How to Stand Up for Yourself

I-Am-Not-A-DoormatIf Nu Nu had been bigger than a doorknob, someone would have shot him. He was like a tiny chain saw with fur, a snarling, fang-baring nightmare of a Chihuahua who viciously attacked anyone brave enough or crazy enough to go near him. Tina Madden, Nu Nu’s owner, was as saintly as he was diabolical. She never sank to Nu Nu’s level by reprimanding, much less punishing, him. She simply showered him with love and tenderness, believing that taking the high road would eventually dissolve Nu Nu’s wrath.

I’ve had clients who took a similar “high road” approach with difficult people in their lives. For example, Yvette stayed politely silent when a coworker, Fred, brazenly stole her ideas. Janae cleaned up pizza boxes and drinking glasses left by her college-age daughter, Emily, as uncomplainingly as she’d once changed Emily’s dirty diapers. And Cynthia and Rob’s romance was based on lots of give and take: Cynthia gave—back rubs, compliments, gifts—and Rob took full advantage without ever reciprocating.

All these women were as long-suffering as Tina Madden, and the people around them responded just as Nu Nu did: by exploiting the living hell out of them.

The problem is that trying to change unfair behavior with submissive niceness is like trying to smother a fire with gunpowder. It isn’t the high road; it’s the grim, well-trod path that leads from aggressive to passive, through long, horrible stretches of passive-aggressive. The real high road requires something quite different: the courage to know and follow your own truth. If anyone in your life is exploiting your courtesy and goodwill, it’s time you learned how all of this works.

Are Your Relationships on the ORC Road?

First let’s look at the dynamics of an unbalanced relationship like Nu Nu and Tina’s. Though Tina’s endless tolerance appeared to stem from a deep and abiding love, it was based more on fear: fear of anger, of conflict, of losing control, of emotional abandonment. It was the passive response to an aggressive attack—both behaviors that fall into a category I call ORC. Here, ORC stands not for those gnarly dudes who, as we all know, would destroy Middle-earth if given half a chance, but for behavior that is opaque, reactive, and closed.

By describing behavior as opaque, I mean that we hide—even from ourselves—the actual motives that drive it. For example, when Fred stole Yvette’s ideas, her silence didn’t come from inner peace but from an unacknowledged fear that speaking up would ruin her reputation as a “team player.” Janae didn’t realize that her real reason for catering to her daughter was to keep Emily from wanting to move out—and tamp down her own dread of living in an empty nest. Likewise, Cynthia was unconscious of her terror that Rob would leave her unless she constantly fulfilled his every wish.

When opaque behavior disengages us from our inner truth, we stop acting on our own desires and become purely reactive instead, focused not on what we want but on what others will think, say, or do. We never express negative feelings about the relationship—which means that it becomes, in the words of organizational behavior expert Chris Argyris, “self-sealed” against learning. Opaque, reactive, and closed: in a word, ORC.

Of course, it’s not always easy to know if you’re in ORC territory. This very day, you may perform completely ORC-ish acts without even realizing it. Luckily, there are two red flags that will always tell you when you’re on the ORC road. Red flag number one: a tendency among the people around you to become increasingly selfish, exploitative, and unfair. Red flag number two: a growing disconnect between your own feelings and your actions—directly proportional to how badly you’re being treated and how far you’ve managed to stray from your truth.

Here’s a guide to ORC signals:

Feeling: Disturbed
You easily brush aside your feelings and continue your nice, polite behavior.

Feeling: Displaced
You appear cooperative around the offender, still pushing away resistant feelings but now fussing grumpily to yourself or to others.

Feeling: Hurt
You may actually increase niceness to hide the fact that you’re feeling seriously wronged. Anger seeps out passive-aggressively—a snippy question, a slammed drawer.

Feeling: Resentful
The offender’s misdeeds begin to occupy more and more of your attention. Kvetching about her becomes a daily pastime; you begin to shoot her angry looks while claiming that absolutely nothing is wrong.

Feeling: Seething
The offender’s bad behavior becomes a central feature of your thinking. You complain constantly to others, and despite continued “niceness,” try to undermine her with passive-aggressive strategies like the silent treatment, backhanded compliments, and gossip.

Feeling: Homicidal
You daydream about thrashing the offender in a cage fight. You have knots in your stomach and can’t sleep. You’re irritable or depressed. You may occasionally lash out at loved ones in what appears to be irrational rage. Toward the offender, however, you still act “nice” and “polite.”

How to Leave the ORC Road and Find the TAO

If you see yourself anywhere on the ORC chart, don’t despair. Many people who wind up here believe the only alternative to groveling niceness is aggressive dominance. But there’s another path, one that never needs to intersect with the ORC road. I call it TAO, which is Chinese for “the way,” and also stands for transparent, authentic, and open.

This way of relating, which I teach all my clients, is based on honestly assessing what’s happening both around us and within us, expressing our truth as authentically as possible, and staying open to feedback without abandoning our own perspective. And it happens to be exactly what Tina was able to achieve with Nu Nu—thanks to dog behaviorist Cesar Millan. Tina and Nu Nu were featured in the original episode of Millan’s TV show, Dog Whisperer. (I keep a DVD of the episode to show people like Yvette, Janae, and Cynthia.) Here’s how it went down: As the episode begins, Millan learns that despite Tina’s desire to live a normal life with normal human contact, whenever anyone comes near Tina, Nu Nu does his level best to kill them. So Millan sits next to Tina, puts his arm around her shoulders, and calmly lets Nu Nu go ballistic. Tina tenses up as though she may spontaneously implode, but Millan simply holds Nu Nu so he can’t attack and waits for the fit to pass. Which it does.

Astonishingly, that’s all it takes to move from the nightmarish ORC road to the TAO of healthy relationships. Three steps: 1. Figure out what you really want to do. 2. Do it. 3. If someone pulls a Nu Nu, wait it out.

Now, if Nu Nu had been a Rottweiler, or Tony Soprano, it would have taken more than Cesar Millan to hold him while he raged. If you think moving into TAO behavior will cause someone you know to become truly dangerous, you need to take appropriate measures. But if all you have to fear is snottiness or angry backlash, you can handle it.

For example, Yvette asked for a meeting with her supervisor and her unethical coworker, Fred. She calmly described how Fred had co-opted her ideas and produced an e-mail trail to back up her claims. Fred threw a fit, accusing Yvette of being dishonest and uncooperative. Yvette stayed transparent, authentic, and open, matter-of-factly restating her point and asking him to show evidence of his position. Having no truth to turn to, Fred ran out of gas. In fact, Yvette’s behavior scared him so badly, he started stealing from other people instead.

Janae realized that while she was afraid to let her daughter leave home, she also resented Emily for not growing up. I asked her to explain exactly this to Emily. Janae did—then braced for a Nu Nu. To her surprise, Emily thought for a moment, then said, “That sounds fair, but you’ll have to remind me to clean up—I’m sort of a slob.” Later Janae jubilantly told me, “She wanted to be TAO all along!”

Cynthia’s story wasn’t such a fairy tale. When she asked Rob to be as kind and supportive toward her as she was toward him, he went into a rant about why this was impossible and irrational. She held her ground. “Well,” said Rob, “I guess we’d better call the whole thing off.” This move was meant to frighten Cynthia into obedience. Instead it showed her that Rob wasn’t the gallant prince she’d pretended he was. As she continued to be transparent, authentic, and open, Rob’s Nu Nu fits grew so wearying that Cynthia broke off the engagement herself.

Walking the High Road

Years after watching Nu Nu and Tina model ORC behavior, then move to the TAO of genuine connection, I saw another episode of Dog Whisperer in which Tina was working at Cesar Millan’s Dog Psychology Center. When a muscular pit bull began to tangle with another dog, Tina calmly stepped in, pulled away the pit bull (which nearly outweighed her), and held it gently but firmly until it exhausted itself and relaxed. Then she continued walking with the pit bull and several other dogs. As for Nu Nu, he had become as affectionate and joyful as he’d once been demonic. Dog and human walked the high road together, showing the rest of us how it’s done.

24 replies
  1. Cathryn Wellner
    Cathryn Wellner says:

    Bravo, Martha. I wish I had read this when I was in the middle of an ORC relationship. It might have booted me out sooner. You describe beautifully the path to reclaiming our true selves. It’s really quite simple in hindsight. You’re giving people a tool for foresight.

  2. Tracey
    Tracey says:

    Thank you, Martha, for showing us how. At 45, I’ve made some strides in the don’t-be-a-doormat department, but have a ways to go with certain important people in my life. Calm, courageous contentment is what I aim for, with no asking permission. These examples really help make it clear. No need to freeze or fight! Simply do and be what you want and need to.

  3. Sangeeta
    Sangeeta says:

    In total agreement. I recently wrote a similar post myself and offered another alternative to the kind of fear based relating that you describe as ORC. Perhaps some of your readers will find it useful:

    Posting a link to this article as a comment at my own post above. Thank you for writing out such a detailed article on such a common but rarely acknowledged problem.



  4. Joan
    Joan says:

    I realised that you often give instructions and then also descriptions of what we should expect if we follow them through. That in effect made my fears lessened significantly, but, I tend to have certain expectation in following each of the suggestion. This, in the long run, started to make me question my own authenticity.
    And it becomes a habit and doesn’t get me through my problems. Thanks for sharing them anyway.. so far you advises helped me feel braver in facing real life.

  5. debbkie kay
    debbkie kay says:

    Oh Martha, if only I could spend days with you. I am separated from my husband of 17 yrs, not a separation I wanted but still. I have always been a people pleaser all my life and at 62 I still am. He refuses to tell me what happened, he blindsided me. I knew for many years we had problems but he would never talk to me. I even typed, single space, a seven page letter to him about how we were in trouble and he just said oh well. Then last year, after the best birthday ever, he told me it was over and that was it. He wouldn’t discuss it, he just wanted me out. I’m now living four hours away and since I can’t drive highways (due to panic anxiety) he is just so happy. He still controls me from so far away. Well, I could write too much. I would love to just say that I admire you so much, I tear out your articles in Oprah’s magazines and keep them in a folder and I love your tidbit I get in my email each morning. You are wonderful and I thank you. debbie

    • Annie
      Annie says:

      Dear Debbie Kay
      I just wanted to reach out to you. You are so much stronger than u know. Take back yourself bit by bit. Be your authentic self and love yourself more and more each day. U r so worth it.

    • Victoria
      Victoria says:

      Hi Debbie K I wish we could email and I could offer you support. You deserve to feel loved and cared for, valued and treated with respect. If you would like, feel free to email me at Same goes for other women or others.

  6. Phyllis Sofia
    Phyllis Sofia says:

    I suppose this only works when someone is taking advantage of you and you let them. How do you stand up for yourself when you’re ignored and devalued by the family you’ve shown your love and support for?

    • Sérene
      Sérene says:

      Hi Phyllis,

      If your family is ignoring and devaluing you while still accepting your love and support, aren’t they taking advantage of you? Your situation sounds like a perfect description of red flag number one – “a tendency among the people around you to become increasingly selfish, exploitative, and unfair.” mentioned by Martha above. I think you can still follow her steps to find TAO with your family.

      Good luck!

    • Annie
      Annie says:

      We show them by continuing to be the loving person we are. Being true to your values brings peace and contentment and people with be both attracted to and repelled from you. But authenticity makes u strong and powerful and connected to who you really are. It will then be clear to them you are beautiful and they are missing out on you.

  7. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    What a revelation! This description fits me 100 percent, and because of my “overbearing” and boring empathy, I can understand/explain rude, irrational, and uncaring behavior and disregard my own feelings. By putting it into the context of “not living an honest life” I think I will be able to stand up for my truths, come off the high road and follow my real-me road. Follow me if you want to!

  8. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    What a timely post! Reminds to get past my magical thinking that if I act: sweetly/kindly/supportively/helpfully/selflessly others will notice and behave in kind. And I aspire to be that kind of a person I really do. You really do, however, teach people how to treat you, not because they’re ‘evil’ but because humans (I) have a lazy streak a mile wide: we tend to do as little as possible unless a force pushes us to change. Isn’t that a physics thing? The idea of simply being transparent, authentic, open… that sounds like a great way to achieve the successful outcomes I’m looking for without making myself (or others!) crazy in the process. Thanks again for the reminder that that it doesn’t have to be either or, angry Chihuahua or doormat.

  9. Tam Raynor
    Tam Raynor says:

    I love your work and the way you throw in unexpected humor. I have three of your books and re-read them often. Your advice has helped me move from the I can’t do anything and the why me? into doing what I love. It’s still new, but glorious. This article is a big help. Thank you for your efforts!

  10. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    Hi Martha,

    What I gain from you is insight that always comes exactly when needed. For whatever strange reason when I am really dealing with a difficult challenge in life, the idea to check your blog always spontaneously pops into my head and your last blog post clarifies or enlightens me.. Sometimes its stuff we should all know in our hearts and sometimes its a completely novel way of looking at something but it is always relevant.

    Thank you for everything you share, both personal and magical you have a great gift.


  11. Jesica Davis
    Jesica Davis says:

    Wow, this was so thorough. I really appreciate how you put things so simply and clearly. I’ve been moving from ORC to TAO all over my life for the last six months or so (thanks to a great couples’ counselor) and i can’t believe how full and fulfilling my life has become. I also always thought that if I was nice enough, everything would work out. I didn’t realize how important it was to be emotionally authentic and ask for what I needed. It has changed everything.

  12. orah
    orah says:

    Martha thank you.
    A couple of things come to mind as I read your post. I would like to share them.

    Firstly, I feel there IS the option of a higher path of walking away. It does not mean slinking off into oblivion but rather consciously choosing a noble route of non engagement.

    Secondly, if one does respond with 123 it may not align with the receptive capacity and consciousness (or lack thereof) of the OCRer.
    Very often the poor behavior of this OCRer is perpetuated by a “whats wrong with her she is …” barrage to the new 123 response. Lacking is the capacity to internalize the message imbued in this new type of response.

    Do you feel one TAO ( 1. Figure out what you really want to do. 2. Do it. 3. If someone pulls a Nu Nu, wait it out, ) fits all? or perhaps outlining some steps to deconstruct OCR types and responses may be helpful?

  13. Julie
    Julie says:

    This post came on a week when most needed. Five years ago, my ” nice” divorce was over, and then my beloved mother died. A week later, my own divorce lawyer told me she was marrying my ex husband and they proceeded to throw me in family court for anything they could to drain me of finances. My children and I were stunned. A month later, my best friend committed suicide. Two weeks later, another friend died. I had hit my rumble strip. For five years, I have been in the family courts, raising now teens, and the next rumble strip happened: my ex husband is getting his medical license revoked and I have no idea how I will do all this. Fear, agoraphobia, depression has been in my home for five years and at 61, I never ever thought my life would be this . But it’s true; you dig deep, and you start to realize what good can come of this. While there are days I feel I can’t go on, there are more days that I say ” oh, yes, I can.” Thank you and God Bless all of us- listen to your instincts and heart.

  14. Tina
    Tina says:

    Nu Nu was my dog. He changed my life. I’m no longer a doormat but the road was long and Nu Nu was a big part of the journey. I truly hope that anyone who is a doormat can find strength inside themselves to realize that they do not have to be anyone’s doormat. Love and light.

  15. Raphael
    Raphael says:

    Unfortunately, while there is much truth in what Martha says, speaking your truth and then waiting it out while the other person chucks a "Nu Nu" may be completely ineffective. If someone is determined enough to have it all their way, you may be waiting it out until your dying day. When you have to live/work at close quarters with someone who is seeking to dominate the interaction, a stronger approach may be necessary and also quite difficult and tricky.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Here’s a link to a current blog post in which she talks about our common tendency to behave in ways that are “opaque, reactive and closed,” in other words to remain victims because we are hiding our own motives from ourselves, reacting to circumstances with fear, and closing ourselves off to the possibility of change in our lives. […]

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