We all grew up and were socialized in a culture where oppression and abuse of power take many forms. This is reinforced within family systems, institutions, and cultural norms. The effects of living in a patriarchal, white supremacist culture impact everyone differently based on their individual life and social circumstances. Most of us were rewarded for not having needs, going with the flow, and not upsetting the balance. When we did express unmet needs and tried to take up space in ways that threatened the power dynamics in place around us, many of us experienced negative consequences. And so we learned…the fear of not belonging guided us to make ourselves smaller in order to fit in.
Didn’t we work so hard to fit in? Fit into these clothes, this peer group, this family? Fit into this job, these gender norms, this neighborhood, school, and church?
Don’t upset the balance.
Don’t rub anyone the wrong way.
Don’t disagree with the people in power.
Don’t take up too much space.
Fit in. Contorting ourselves, shrinking ourselves, orphaning parts of ourselves. Accommodating, placating, bending-over-backwards. We comply, obey, acquiesce, submit. We become smaller and smaller.
What do we sacrifice in order to fit in? We lose our voice, our connection to our truth. We feel out of congruence with ourselves. We become habituated to feeling diminished. We lose connection with our bodies. We become habituated to self-diminishment in order to earn what passes for love and belonging. Love and belonging that we needed. Love and belonging that we couldn’t live without. We did this to survive. We had no choice. When we are habituated to living from a place of self-diminishment, learning to allow expansion into the full expression of our truest selves is a practice. Taking up space is a practice that we return to again and again and again.
This practice of noticing when we feel small and powerless. What does that feel like? It may be that we feel younger or less experienced than everyone else in the room, regardless of the reality. We may feel like we want to disappear. We can honor these feelings and get curious about what’s going on. This practice is offering ourselves kindness and compassion when we feel small. It is remembering how we learned this, why we learned this, what purpose it served, and who it serves. And remembering that we can now choose something different.
This practice is getting curious. We can ask ourselves some compassionate questions, like what else is happening here? What am I feeling? What are the power dynamics in the room? What does this remind me of? What happened that brought on these feelings?
This practice is honoring the wisdom of our coping and trying something different. Staying small may have kept us safe when we needed it most. We can give ourselves time to process our feelings (alone or with someone we trust) and if we feel ready, maybe we can circle back to a conversation where we felt frozen and small later. All we need to say is something like “You know, I was thinking about the conversation we had earlier and I’d like to share some of my thoughts now that I’ve had time to reflect…”
We get to do this work at our own pace; coming forward step by step, layer by layer. We do not have to go from hidden to exposed all at once. We get to experiment with taking small, manageable risks in spaces – and with people – that invite bravery and model vulnerability. And so we practice. And, with practice, things shift and change. We begin to notice that the feeling of smallness evolves as we get to know it better and over time it has less hold on us. We feel less like we want to fall through a hole in the floor and instead, it becomes a barometer for us to pay attention to the power dynamics that might be affecting us. We practice speaking our truth, and over time, we feel less afraid and more grounded in our own ways of knowing.
Taking up space can feel vulnerable and powerful all at once. We may feel something rising within our bodies as we give voice to our truth and stand in our power. That feeling can be exhilarating and uncomfortable all at once. Both/and.
As we practice standing more in our power, we become more embodied and feel ourselves occupying our being-ness. With this comes a more vitality, a sense of aliveness. Showing up authentically is vulnerable stuff. We are letting ourselves be seen. We are letting ourselves be heard. And we will have plenty of opportunities to continue to practice. We will feel small again. We will fall down into the occasional holes of self-diminishment. And we will find our way back out again. When we witness ourselves with kindness and curiosity, we are learning to trust our own judgment and we begin to see that our own truth is the truth. We are learning to stand our sacred ground in our own sacred lives.