I’ve always been afraid of being ‘too’. ‘Too clever’ for my own good, with hair ‘too untidy’. When worrying about work I might ‘care too much’, or ‘work too hard’. Sometimes, when I speak out for something I believe in, I’m ‘too opinionated’. ‘Too’ has friends. We call them ‘not’ and ‘enough’. They’re mostly together: ‘not pretty enough’ or ‘not slim enough’. We learn at school to toe the line between teacher-pleasing academic prowess and the unfathomable world of ‘cool’ to please our peers (not too clever, cool enough). We learn to work within a balance. Never be ‘too much’, always be ‘just enough’ and in that sweet spot, surrounded by expectation, you’ll get by.
We’re taught to become trapped in a balancing act.
I carried ‘too’ and ‘not enough’ with me into adulthood. At university, I wanted to be the fun one, the party animal, while doing my best to maintain decent grades. In my first job after graduating I exhausted myself trying to be enough but not too much for everyone. I was scared to get something wrong or be vulnerable in case I upset the balance. I didn’t see it as a problem. When the balance was right, I thrived: got promoted, nailed the presentation, achieved the goal set. When the balance was off, I blamed myself. If only I could have been better, been enough. If only I hadn’t been too much. The negative self-talk started up and I’d tell myself to try harder next time.
Then I learned about empowerment. This warm and hopeful word meaning “the power, right, or authority to do something”. “Great”, I thought, “now I get it”. I need to do more to seek the power, right? I decided to ask for more permission to be the person I wanted to be. I sent lots of apologetic emails (‘I was just wondering if you’d mind’) and asked lots of apologetic questions (‘sorry to bother you, could I maybe get involved with that please?’). When someone told me no, I figured it was my fault.
But then I learned about disempowerment.
Empowerment doesn’t exist on its own. Like most things in life, we tend to only know the good when we’ve seen the bad. I only realised what it meant to be truly empowered when I started to notice the moments of disempowerment – when my power was being taken away. I noticed when people would speak over me or ignore me in the workplace, or make assumptions about my ability without getting to know me. I’d feel the disappointment and frustration from having my power taken from me. But there was more.
When it hit me, it wasn’t a light bulb moment. It was a ‘stepping out of the fluorescent office glare and into the sunlight’ moment. Because I realised, most of the time, people weren’t taking my power from me. I was giving it away. Allowing people to cross the boundaries I set for myself, not speaking up for the things I believed in, not owning what makes me, me. I realised my old friends ‘too’ and ‘enough’ were never about just me. They were about me in comparison to everyone else. Because you can’t be too opinionated without someone with fewer opinions to compare you to. It’s difficult to not be slim enough without someone slimmer to illustrate the point. And far from being the empowered, strong female I wanted to be I’d been disempowering myself. I’d been taking away everything brilliant about who I am by assuming I couldn’t ever be as brilliant as the people around me. I’d woven a narrative and had never looked up for long enough to realise this wasn’t the chapter I wanted to be in.
What did I do?
So then, I started to notice. I began to keep track of the feelings I associated with disempowerment, what behaviours I’d show. I noticed when I was snappy at work, or when I came out of a conversation with a friend exhausted and low. I stopped myself, in those moments, and really acknowledged the disempowerment.
It took a little while, but eventually I started to take control of those moments. I’d notice when someone was pressing on a boundary I’d set and take the chance to refresh it and explain where I was at in a positive way. I’d notice when I began to talk negatively to myself about something that had gone wrong and I flipped it. What an opportunity it is, to be able to learn from a mistake.
Eventually, through enough noticing and control-taking, I’ve begun to make new habits. Rather than jumping to conclusions about what people are thinking, I start asking. Rather than worrying about being ‘too’ or ‘not enough’ and letting that hinder me, I just do. I try to leave it to others to decide how to handle me. I’m not talking about huge changes here. I went from internalising all the compliments I got when I straightened my naturally curly hair to just letting it be. I made the decision to become vegan after I realised the only thing stopping me was a fear of what other people would think. I started to shape my habits around my beliefs and my purpose, not trying to appease everyone else’s.
Once I’d started to do the work though, I found myself frustrated when friends and colleagues weren’t coming with me on the journey. While I’d changed my habits and started a new chapter in my narrative, they were still perpetuating the old mindset. I realised there is a final step in this cycle. Share. Share the journey you’re on with the people who matter to you. Help them help you to define your narrative.
I’m by no means perfect at it and I’m learning to own the perfectly imperfect. I have days when I know I’m disempowering myself and I struggle to break out of it. But even just in being able to call it by its name, it’s a little less powerful. By recognising that by growing through my disempowerment, I come out more empowered on the other side, I’m forging my own narrative.
When I need a reminder, I break it down into four steps and I work through the cycle until I’m back in a good place:
Make new habits
And somewhere in amongst it all, I’ve started the journey to stop apologising for being me, stop making myself small and I’ve begun to shine, just as I am.
Some might say, I’m becoming unapologetically me.