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  • Calista Ocean

Sometimes I feel like an octopus

I don’t have eight arms. Nor do I have tentacles. But I have learned countless ways to stay safe as I navigate through life – to contort myself in ways that make it easier to elude real or perceived threats. To make myself small and unobtrusive.

This may seem impossible for a woman who is six feet tall, but through the years I’ve learned to hide in plain sight, to twist and turn to fit the mold that society expects of me. I have become a master of camouflage, my exterior reflecting the expectations of others while my inner self remains hidden from view.

Camouflage and contortion are good survival skills, but I don’t want to stay hidden and small forever. So, I wriggle and stretch and push myself back out into the world again. I create space in my body. I take up space around me as I propel through the depths of my life. It feels good to expand!

I wish I could say there was a consistent cycle of contraction and expansion in my life, but the truth is that I spend far more time being small than I’d like to admit. Even when there is no actual threat to my physical or mental well-being, I’ve become accustomed to hiding. I get stuck. I stay small and tight and forget that there is another way of being.

Letting go of the octopus metaphor (for now), here are the ways that I take up less space in relationships and in the world around me…

  • Apologizing for things that it doesn’t make sense to apologize for, like expressing my opinion or being in the way

  • Downplaying my intelligence and achievements in order to avoid appearing arrogant or making other people feel “less than”

  • Dismissing my own needs as frivolous or unimportant

  • Staying quiet in group settings so that others don’t perceive me as an attention-seeker

  • Refusing to ask for help or support because I don’t want to impose on others

  • Not acknowledging my own beauty and grace and creativity

But why do I make myself small? When did I decide that I am not allowed to take up space in this world? Who told me that there is not enough space for my body, my voice, my mistakes, my triumphs, my needs, my feelings, my wisdom?

It’s a complex question and the answer continues to evolve with each cycle of contraction and expansion in my life.

Like many, I was raised to prioritize the needs of others over my own. I was taught that it’s selfish to assert my own needs/desires, and I often feel guilty when I do. In my experience as a woman, there are also societal expectations and gender norms that encourage me (and other women) to be quiet, unobtrusive, and accommodating. From a young age, I learned to be polite and avoid drawing attention to myself. Additionally, women are often subjected to gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence when they try to take up space in male-dominated workplaces or social structures.

In essence, it’s a matter of not feeling safe taking up space.

I’m not eluding sharks or dolphins or moray eels. I contract and contort myself to avoid judgment. I hide to avoid confrontation. Some might say that staying small makes me a coward. Others might say that it makes me wise. Regardless, it’s not my natural state to stay tucked into a tiny crevice when there is such a vast universe to swim in. So…

I give myself permission to take up space!

What does this mean? It doesn’t mean that I need to take space away from others. It simply means that I allow myself to expand in authentic ways, like:

  • Prioritizing my physical, emotional, and mental health by engaging in self-care practices that are nourishing and create more space in my body and mind

  • Sharing my opinions, ideas, and perspectives

  • Speaking up for myself and others

  • Expressing my needs and setting appropriate boundaries

  • Challenging myself to try new things and push beyond my perceived limitations

  • Making time to pursue creative self-expression in ways that our authentic and unique to me

Simple, right? It is!

And it isn’t…

I’m unaccustomed to taking up space. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to stay safe by staying small, but maybe it’s time to start differentiating between real threats and the monsters swimming around in my head. Maybe it’s time to trust. And just maybe…giving myself permission to take up space will inspire others to do the same.


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