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Giving Yourself Permission to Take Up Space

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistOctober 19, 2020

We’ve all had those moments when we feel like we don’t belong. I certainly have. A few years ago, while traveling for work, I walked into an elegant restaurant in jeans and a baseball cap -- I no idea the place was going to be so fancy. The host seated me at a table in the center of room, surrounded by other diners wearing their Sunday best, and I just wanted to disappear, or at least make myself as inconspicuous as possible. (I eventually left without ordering -- and found a more casual spot.)

It’s not surprising to feel like we don’t belong when we’re clearly an outlier. We want to be invisible at those times, so we’ll try to take up as little space as possible. But what if we feel like we don’t belong even in our familiar surroundings? We might feel it at work, no matter how long we’ve been there. Maybe we feel it in our classes at school. Or we might feel like we don’t belong at our gym, or when we’re out with friends. Perhaps we even feel it in our own home, like somehow we’re an unwelcome presence.

We might apologize for ourselves all the time, assuming we’re in the way, or out of place. We can feel painfully conspicuous, like the single diner in his baseball cap at a fancy restaurant. A character in a Georges Simenon novel I read in college was the extreme example of this sentiment: “Il s’excuse même de vivre,” the narrator said -- he apologizes even for living.

Women may be especially prone to trying to be as small as possible, both in their actual size (with thinness seen as the ideal) and in their physical posture. But people of any gender can try to avoid taking up space.  

In the most fundamental sense, granting yourself permission to take up space affirms your right to exist. The universe has seen fit to call you forth from the chaos and to organize matter into exactly you. You don’t have to apologize for existing. By the very fact of your presence here, you belong.

Permission to take up space applies no matter where you are -- even if you’re “out of place.” Because wherever you are, is your place. It’s the only place you are. You might choose to leave, of course, like when I exited the too-formal restaurant. But you can do it unapologetically, with your head held high.

If you’re struggling to feel like you belong and to take the space that’s yours, a fake-it-till-you-make-it approach can be a good place to start. How we carry our bodies feeds back into our self-concept. Experiment with a more open posture -- head up, chest expanded, shoulders back. We don’t have to take it to an obnoxious extreme, where we crowd those around us. Simply being willing to take up the space that’s ours can grow our confidence and our feeling of being allowed to exist.

I’ve often worked with trauma survivors on adopting this approach. There’s a common tendency when talking about a traumatic memory to physically hide oneself -- head down, body hunched, voice low. As they progress through treatment, I would encourage them to face their memory head-on and to own it as part of their history. This shift often helped a person to realize they had nothing to be ashamed of.

The right to fully exist isn’t just about taking up three-dimensional space. You also have a right to grow into your full being and to express all of your potential. You don’t have to hide your talents and ambitions, and you need no one’s permission to expand beyond your current position. The world is waiting for the full force of your presence.


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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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