Eating Disorder Therapy

What it Means to Take up Space in Recovery

How increasing your visibility can positively impact your place in the world.

All of us want acceptance, enjoyment, and to feel as though we have some sense of meaning or purpose in life. It’s why we make friends, fall in love, apply for jobs, have families, or pursue a hobby. 

It’s also why we do more “in the moment” things like strike up a conversation with a stranger, ask a question in front of the whole class, confide in someone when we’re having a difficult time, share the highlights of our recent vacation, graciously accept compliments, or take a bubble bath at the end of a stressful workday.

All of these are examples of taking up space—a catchall for honoring your wants and needs by occupying territory in a physical, psychological, or emotional sense.

As living beings, we have an inherent right to take up space, yet many struggle to find and take rightful ownership of their place in the world. This post will discuss the many benefits that come from taking up space, as well as some ways you can take action to enlarge and enliven yourself.

How Taking Up More Space Can Improve Your Life

It’s important to understand some of the positives that come from making yourself more seen and heard. 

  • You Get to Be You: Taking up space allows you to be true to yourself and share your unique perspective, talents, and personality with the world. It’s also a way of expressing your thoughts, feelings, and ideas rather than suppressing them. While this may come with a degree of disagreement or even rejection at times, the happiness and freedom that comes from being your authentic self are bound to outweigh any negatives. Plus, those disagreements and rejections can spur personal growth, resilience, and perspective.
  • Increased Self-Worth and Confidence: Being able to advocate for your needs, preferences, and boundaries is crucial for personal well-being. It helps ensure that your needs are met and that you’re not being taken advantage of for your amenability. Asserting yourself in such a way does require you to break out of your comfort zone, pushing you to challenge self-imposed limiting beliefs, overcome fears, and build self-confidence along the way.
  • Healthier Relationships: Effective communication and setting boundaries are essential for healthy relationships. Leaning on others when you need support and expressing when someone’s actions, words, or expectations have caused you distress can lead to better understanding and connection with others. 
  • Increased Career Opportunities and Advancement: In a professional context, being able to advocate for your ideas and accomplishments is crucial for career growth. It can lead to opportunities for promotion and recognition in the workplace.
  • It Supports Equality and Justice: In the context of social justice and equity, working on taking up space is a way to address imbalances of power and privilege. It’s a means of asserting one’s right to be present and heard in spaces where those rights have been historically denied.
  • You See the Importance of Self-Care and Creativity: Sometimes the purpose of taking up space is to do nothing more than just that—to read a book, take a nap, watch your favorite movie for the 26th time, or laugh out loud at cat videos. Similarly, maybe it’s drawing in a coloring book, taking photos no one else will ever see, or learning to play the guitar with no expectation you’ll ever do so in front of an audience. Doing what relaxes your mind and leaves you feeling happy or rejuvenated is one of the most beneficial reasons to take up space.

You may be reading these benefits and thinking, “That all sounds great, but I can’t go from being an anxious introvert to a carefree extrovert overnight. It’s more complicated than that.”

You’re right. There’s a reason (or multiple reasons) you haven’t expanded out of your shrunken self, and those need to be acknowledged and addressed, first and foremost. 

Common Reasons People Struggle to Take Up Space

Several factors can contribute to why some people struggle to take up space. It’s a complex issue influenced by individual experiences, personality traits, cultural and societal norms, and personal beliefs. Some common reasons include:

  • Low Self-Esteem: Individuals who lack self-worth are often less inclined to openly express themselves. They may feel they’re not deserving of attention or don’t have anything of significance to contribute.
  • Social Conditioning and Upbringing: Societal norms and cultural backgrounds can play a significant role in how much or little space someone occupies. Some cultures or households emphasize humility, modesty, and not drawing attention to oneself, unlike others that stress “putting yourself out there” and “making something of yourself.”
  • Fear of Rejection or Judgment: Many people fear their individual thoughts, ideas, or sheer presence will be denied or rejected. As a result, they feel safer being compliant or complicit rather than being authentic or controversial.
  • Perfectionism: Perfectionists may avoid taking up space because they fear making mistakes or not meeting their own high standards. In turn, they tend to be averse to taking chances out of a fear of failure or disappointment.
  • Imposter Syndrome: People experiencing imposter syndrome often feel like they don’t belong or that they are not qualified, which can lead to self-doubt and hesitancy in asserting themselves.
  • People-Pleasing: The worry of burdening others or creating conflict can hinder some people from ever or rarely prioritizing their own wants and needs. 
  • Trauma or Negative Experiences: Past traumatic experiences, such as bullying or emotional abuse, can make individuals feel unsafe or vulnerable when they assert themselves.
  • Anxiety and Social Anxiety: Not knowing what to expect, how they will be perceived, or whether or not they’ll be liked or accepted can deter people from being an engaged or visible presence in their work, school, and community.
  • Eating Disorders and Related Conditions: People suffering from eating disorders or image-related complexes, particularly in the realm of their body shape and size, can limit their willingness or desire to draw attention to themselves
  • Gender and Stereotypes: Sexism, perceived gender roles, and stereotypes can play a role in how people behave in social situations. Some may feel limited by traditional gender norms or expectations.
  • Cultural Inequity: Minorities and people existing in marginalized communities who have experienced inequalities may not feel safe or empowered to advocate for themselves or seek out new opportunities.
  • Lack of Role Models: Individuals who’ve grown up with or been surrounded by others with submissive tendencies, low self-esteem, or conditions that have caused them to feel “othered” are less likely to be assertive or forthright.

Below, we’ll go over some strategies for overcoming these challenges and developing healthy ways of asserting oneself. First, let’s make sure you’re crystal clear on what taking up space means by outlining what it isn’t.

What Taking Up Space Is Not

While we all deserve to be seen and heard, the aim isn’t to go from one extreme to another. Taking up space is not suggesting that you:

  • Seek to be the loudest person in the room. Going from being timid and reserved to domineering and disrespectful isn’t likely to reap any positive benefits. 
  • Say something just to say it. There’s no need to push yourself to speak up if you don’t have anything you want to say. The idea is to feel empowered to speak up when you do have something to say—not to force yourself to speak for the sake of speaking.
  • Say no to everything. Taking up space is about setting healthy boundaries—not consistently saying no to every ask or invitation. For example, opting out of a gathering with friends or family to take care of yourself one night is different than repeatedly opting out because you feel unwanted or too anxious (more on this later).
  • Grow completely careless about your behavior. Nobody is advocating for you to be totally inconsiderate or negligent of your actions. The goal is for you to give yourself permission to freely be and express yourself—not seek to blatantly offend, disrespect, or harm others. 
  • Aim to see yourself as flawless. Taking up space doesn’t mean you’ll never:
    • say sorry again
    • make a mistake
    • have a bad body image day 
    • feel inadequate
    • Experience hardship or disappointment

It can be helpful to think about taking up space as a pie. You deserve your slice (and shouldn’t experience any shame or guilt for indulging in it), and everyone else gets their slice, too.

How to Break Out of Your Shell and Take Up More Space

Learning to take up space, whether it’s in terms of expressing yourself, asserting your needs, or being present in social situations, can be an empowering process. Here are some steps to help you become more comfortable with taking up space.

  • Build Self-Awareness: Reflect on your feelings and beliefs about taking up space. Are there specific situations or contexts where you feel uncomfortable doing so? Why do you think that is? Self-doubt? Fear of judgment? Negative or traumatic past experiences? Get to the root of the underlying issues so you can form a starting point in your journey to self-expansion and liberation.
  • Practice Self-Compassion: Breaking out of your shell can be hard and scary. Make sure to treat yourself with kindness and compassion, and remember that it’s okay to make mistakes or feel vulnerable when you’re learning to take up space. And in those moments you’re feeling anxious about asserting yourself, take a breath. Growth often involves discomfort.
  • Use Self-Affirmations and Positive Self-Talk: Once you’re aware of what makes it hard to take up space, you’re better able to challenge any negative self-talk and self-limiting beliefs that may be holding you back. For example, if the teacher asks a question to the class, and you’re 99% positive you know the answer but don’t want to risk getting it wrong, you could remind yourself that no one knows everything, and it’s okay to get it wrong. You can also feel proud of yourself for taking a swing. Because even though there’s a chance you might miss, there’s a guarantee you’ll miss if you don’t swing at all.
  • Set Tiny, Actionable Goals: After identifying the reason you struggle to take up space and the situations in which you feel the most vulnerable, work on setting small yet challenging goals to help gradually open yourself up. Examples:
  • I will focus on my body language. If using your voice to state your thoughts or opinions feels too overwhelming at first, start with expanding your non-verbal communication, e.g. smile as you pass a coworker, sit up straight to subtly enhance your visibility, or make eye contact when someone’s talking to you.
  • I will practice talking to myself in the mirror: Think about a situation where you commonly curl yourself up, and imagine yourself being there. Think about who all is there, what’s happening, and what’s being discussed. While looking in the mirror, say the first thought, idea, or comment that comes to mind. Repeat this multiple times, using the same or different scenarios. This rehearsal method makes you more likely to speak up in the real-life event.
  • I will do meditation, breathing, or relaxation practice for at least 5 minutes each day. Incorporating mindfulness and relaxation techniques into your daily routine can help manage anxiety and stress related to taking up space. Specifically, breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga can help you stay centered and calm. If you’re unfamiliar with such practices, do a quick Google or YouTube search to get started.
  • Find Support: Surround yourself with supportive friends, family, or a counselor or therapist who can provide encouragement and guidance as you work on this aspect of personal growth. Seek role models or mentors (in real life or online) who can inspire you to be more comfortable taking up space.
  • Celebrate Your Achievements: Acknowledge and celebrate your successes, no matter how small they may seem. Every step you take towards being more comfortable taking up space is a victory.

. . . . .

Remember that becoming more comfortable taking up space is a personal journey that may take time. It’s okay to go at your own pace and seek professional help if you’re struggling with deeply ingrained issues related to self-worth or social anxiety. The goal is to empower yourself to be authentic and assertive while respecting the rights and boundaries of others.

Furthermore, always, always remember that you have a right to exist, be seen, and express yourself, just like anyone else. Yes, there will be some people who try to make you feel small or undeserving of your space. But recognizing and embracing your inherent self-worth can lead to greater emotional well-being, resilience, and a more positive self-concept, as it allows you to value yourself for who you are—not just for what you do or how you appear to others.