Learning how to take up space and own what you do

girl jumping in air to take up space

Do you find yourself apologising sometimes for no reason – someone bumps into you and you say sorry? Do you shrink down what you do – have you ever preceded your job title with a ‘just’? “I’m just a TA”. Do you call something you’re passionate about “little”? “I do some little doodles sometimes” – rather than “I illustrate”. These are habits that I think in some ways are quite British, being the self-deprecating nation that we are, and that often are typically female. We try to shrink ourselves back, to make ourselves a bit smaller because we feel that that will make other people more comfortable. We don’t want to shout, self-promotion can feel a bit icky and arrogant, and we end up apologising sometimes even for our existence – that our bodies take up space.

I never wanted to call myself an illustrator because I thought it sounded presumptuous, when I’d never had any formal training and it’s not my day job. For some time, my bio on Instagram read “blogger and doodler”. Doodler sounded safer and un-assuming. But if writing blogs made me a blogger, why couldn’t drawing illustrations make me an illustrator? I wasn’t claiming to have any formal qualifications; I wasn’t lying in any way. I wasn’t pretending to be a graphic designer or anything of that sort. This was simply about something that I do outside of my full-time job, and what’s more, the main thing I share on my Instagram is exactly that – illustrations. And do you know what? Since I changed that bio, the amount of illustration commissions I’ve had has increased. I owned what I do and I’ve seen results from it, which has been amazing.

That little shift in terminology didn’t come naturally, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Self-doubt is a powerful, sometimes crippling thing and can gain far too much control in our lives. Over the last year I’ve become really inspired by some wonderful women I follow online who are talking about this. One such inspiration is Sas Petherick – a ‘self-doubt coach’ – and another is Ray Dodd, who describes herself as a ‘taking up space mentor’.

I have to confess that a few years ago I might’ve sniffed at these titles, dismissing all this stuff as navel-gazing. What I’ve come to realise though is that these women are examples of people doing wonderful work in the world, encouraging, inspiring and equipping others to unpick the stories they’ve told themselves over time, and to discover the things that make them tick; the things that bring them joy. I should’ve really remembered from childhood and teenage experiences growing up in church, how amazing it can be when women step out to lead and empower one another. I love that these days with social media, we can discover people all over the country and even the world who are spreading a positive message.

In particular here, I want to talk about a challenge Ray Dodd ran recently called “5 days of magic”, which I mentioned in my last positivity diary. The habits I mentioned at the beginning of this post are all things she’s spoken about, that can get in the way of our ability to ‘take up space’. 5 days of magic was essentially a series of questions to ask yourself, spanning – you guessed it (!) – five days. The word magic wasn’t about any kind of wizardry, but simply the magic that happens when we’re honest with our feelings and dig a bit deeper into who we are. I recommend checking out her Instagram if you want to see the full list, but examples included “where [in life] do you feel most judged?” and “how do you talk to yourself?”

One thing I realised over the course of answering these questions is just how much of a hang-up I still have about job titles and salaries. If you read my post “Why I changed career and the difference it’s made to my life” earlier this year, you’ll know that I switched from working in marketing to becoming a teaching assistant. Still though, despite being a lot happier and so pleased I made the change, I persist in comparing myself to other people – whether that be other teaching assistants at my school or to my friends in different jobs, or just to various people I follow online. A story I seem to tell myself over and over, is that other people are more competent and more successful than me. “Look at such and such, they’re the same age as or younger than me and they’ve achieved so much more” seems to be a default thought process that I’ve finally identified and want to start to tackle. Do you ever feel like this?

I’m now trying to re-frame my experiences in a more positive and affirming way. I moved hundreds of miles from home and made a life for myself in a different part of the country. I completed a year abroad despite horrible loneliness and homesickness. I finished a degree in the midst of deep depression. I took the brave step of seeing a counsellor to get better. I made a career switch and started afresh. I grew an online community that I love. These are all truths that for some reason feel arrogant to shout about. Why does owning what we do and who we are feel so hard? That’s a tricky question but what I do know is that in owning that stuff, we release ourselves to take up our space, and to be our full selves, with the scars on show that have made us who we are.

I would encourage you today to think about the things you do to shrink yourself – how could you re-frame how you talk to and about yourself?

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