let inner Mama Bear protect you. I understand that those of us who naturally check the “cares for others” box on the Myers-Briggs test find this challenging. So, remember, your job to to protect your happiness.

    This will be awkward — but like most awkward, can be solved with practice! Set up a snarky Twitter feed. Practice delivering quippy, British insults in your living room. Correct the retail clerk who charges you the incorrect price for something. Work on it, and you’ll develop a combat style that suits you. Remember, your happiness so precious that it is even more important than other people’s shins, upon occasion.

  4. I totally relate. When I was little, I didn’t have a problem standing up to other kids on behalf of my friends, but when it was me? Man oh man.

    To be honest, working a whole lotta retail jobs (and one coffeeshop job – Amen to those first world problems/people taking out their frustrations on someone they think is safe to bully) and that actually went a long way to helping me learn to stand up for myself, as well as master the art of the super-high raised eyebrow, which makes the other person realize how dumb they are being.

    But standing up to coworkers? That’s kind of a different ball of wax, I think, because when you stand up for yourself to a clerk or a cabbie or whatever, it’s not like you’re going to see that person again. Unfortunately, often you have to work with people who are super-hard to get along with, and in the Really Read World, they often don’t get fired or disciplined for being douchey. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a boss who is willing to step in and be like, no, but that also sadly often doesn’t happen, and many managers just don’t want to hear about it (which makes you wonder why they’re managers, but I digress).

    I think the key is practicing standing up for yourself, even in really small ways. So, maybe your coworker is a nightmare to deal with, but you can’t fix that. What you CAN do, though, is practice saying things like “That’s inappropriate, and I don’t appreciate it” when someone does something like call you a name or use demeaning language. Sure, you’ll feel sweaty and flushed and may get teary, but practice staying calm and cool and saying “I am an ice queen!” when you have to stand up for yourself. Confrontation is never fun, and it’s not like I go out looking forward to having to defend myself, but every time you do it will get incrementally easier.

  5. My only advice is: start small, with stuff that’s un-loaded for you. For example, someone breaks plans with you at the last minute. Usually you probably make excuses for them, tell them it’s OK, etc. Instead, try just saying “I understand, but I’m also frustrated to be finding this out now.”

  6. just a minor thought that may be obvious, but it was a tiny revelation for me. the source of your wimpiness and the source of your strong sense of justice for others are in some ways the exact same part of you. i guess my point is just that you do get it on some level, that you’re more grounded in that way than you might think, even if you’re not currently validating and listening to that part of yourself at the moment.

  7. If you can defend other people but not yourself, try picturing the situation from outside. See that Wimpy Kid over there? Be her Mama Bear! And like everybody here is saying, practice practice practice Speaking Your Mind Even If Your Voice Shakes. Be an actor and play the part, and eventually it will become second nature.


  8. I’ve taught myself to shrugg it off, but I know that what I should do is send those meanies packing.

    All the advice here is good, but I’m gonna approach this in a weird, sideways kind of direction.

    You may be doing this right already. Maybe you DON’T need to stand up for yourself. Perhaps you have it in your head that to be an Adult about rude people and occasions, you HAVE to be confrontational. That shrugging things off passively is wimpy and wrong, and therefore you have been Doing It Wrong.

    To this I say, not necessarily. You don’t have to stand UP to adversity, but you don’t have to stand FOR it either. You could think of yourself as the Shaolin Monk of angsty social interaction. People are throwing punches your way. Do you allow the punches to hit? No. Do you hit back? No, that would hurt your knuckles. You stand aside and watch the punch go by, and the puncher will fall on his/her face, never touching you.

    Person: *blahblahblah* and that’s why I need you to handle this massive project for me.
    You: I’m sorry to hear that, but I can’t take this on right now. Good luck!
    Person: But! I can’t do it! You have tons of time if you weren’t so lazy!
    You: Ah, you think I’m lazy.
    Person: I MEAN, NOT REALLY.
    You: *blink*
    Person: *mutter* bitch.
    You: *smile*

    Restate. Be silent. Smile beatifically. Let the words hang in the air. Don’t let the punch fall on you.

    If people are being mean directly at you, it is THEY who are being the asshole, and your behavior has nothing to do with it, really. If you start getting scared, find a mantra that works for you. “This is not about me. I am good.” Or “I am okay. These are only words.” You don’t have to have a comeback, you don’t have to make it Right. It is not your job to correct every mean person in the world, even if you work with them or they are your “friend.”

    Your job is to be good to yourself, to be convinced of your own worth, and take on only the obligations that you choose for yourself. The Awkward Army is rooting for you!

  9. I have been struggling with this my whole life, so no, you are definitely not alone.

    I think I am of two minds here:

    1. I feel like I am under a lot of pressure to confront every person being a jerk, because that is the only way they will respect me.
    2. I don’t want to engage with every person being a jerk.

    When I feel like 1, I resent it. I don’t want to engage a bully on their own terms. Or on any terms, really. I don’t want to feel pressured to be confrontational because that’s what I’m supposed to do. There are quite a few times when I have no problem standing up for myself. But if I’m tired, sad, depressed, anxious, overwhelmed or have PMS, then it’s very hard.

    When I feel like 2, sometimes I do feel bad about myself. Not always. Sometimes it’s the right decision not to engage, because I’m too angry. Sometimes after a few days I don’t care as much. Sometimes I gotta allow a person a bad day, and maybe they really pressed my buttons, so I overreacted. Sometimes, if it’s someone I’m working with, and I still cannot trust people not to blow up if they are challenged, it’s just not worth it.

    At the same time, I don’t want to beat myself up because I was disrespected, and I didn’t stand up for myself. Like Commander Logic sais, if someone is a jerk to me, and doesn’t at least acknowledge it, then they are not nice people. I try not to forget that. The victim didn’t fail because she chose not to fight back that day.

    One of the problems with 2, though, is that it can lead me to avoid people rather than talk out problems. Good people, I mean, who could be good friends, but maybe were insensitive or jerky a few times, like we all can be.

    I think I’d be happy to find ways of dealing with bad behaviour towards me in a way that leaves me feeling good about myself.

    For me, it means pushing my boundaries bit-by-bit, enough to set myself up for success, avoiding failure if it means I will punish myself for it, and doing my best to take care of myself.

    I think we can all stand to be kinder and gentler and more forgiving with ourselves.

    1. Sweet lord, I just bookmarked this page so I will never forget what you wrote. Fan.freaking.tastic.

  10. this is one of those that have the power to help LOTS of people [i’m not the letter-writer, but i COULD have been]

    i’m only up to confronting people who i know A) care about me B) don’t WANT or MEAN to be assholes to me and C) are reasonable. [and often not even then!]

    i practice a lot of avoidance. i’m also in therapy, and one of things we’re working on is me standing up for myself [especially with doctors – it’s A Thing. though if you can’t stand up to doctors, it’s BAD – you have to be able to push them, to MAKE them treat YOU and not whatever straw-person they built based on your chart. but that’s a whole loooooong thing for another time and place]

    and… therapy isn’t bad. it might help you find out *why* you can’t defend yourself [if you don’t already know, that is] and deal with whatever that issue actually *IS*, thereby allowing you to defend yourself. plus a good therapist will help you learn *How*

    1. It’s true that it’s really important (however unfortunate) that we have to be our own advocates with doctors, government, banks, insurance companies, etc. I also have experience with this, and it’s not the funnest.

      If this helps: I have had people accompany me to doctors, and I have accompanied others, because more bodies in front of them means they are less comfortable dismissing the patient’s claims, in my experience.

      Therapy can work, although in my 44 years of life, I have only found one therapist who was really helpful, and unfortunately I could not continue to see her, because she was working for the employee care program for my then-employer.

      I have had a number of okay therapists and one or two bad therapists. A good therapist can help you with the how, for sure, its just that you have to find a good therapist. A bad one can be damaging. YMMV, as they say.

      1. Therapists can be the best or worst thing in your life. I had one when I was a teenager who I didn’t trust – and so I got nothing from it. As an adult I had three who really helped. The first taught me about setting boundaries, starting with small and working my way up to larger ones. The second was good at helping me to identify my feelings and being okay with them, then trying to work out solutions to difficulties I was having (I saw this one through my divorce. Amazingly, most of my problems went away shortly after I DTMFA). The third was by far the most influential. Her motto was to get me out of her office as soon as she could – provided I was healthy, of course. She was the one who helped me the most by giving me tools to deal with different situations. She helped me re-frame some life situations I had been in so that they didn’t continue to cause me the same pains over and over again. Best of all, she helped me to realize that I will never date anyone who treats me poorly again because I won’t let them – I know I have the strength to walk away and am much more confident in my independence.

        At any rate, I too was a wimpy kid/mama bear at one point in life, and even though it took me a long time to realize that I had to stand up for myself, I finally did it. I may not have always made the best decisions in life, but I’ve gotten really good at recognizing things for what they are and calling people on their bad behaviour when it’s appropriate. I guess the saying is true, that we teach people how to treat us.

  11. Thanks for your input, guys. While writing my question to Captain A, I’d never imagined your answers would be so helpful. Just knowing that there are people who feel the same way you do makes things a whole lot easier (I know duh, but I’d never experienced it for myself!).

    Everyone’s advice is so insightful that no doubt I’ll put all your ideas into practice. I’d never thought myself as an empathic person (didn’t give it much thought, actually), but I keep expecting other to make the effort to put themselves in my place, just like I do all the time with them. Now I understand that it’s an unrealistic expectation. I’ll certainly follow your advice and take it step by step, though I also love the idea of becoming a Shaolin Monk of sorts!

    I still don’t know why I became this way, always avoiding conflict, but I’ll try to dig deeper from now on. Jerks of the world, beware!

    Thanks for your help everyone, you’re really extraordinary people. It’s nice knowing I have The Awkward Army at my back!

    1. I’m late to this, but as a fellow wimpy mama bear, I wanted to add something I learned in therapy that is so freaking helpful. We had multiple sessions on “assertive communication,” because we depressives suck at it, and there was a technique called “DEAR MAN,” which stands for Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce, Mindful, Appear confident, and Negotiate. All well and good, but they gave us a script! An actual script to use in these situations!! Firstly, it’s important to use “I” statements, not “you,” statements. So, the script:

      When (describe the situation, stick to the facts), I feel (express, emotion words). What I would like is (assert, request). If you do what I ask, then (positive consequence).

      I hate telling someone I’m upset because of something, because I don’t want a bigger fight or to be told I’m overreacting, so I tend to let things go until I snap. Not good. I tried the script on someone the weekend after we learned it (got out my handout and totally copied it in an email). “When you log out of gchat right after I message you without replying it feels very dismissive. If you could take a second to just say, “Sorry, I can’t talk now, will check in later,” I’d appreciate it.” And, holy cow, it worked! Idiot boy who never got it wrote right back to apologize and never did it again! It’s not magic, it doesn’t always work, but the basic, “When you do X, I feel Y,” is a good starting point, and that’s half the battle.

      1. You are not late, you are right on time with AWESOMENESS.

        I was aware of “When you ____, I feel ____” statements, but I love the addition of putting a concrete request on the end of them instead of just pausing and hoping that the other person will translate what you feel into action they should take. You’re giving them something they can *do* to make you feel better, and not leaving them to focus the “you made me feel bad” part of it. I need to do some more research on this DEAR MAN thing and maybe give it a post of its own. Thank you so much.

        1. I don’t know if you already found something, but to me it sounds a lot like Nonviolent Communication from/by Marshall Rosenberg.
          At the heart of it there are 4 steps, mostly similar to what’s already been said: “When you … I feel …” . Then you state your needs that haven’t been met yet and finally you phrase a request, as concrete as possible.

          If you don’t like to be confrontational, but still want something effective that’s empathetic at the same time – I can only recommend it.

  12. My ‘tell’ is tearfulness too, and, yeah, it appears when I’m trying to stand up to men more than women (if I’m specific, working-class men in positions beneath my grade at work would be a classic example). It’s borne out of the frustration of wanting to be heard, wanting my message to be clear and wanting, essentially, the other person to reconsider their behaviour based on what I’ve said. The feeling of not being able to stand up for myself can feel physically wounding too; (not) speaking up (but only in certain circumstances) can be a shame minefield.

    re: Your ‘wanting to stick up for the little guy’ – if ‘Fairness’ is really important to who you are and how you deal with the world – you might want to explore this theme. This is where I started on my work to enforce boundaries/assertiveness, and it continues to fascinate me. I won’t go into too much detail, but it’s worth having a listen to what your child ego (the little you, Grizzly Cub, whatever you wanna call it) is saying to you in these moments of intense shame or frustration. Acknowledge the Cub, reassure it, tell it you’re listening, and will take care of it whatever happens.

    The one thing you can avoid by being kind to yourself while you figure this out is the Shame Bind (or what I call ‘doubletwat’) – hypothetically: Jim’s giving himself a hard time for not speaking up in a situation, then he doubles it up by giving himself a hard time for giving himself a hard time, saying things like ‘why can’t I be the kind of person who can let this go?!’ – this is a strong double bind which is easy enough to swerve if you are wise to it and compassionate with yourself. I use the moniker ‘doubletwat’ because it makes me laugh, snaps me out of it a bit! I hope you have a fun time trying all the readers’ suggestions-hope i’ve been of some sort of help!

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