9 February 2016
“Women are still in emotional bondage as long as we need to worry that we might have to make a choice between being heard and being loved. ~Marianne Williamson, A Woman’s Worth
This week I’ve been seeing an image of bound feet. Feet so delicate and fragile, they were referred to as ‘lotus blossoms’. A tradition that required that the bones of Chinese girls’ feet be agonizingly broken and bound in bandages that stunted their growth so that the shape and size of their feet could be manipulated according to the cultural definition of beauty. A definition that involved permanently curtailing a woman’s ability to do anything that involved moving or even standing solidly. She perched precariously on the 4″ stumps of her feet in order to conform, to be pretty, to be desirable.
I didn’t start out thinking of this image. I started out thinking about the term ‘she’s full of herself’. About how that term is a pejorative, a way of saying that a woman is arrogant and boastful. And asking myself why that term has that meaning. Why do we link the idea of being ‘full of ourself’ with being a braggart?
In my white, middle-class upbringing in late-20th century U.S.A, a historically rare and privileged situation for which I am immensely grateful, I’ve received a lot of cultural messages similar to the one buried within the phrase ‘full of oneself’. Messages about staying small, staying safe, staying in the background: Put others first. Deflect a compliment. Be small so others don’t feel small.
When I think about this, about making myself so small I couldn’t possibly threaten anyone, I see another form of binding, of incapacitating.
I took these messages to heart. Growing up as the 5th child of five, my voice seemed to get dismissed and overrun. I got used to that and shy about speaking up. I remember the day in 6th grade when, in an impromptu race to the back playground fence, I beat the fastest boy in the school. The subsequent fact that no one wanted to race with me anymore was repeatedly seared into my brain–don’t win if you want to play. By then, of course, I was already hiding the A’s I studied hard to earn.
But now, I’m not convinced this is the way to thrive. Now, I want to speak up and be heard. I want to explore who I am, how I can express creativity and connect meaningfully.
I am not alone in this. You are not alone in it either.
Brené Brown talks about how she ‘engineered smallness’ for herself. Shonda Rhimes shares how she forced herself to let go of smallness and trade up into ‘badassery’. Mary Oliver writes about not having to be good or crawl across the desert on our bare bellies. Marianne Williamson has famously said it is our light we are afraid of. These are all women I could’ve assumed never had to battle with the message they weren’t enough. Yet, they have. They have stepped out of a shoe that was clearly too small. And because they have courageously dared to bring themselves out into life, they have enriched millions of other lives.
I think we all have friends who, like us, want to raise a flag in their hearts and take new ground.
Yet, still it’s habitual to wire my sense of boldness to another’s and carefully maneuver for the smallest place. To discount my sense of self-worth because of all the faults and cracks I see in myself. It nearly seems at times that I am determined to keep myself hobbled.
But, unlike feet, how I view my worth is something I can unbind and let expand.
I’m stepping into it gently. Accepting a compliment with a smile and letting it truly sink in. Being real and caring, but relinquishing the job of propping up others by making myself thimble-sized. I’m working up to offering my truth even when it varies from another’s.
Because I believe the meaning tied to the expression ‘full of ourselves’ is all twisted. It’s another cue not to listen to our own voices, not to consider our thoughts worthwhile. But, in my experience, it is people who cultivate self-care and knowledge that can listen calmly, attend fully and offer constructive help that arises precisely from the fact of their desire and capacity to fill themselves up. To be full of themselves.
This is scary for me. And also powerful. It’s not always comfortable. Life isn’t. But I can already feel the reward of expanding into a larger self with fuller dimensions. I feel a honing of the joy of authentic connection, vitality and satisfaction.
I’m eager to be full of myself. I’m excited about being with people who are full of themselves. People who are full of their energy, their abilities, their dreams. And all of us stepping right into the shoes that fit.
Brené Brown, Ph.D, author and speaker, has broken open the topic of vulnerability, sparking a world-wide conversation.
Shonda Rhimes is a writer and producer for television, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away With Murder.
Mary Oliver is an award-wining, widely honored and beloved poet.
Maryianne Williamson is a multi-published author and spiritual teacher.