Take up as much space as you want

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man[...] We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.”
-- Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

You may recognize the above quote -- possibly from the background of a Beyoncé song, maybe you've read it online, or even heard it quoted in the context of feminism (which it has been more and more as the conversation about gendered social conditioning has come to the forefront of our social commentary which is beyond awesome). I'm from the Beyoncé camp; I'm sure I've come across this quote before in my literature classes at some point, but it was never given the proper attention it deserved until I heard it booming over a screaming crowd at the VMAs. It struck a chord with me. A booming chord.

We teach girls to shrink themselves. It wasn't until fairly recently that I realized just how true this is, and I was immediately able to come up with multiple scenarios in my own experiences in which this was true. For the entirety of my life, I've been concerning myself with taking up as little space as possible. I apologize when I haven't done anything wrong. It's a knee-jerk instinct that I'm quietly trying to work on. I use conciliatory language like "just" (see above) or language that undermines my own ideas like "I think..." or "In my opinion..." I step out of the way on a sidewalk when someone else is approaching me, even if they see me coming too -- I'm always the first to move.

This pattern of thinking and behaving reminds me still of a poem I heard waaaay back in 2013 from Lily Myers called -- get this! -- "Shrinking Woman." In the poem, which was first presented (to my knowledge) at a slam poetry event, Myers excavates the idea that women are socialized to grow inward while men are encouraged to grow outward. We shrink while they bloom.

Since then, dozens of studies have been published backing up this notion. There was one study I recall about the frequency with which women apologize. Turns out women apologize more than men, mostly because they feel they have something to apologize for more often than men do. In negotiations over salaries or promotions, women tend to underscore their achievements while men have a tendency to overstate theirs (The Atlantic, "The Confidence Gap"). Another study was focused on an even smaller detail that may go unnoticed: the fact that women tend to take up less room/sit compressed on public transportation while men tend to sprawl. Think about how many girls you've seen sitting cross-legged on the subway compared to men sitting with legs wide open, often taking up more than one seat.
It’s fairly typical for women to fold into themselves making room for others in public spaces, while many men seem comfortable splaying themselves out. Where did this behavior come from, asks Soraya Chemaly? (x)
Women have literally been conditioned to become small and unobtrusive. We don't want to be seen as a burden. Always, we are conscious of the space we displace and those we may inconvenience.

A while ago, I had half-jokingly changed all of my social media profile descriptions to two words: "A handful." It felt like my anxiety was halving me, and that I was bothering everyone around me because I was going through a rough time. I don't often ask for help, and the rare time that I did, I felt like I had immediately become the most burdensome, selfish person in the world. Which, at first, seems overdramatic and is truly ridiculous, but in this case, there had been some negative reinforcements of this fear and the doubting, terrified voice in my head was validated by people who didn't want to take the time to understand. I was, as my social media accounts could verify for that week and a half, actually "a handful." Fuck that.

I've since taken that half-joke/half-not-joke description down. My life is a mess, but I'm not a handful. I'm a human being (or a human bean, as my sister says) and I deserve consideration, even on my off days. Everyone does. Never forget that.

Every day, I impress myself simply by getting out of bed. And then I do more. I survive some days, while other days -- good days -- I get to really live. I challenge myself to grow outside of my comfort zone and do new things, even when I don't necessarily feel up to doing those things. I do them anyway. In my daily planner and my journals, I've written down mantras like "Your feelings are valid" and "You are allowed to take up space." Because I need those reminders, and I need them often, especially when the clouds are rolling in overhead or a storm is threatening just over the horizon. 

Apologies are handed out too often when there is nothing to actually apologize for. I'm guilty of this, and my anxiety makes it worse. Once, I was out with friends and began to have a panic attack and immediately started to apologize, and when I said this, my friends just stared at me and said (as if this should be obvious) that I had nothing to be sorry for. They were right. I didn't. This was a moment I was going through, and I wasn't doing it to be rude or try and ruin their night -- though I did feel as though a was stopping the fun, despite their protests. I'm lucky I have such amazing friends. Those are the kinds of people you should keep in your life -- people who understand and don't place blame or stigma over your experience.

So yes, I apologize too often, and for things I either 1) am not sorry for or 2) do not need to be sorry for. I am trying to be more aware of that. I also want to be more mindful of when I say "it's okay" (when it's so not okay) after receiving an apology myself. You know, when someone goes, "Hey sorry for being a total dick," and you respond, without thinking, "It's okay." Nope, you don't have to say that their behavior was okay, or fine, or however you are minimizing its affect on you. A simple "thank you" is enough to acknowledge their apology. Accept the apology and let it rest at that.

Now, that's not to say that there aren't times to apologize. Obviously there are! But things that definitely do not warrant an apology:
  • My anxiety or depression. If you cannot understand what I'm going through, it is not my responsibility to explain myself to you. And to be honest, I am probably not in the right place to explain what I'm going through at the moment anyway. This is not me being rude or inconsiderate; if you feel it is, I'd recommend you taking a less self centric look at the situation.
  • The fact that I'm not as (whatever) as someone else. (As independent, as stable, as fun, as "normal", etc.) We all have our set backs in life, and if I'm constantly comparing my growth to the growth of someone next to me, I will always feel like a failure. I'd rather focus on how far I've come than how far I've left to go.
  • Putting myself first sometimes. I'm a caring person, and I will go well out of my way to be polite. I've told my dad once that I try to be considerate with my breakdowns (which about sums up my life). There are days when I have to look out for myself before I can consider anything else. This is not a slight. When I am in crisis or panic mode, I am focusing wholly on staying okay. Often during a panic attack, I'll become nearly immobile and completely silent. Let me come back to myself without putting the pressure of your expectations on my shoulders, on top of whatever else I am dealing with.
  • For cutting negative, toxic people out of my life. This doesn't need much explanation but I'll give one anyway. I don't have space for people in my life who are unwilling to understand what I am going through, or that every day I am trying to be better. I don't have the time to try to educate them because I am, well, trying to be better. Such toxic people I will cut out of my life. That is my propagative and I owe you no explanation. If I choose to give you one, great; if not, deal. It's my life and not yours, and I am looking after my own mental health at this point. That comes first. See previous bullet point.
The list could go on, but those four points are a pretty solid start. You should never feel the need to apologize for who you are or what you're going through. Take care of yourself however you can, surround yourself with a support system of positive and understanding friends, and remember to be gentle with yourself. Life is hard, and when you're managing something like anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness, there are days when just making it through the day (or night) feels impossible. But you can do it.

You're okay, even if you aren't right at this moment. You are allowed to take up space and ask for help. That does not make you selfish and that does not make you weak. Everyone needs a life boat now and then, so reach for one. Allow yourself to be saved when you cannot manage it on your own. Anyone who sees you or what you are going through as a burden is not worth your time and obviously has a warped view of the world. Let them go, and feel sorry for their lack of empathy. And know, beyond a doubt, that you deserve so much better than that. No more shrinking yourself; it's time to grow. I give you permission to take up as much space as you want.

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