Taking Up Space
Think about all the different kinds of space you take up in this world. Your physical body and your possessions take up space, both at home and at work. Your words and actions also take up space, filling the air around you with your opinions, thoughts, dreams, and connections. You take up space through your relationships, the groups you belong to, the classes you take, the ways you interact with others online, and even how you shop. You can’t help it. The very reality of your existence means that you take up mental, emotional, physical, and energetic volume.
Unfortunately, the way many women are socialized means that we are encouraged throughout our lives to take up less space. Despite the stereotype of the talkative female, most women are discouraged from speaking up and interrupted more by men (even on the Supreme Court, female justices are interrupted more). Women are still marginalized in many careers and less likely to be identified by their credentials (a friend of mine has a boss who refuses to call her Dr. despite repeated requests to do so). They are criticized for speaking out or advocating for their own best interests. They are discouraged from holding office and being CEOs. Many religions still suggest (or demand) that women not be heads of households or hold positions of leadership. I’ve also written quite a few times about how the medical system resists validating women and their illnesses as professionals refuse to believe their patients’ reports of pain and dysfunction (click here for more).
The discussion of all this squeezing into smaller spaces can (and have) filled volumes. Today I want to talk about two specific ways in which this affects the women I work with. First, in our inability to trust ourselves, and second our inability to find the support we need to heal.
I believe that everyone has deep internal wisdom that informs how we should live and how we can heal. For centuries, however, women have been taught to ignore their intuition and view themselves as inherently broken. We’ve been fed a steady stream of messages, “About the sinfulness of our bodies, the untrustworthiness of our desires, the shallowness of our minds, and the craziness of our feelings.” (Elizabeth Lesser, Cassandra Speaks, pg. 221) There is some allowance for “mother’s intuition” in popular culture, but other forms of personal knowing have been thoroughly and systematically discouraged. In fact, despite concerted efforts from several generations of feminist activists, there are still many subtle ways in which women are denied their own knowledge and expertise. One example is “mansplaining,” a term popularized in 2008 by Rebecca Solnit to explain the phenomenon of men trying to instruct her on topics she was (and is) an expert in (and had published books about). Women picked up on it to describe one of the many ways in which men assert their own space and marginalize women’s ability to independently know anything.
I’ll pause here for one moment and clarify that when I say “men” and “women” in this post I am certainly overgeneralizing. It would be more accurate to say that I am criticizing toxic masculinity and cowed femininity. There are healthy ways to be male and female in the world, and we will talk about some of those in future posts. For now, however, I’m simply attempting to point out some of the stereotypical gender imbalances that keep many women from trusting themselves and healing.
Back to the subtle ways in which women are taught to distrust themselves. Even in areas where women are clearly experts, they are often looked down upon by men and (sometimes) other women. I have a friend who is a surgeon who can tell you shocking stories of ways in which she is subtly denigrated by male colleagues. It’s maddening when you see it happening and exhausting to try and fight it. Women who speak up are often declared “aggressive” or “bitchy.” These not-so-subtle terms are meant to undermine their self-knowing even more as the woman being castigated then questions her own motivations and relational skills. Even more dangerous, though, is when the tactics used to make women distrust themselves actually work. Then you end up with women who second-guess themselves, question their own judgment, and deny their own needs.
Abby Norman writes in her book Ask Me About My Uterus (pg. 19), “Even outside of the doctor’s office and in social settings, women face a constant barrage of doubt that undermines their faith in their own internal experiences. They begin to question their reality.” It’s hard to insist that you need help when you aren’t even confident that you do.
It’s even harder when you aren’t sure you deserve it. I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian culture. There are many good things I learned, but how to trust my own intuition was not one of them. There are many ways in which current Christian culture undermines women’s abilities to trust their own judgment, speak up when something feels wrong (especially about gender issues), and not take the blame for everything. If you know anything about the story of Eve, you’ll know that one of the first teachings of the Christian Bible is about how women are poor judges of character, greedy, deceptive, and manipulating. If growing up with that story doesn’t make you distrust yourself, nothing will.
One of the best books I’ve read in the past few years is Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein. The author interviewed hundreds of women who grew up in conservative churches and compiled their stories into her book. She talks about women who grew up hating their bodies and distrusting their sexuality. Women who were abused and gaslighted. Women who, even years later, were dealing with serious physical ailments they couldn’t get help for because they had trouble finding anyone who believed the stories of their pain. As I read it, I saw the stories of millions of women across all religions, races, and classes who have been made to fit into tiny boxes by systems (religious and otherwise) meant to keep them under control. The result is a physical illness, pain, and suffering that doesn’t seem to have a cure.
I see this in my practice when women come to me with symptoms and ailments that have been ignored or dismissed for years. Sometimes they tried to get help, but medical professionals didn’t believe their problems. I know women who have been told their problems are all in their heads, that they aren’t as bad as they thought, and that they just need to “stop worrying” and the problem will go away. These messages were often reinforced by family and friends (in well-meaning ways, I am sure) which compounded the feeling that they couldn’t trust their own bodies and brains. As a result, their lives shrunk into a tiny box of dealing with their pain, trying to find answers to their questions, and searching for someone to believe them. If culture is trying to keep women small and silent, then incurable illnesses are a great way to do it.
It’s hard to find healing when you aren’t even sure if you really have a problem. If I’m in pain, is the problem in my body or my mind? Should I meditate to deal with it or keep seeing doctors? Do I take a painkiller and keep moving, or take a week off of work to rest? It’s so hard to know what to do and how to proceed. When we’ve been conditioned to not take up space, finding the space to take care of ourselves properly, especially when we aren’t sure what is wrong, feels impossible.
I’ve struggled with this so many times in the past 20 years as I’ve been assaulted by so many nebulous physical problems. Just last year I went to see a new energy worker I had connected with. After a long session, she commented on how sensitive I am to my body’s symptoms. Even though I’ve known that for a while, it was so validating to hear another human say it aloud. It was someone telling me that I’m not crazy. That my symptoms and experiences are real and deserve the energy and attention I give them.
It meant a lot to me personally, but it also solidified part of my purpose in my own business. I want to be that person who listens to others (women and men) and says, “You aren’t crazy. These wild symptoms you experience are real. Your inner sense that something is wrong is correct. There is a way to heal this.”
Being taught to take up less space also means that it is easy for women to feel selfish when spending time, energy, and money trying to get well. It may help to know that your own personal healing work profoundly affects everyone around us. Women today aren’t just healing our own hurts, but we are carrying the dysfunction of generations of women who have been unheard, disbelieved, and ignored. We are healing our wounds and theirs. We are creating a new paradigm in which our internal knowing is the most important diagnostic tool we have and the most trusted source of healing. Elizabeth Lesser writes, “If you have unresolved trauma trapped in your body – your own or the collective wounds of women through the ages – it is an act of love to engage in self-care…To reclaim your body for yourself, for your health, and for pleasurable, powerful participation in life is one of the most important things you can do to write a new ending to the story.” (Cassandra Speaks, pg. 215)
In order to heal ourselves and the collective trauma of generations, we need to believe in our own right to take up space. To fully and confidently inhabit our bodies and minds. To not shrink from our own needs or marginalize our own illnesses. I believe that all the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms are opportunities for us to facilitate deep healing in ourselves, our families, our cultures, and our world. Not believing your symptoms keeps you from exploring that healing work.
Many are writing and speaking right now about how we each need to step up and do our own work to take care of ourselves and heal our own bodies and minds. Only by starting with ourselves can we begin to heal our collective illnesses. By putting our own needs front and center we also create deep, lasting change for others now and generations after us. It starts with giving ourselves permission to trust ourselves and take up the space we need to heal.
The first thing you need to do is to believe that your symptoms are real, that your experience is valid, and that your needs are worthy of being met. That you deserve to take up all the emotional, mental, physical, and energetic space you need to resolve whatever trauma or illness you are experiencing. That the support and care you need to heal is available to you.
Next, trust your intuition to help you find the people you need to help you on your journey. Be willing to do whatever it takes to find the pieces you need to heal. That may mean stepping outside of the medical system, asking for others to support you financially, or even taking that risk of telling someone what is going on and hoping they believe you. Stop shrinking yourself into a smaller space because that’s what you’ve been told was the way to be in this world. It’s time for every woman to step up and take care of themselves in a way that contributes to the healing of the whole world. Self-care IS an act of collective care. Stop telling yourself that you are being selfish by focusing on your own needs.
The place to begin will depend on what you need. Start by connecting with your intuition. Trust its messages for the way to move ahead. Use its guidance to start connecting with books, articles, people, and ideas to help you find your path forward. Spend time browsing my blog and see what ideas pop out at you. I’ve written about many aspects of healing and intuition. I’ve also provided many ways to begin your healing journey. Whatever catches your interest will be the place you need to start.
If you still feel lost, then email me and share your story and your struggles. I want to hear what you are going through and confirm that you are not alone. We can set up a meeting to do some energy work and coaching and figure out what your next steps should be. What I love about energy work is that we can directly ask your body and brain what is going on and what it wants to work on first. Illnesses are often the result of a mix of physical, mental, emotional, and energetic causes. I work with clients to reconnect them to their bodies and minds in ways that allow us to start working on all the various causes at the best times. We use a wide variety of practices to unlock your body’s natural self-healing and support it back to health. I believe that if we listen carefully enough, everyone can find a way forward toward healing.
Stop shrinking away from your best life. Step up and declare that you deserve to take up space in the world and fill that space with vibrant health. Create space to let your authentic self express itself. Start your journey toward healing today.