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Taking Up Space

It’s been awhile since I’ve had anything to say, which, if you know me in real life, you understand to be patently false, but in terms of taking a stand, or making a statement, or undressing myself in a blog, I just haven’t felt like there’s been much there.

I think that’s OK, because is there anything worse than listening to someone without a point, or who has lost their relevance, or who is talking for the sake of talking? I invite you to review Joe Biden’s career post Vice Presidency, or Sansa Stark’s uncle’s speech in the final episode of GOT for your answer.

And while we are on the subject of GOT, is there anything worse than someone rushing the narrative of what needs to be said? Like, if the GOT TV series just waited for George R.R. Martin to finish his series, we might not be in this mess.

In this essay, I will compare myself to George R.R. Martin.

But while I have been unnoticeably absent from blogging, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to take up space, and when I want to do so, and when I fear doing so, and what it means in different domains in my life. Since the fall of last year, I have had two different forward-facing jobs that necessitate that I put myself out there, all of the things that I know, and all of the things that I definitely don’t know, to be evaluated and critiqued. I mean there’s other parts of the jobs, too, like “teaching” and “training,” but a lot of times it feels like my primary purpose is to be told, through an evaluation form or the glassy-eyes of the people I am standing in front of, that I don’t measure up.

And on the best days, I feel like I have facilitated some good conversations about what it means to be of service, and what it means to be of service to specific populations, and on bad days, I feel like a total fraud and know that I just wasted everyone’s time, and that I have nothing to offer, and great! Now everyone knows it. And then I wonder why I,  a person who used substances to disconnect from the world, as well as someone who wants nothing more than to disappear from the world when depressed, chose to do jobs that don’t let me hide. What the fuck was I thinking?

And as I move through this terror of being seen that I definitely did not think I had in me – being seen is something I think I’ve wanted my whole life, or at least, I thought that I wanted it – I’ve come to get curious about what it means to take up space.

I wonder how long I can continue to write the introductory part without just diving right into it.

As a straight-passing, cisgender white woman with a graduate degree and a reasonable amount of attractiveness, I feel that I can occupy space pretty easily, without a lot of pushback, even as I reach the “can I speak to your manager?” age bracket of unfuckable (hey, guys, I don’t make the rules). Because of these advantages, and with a large gulp of shit I am so privileged, I have an uneasy relationship with the opportunities that I do have to take up space, and often second-guess myself around why I think I have something to say.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, per se. I am glad that I have this doubt, because I don’t think the answer to “should I take up space” is automatically yes, specifically because of the privileges I just referenced. I also get uncomfortable when people suggest that women, specifically white woman, should take up space in the same way that men with power take up space – that is, to just demand it, or steal it, or assume it’s theirs for the taking. Audre Lorde said that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and I think that FUCK she is brilliant. I just read her Goodreads quote page and JESUS, there is so much there. If we want a different world in which there is space for all experiences with equitable, not necessarily equal, reverence and honor, than I don’t think the answer is “disregard everyone else’s needs to center your own.”

Again, I wish HBO and the GOT showrunners were listening.

So, I don’t have the answers. But what I am starting to think is, maybe part of ethically taking up space is just being with the questions.

Here’s where my batshit crazy comes in, and I am not proud of this. Sometimes, specifically when it comes to writing this blog, I think: I don’t want to take up space with this blog because then obviously I will be offered a book deal and then I will have to go on all the late night talk shows to promote it and then it will be a massive hit and then I won’t have any privacy anymore, and I will have to engage with people all day long on social media and I really don’t have the bandwidth for that. Continuing, I think: it’s not my place to have this huge book deal because there are so many other women who look like me and who have the same advantages that I do, talking about recovery and depression and self-loathing, and they already have a platform and books deals, and it’s really important to have much more diverse and authentic representation and perspectives around these topics, so I should just move over and let other people have this space.

Here’s the reality:

  1. That’s insane.
  2. Literally have never been offered a book deal, and also this is not something that just happens to people. People bust their asses for years and get rejected hundreds of times before getting published.
  3. People don’t typically go on late night talk shows to promote books?
  4. I have a completely inflated sense of self around this, like did you read that paragraph?
  5. Much like every other person in the world, my experience is unique and individual to me, and people will either resonate with it if I choose to share it, or they won’t, and I have no control over that.
  6. All of us who engage in our lives – be it via social media or showing up each day to our jobs or communities – have a platform, and so I can start thinking about how to share space now, rather than decide the best way for me to take up space is to NOT take up space because of how fucking famous I will inevitably be if I do.
  7. Just leaving space for you to pass your own judgment here.

Sometimes, we don’t want to take up space because we fear success. Sometimes, we fear delusional success.

Often times, we don’t want to take up space because we fair failure, which can take on the shape of a myriad of terrors: rejection, judgment, abandonment, loss. We don’t want to set a boundary in a relationship because we fear that by protecting our space, we alienate the other. We don’t want to “get political” on Facebook because we fear judgment from others, or because we don’t think it’s our place – maybe we are afraid of our own power, or we don’t think that we have any. Perhaps not taking up space has been a means of survival for us: maybe there wasn’t room for our stuff in our family-of-origin’s home, and so we learned to people-please and put other’s first, or we learned to disconnect from our needs because they were never adequately met, and ignoring them was as effective as anything else.

But in not taking up space, we are denying the fundamental component of the human experience: the need to connect. We are wired to connect, and in order to survive, we need to be seen. And this, I think, is where things get complicated. Because here’s a spoiler: I’m not the only crazy person when it comes the aching ambivalence to be seen. Perhaps there are those among us who got exactly what they needed as children, in which case: how dare you. For the rest of us, be comforted by the fact that these people probably aren’t even funny as adults. Then there are people who have done a lot of healing work and emerged with a relatively healthy relationship to taking up space. But for the rest of us, it’s usually shaky ground.

Attachment is key here. If you have a healthy sense of self, fostered by the interactions that you had with your primary caregivers and immediate surroundings as a small child, you may move with more ease in navigating how to take up space, because your need to take a space will theoretically not be driven by a sense of compulsion or void. Additionally, you may feel that you deserve to take up space just like any other human, and you may not be terrified of being rejected when you show your human bits, your vulnerability and your mistakes, because throughout your life, these flashes of your humanity have been accepted and nurtured and comforted. You weren’t shamed for being human, or for having needs.

Good for YOUUUU.

But if you didn’t necessarily get what you needed (and honestly, I think that’s a lot more of us than we think, because our generation is descendants of people who, for a variety of trauma-reactive reasons, think that the best way to deal with emotional terror is to stockpile laundry detergent from Costco in the garage), the desire to take up space can vacillate somewhere between Gypsy Rose’s stage mom to DON’T LOOK AT ME, I’M HIDEOUS, often on a turn of a dime.

Mostly this is about vulnerability. We don’t believe that we can take up space unless we are perfectly presented, unless we already have the solution, unless we have practiced our opening line with the same vigor as some of those TED talk presenters and know exactly when to line up the graphics with our topic transition.  This is (part of) why social media is so dangerous – it promotes the misguided idea that by giving people a slice of the story, they are getting the whole narrative. But life is messy, and the truth is, none of us have it all figured out. And those who pretend that they do are either lying, or delusional, or deathly afraid of being seen as human.

We miss so much opportunity for change when we don’t let other people see our shame and grief and doubt. We miss so much opportunity for connection and seismic shifts, on every level, when don’t show ourselves in the midst of the questions and instead wait to present on the answers.

In the second season of Fleabag, the main character remarks to an acquaintance that people are terrible, and the acquaintance says back, decisively: “People are all we’ve got.”  And I think that’s true – we got ourselves into this mess (insert any crisis as a stand-in for “mess,” there are literally thousands), and we’re all we’ve got in figuring out how to fix it.

It’s nuanced, however. Because the best people for the fixing and the healing aren’t the same people who disproportionally created the disasters, and this is where the relationship between taking up space and moving out of the way becomes complicated for those of us who are do-gooders and who have the privilege and the permission to take up space that historically, other groups of people don’t. And that’s when it’s helpful to have questions: Is your social media predominantly made up a voices who look, think, and speak like you? If so, where is the space for you to challenged and to be vulnerable? Where is the space for you to grow? At your place of employment, what do the faces of staff look like at every level? Is the room at the proverbial table for a wide variety perspectives and opinions? If not, how do you shift the space so that there’s room, and how to you support and sustain this shift? If you are wanting to start an organization that addresses some social justice issue, are you taking up space of an organization lead by a historically marginalized population that is already doing the work that you want to do? If so, maybe the best thing for you to do is to vacate that space you want to occupy and throw your support behind people already doing the work.

Oops, there are go, trying to provide answers. The truth is, I don’t know the best way to be an intersectional feminist or how to be an amazing ally for racial justice. I don’t know how best to address the child abuse happening at the border or how to bear witness to what is happening in Sudan. But I think it’s OK to start with just having the questions, and constantly re-visiting the questions even if you think you have found some answers, because the solution will always be changing and evolving. And thank God for that, because it means that more people have taken up space to shed their own personal light on the subject, and we need to shift again.

Maybe it’s because I have ADHD or maybe it’s because I’m just an asshole, but I have also had to learn some very basic strategies on not taking up space in work meetings, such as letting at least five people speak before I offer my opinion, and letting at least three people get a second comment in before I speak again. I’ve also had to practice asking myself: “does this need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me?” because I um think I’m right a lot, and often think that I need to be the person to address the elephant in the room.

Don’t forget that I also hate myself often too! It’s called balance, sweetie.

A wise woman once told me, when I was wondering if I should prioritize meeting my own needs or doing someone else a favor, to think about what choice I tend to make, and then do the opposite if I wanted to grow. So, I leave you with this: do you find yourself taking up space often, or do you tend to let other’s fill the room? In what ways could changing your relationship with taking up space lead to growth? Lord knows the earth needs it.




















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