At a recent birthday party I attended, the friend we were celebrating, Rachel, came up to me after everyone else had left and said, “Was I too loud? I feel like I talked all night.” I told her she was the birthday girl and she can sing an entire opera if she wanted to. The next morning, another female friend who attended the birthday party asked me, “Was I too loud? I felt like I was being obnoxious.” I told her she’s hilarious and everyone loved her. She smiled. She got confirmation that she’s okay.
I have never heard a guy ask these questions.
We spend so much time worrying about our words, our volume, and the amount of sound coming out of our mouth that we can’t seem to just settle into the fact that we are, indeed, taking up space on this planet and that is okay. We’re worried about taking too much attention at the party and not giving others their fair share.
The number of roles we are trying to fill is unbearable. Just to get through a day requires nimble steps through each socially acceptable response, body language, amount of eye contact, smile or no smile, amount of makeup, length of skirt, height of heels, buttons buttoned, strength of opinion, time spent taking care of others, and goodness expressed each day. It’s a balancing act that we’re trying to cater to for all waking hours (and for many insomniacs, through the night) and it’s fucking exhausting.
How do you know if you’ve said too much? Is it when people start to walk away? What if it wasn’t what you said, it was how you said it? What if you were too personal, too general, too domineering, or too sensitive? What if you cried or slammed your fist on a table? What is the most appropriate way to demonstrate that you’re pissed off or disappointed? Do you need to starch and iron your outfit before telling someone you’re upset? What is the protocol here?
What we know is that we spend a lot of time trying to fit into a box small enough to make a flea feel confined, but we’re willing to keep trying to fit into it. After all, it’s the only acceptable place to be.
But wait, why?
The only answer I can see is we’re afraid. Stepping outside that box means writing new rules, making others unhappy, creating disorder, and changing the game. That’s hard. Women don’t create that kind of friction. And it might not go well. There must be a benefit though, right?
Last time I checked, we don’t want to be ruled by fear. We want to “dance in our imagination, live our best life, and follow our dreams.” Yet actually doing that means being a fucking baller and stepping outside of the flea-sized box and pissing a few people off in the process. It means dealing with the fear that tells you you can’t ACTUALLY follow your dreams, that’s what other people do. But you really want to because let’s be honest, the flea box is sweaty and dark and twisted and you’ve lived there for too long, even though all your friends are there too. So you try really hard. REALLY hard to feel okay with breaking out of it and telling yourself you’re okay and maybe just a little wine to deal with the nerves and what if your friends think you’re crazy and what if you are? And what you really need is a life coach and another career book and a blog post that tells you how fierce you are.
But what if after all of that, there really is something wrong with you and all the stories you’ve been told and have told yourself about being weird and different are true?
What if they are?
It doesn’t really matter, because all those thoughts will always be there, whether you’re living life by the book and following all the unwritten rules you’ve learned, or not. If you’re consciously rebelling against the flea box by wearing ripped jeans to a fancy restaurant and quitting your job so you don’t have to work for a misogynist anymore, you’ll still be dealing with that deep fear that everything you’re doing is wrong. So why not do the shit that makes you happy instead of following all the rules if you’re going to be dealing with the same fear anyway? The voices in your head will be the same, albeit a little louder, but they’ll still be telling you the same shit about being wrong, bad, too much, not enough, and generally stupid.
If we’re going to live among our demons anyway, we might as well do the shit that makes us happy.
What I found out by taking a lot of risks outside the flea box is that once you start challenging your fear by doing the things it’s telling you not to do, you realize you’re actually going to be okay. You find out you’re a lot stronger than you think. You find out no one really cares that much about what you’re wearing, what you’re saying, and whether or not you had one donut or two for breakfast. Everyone is so busy managing their own demons they can’t possibly put effort into also caring for yours.
So what if you did talk too much at a party? Everyone just goes home, goes to bed, wakes up, and moves on with their lives. Instead of living in worry and constantly trying to “smash your fear” what if you just got into a conversation with your fear by showing it that the things it keeps telling you not to do are the things you are actually going to try, and then you two can shake hands and start a new conversation?
Because the truth is, you can’t smash your fear. It’s a part of you, just like your reasoning, your language skills, your empathy, and your personality. It lives in there, trying to protect you, day after day. The problem is, your fear doesn’t really know what you need to be a powerful woman in today’s world. It’s been in our biology for a long time – way before a society like the one we live in today – and it doesn’t really know how to operate in the space in which we live. So it tries to keep you small and protected inside your flea box so there is no risk of being embarrassed, called out, rejected, or cast aside. That’s the truth. Your fear is trying to increase your chance of survival by making you small. And you listen to that internal fear voice every day so you don’t end up risking something you’re probably not even in touch with anyway: your sense of self, your happiness, your confidence, and your voice.
The big trick here is to know this fear exists, and to work with it. Dance with it. Invite it to the party and accept that it’s part of your life. In fact, every single person on the planet is dealing with the same fear. No, you’re not weird. You are dealing with the same questions and worries as everyone else. The way to do whatever the fuck you want anyway and never ask anyone, for the rest of your life, if you were too talkative at a party, is to develop a relationship with your fear. Don’t smash it.
You build a relationship with your fear just like you would with a friend. You talk to it. You get to know it. You ask questions. You allow space for it. You breathe with it. You don’t kick it out, tell it it’s wrong, ignore it, push it down, or judge it. You just allow it to be there with you and make sure it’s safe. When your fear feels safe, you’re now free to move about the world with ease. With less worry. Less anxiety. Less wondering if every move you make is OK.
My fear is named Frank and he and I have a fantastic relationship. In fact, if I were to describe him in one sentence, I’d say he’s the most compassionate and loving friend I have. He’s unwavering in his insistence to take care of me and keep me protected. He always has my back, he always wants me to be safe, and he always makes sure I know when I’m about to do something risky.
I always thank him for this, but I rarely follow his advice. After all, I’m a modern woman and I can make my own decisions. Am I perfect at it? No, but I’m trying. I make decisions that make me feel good. Wear clothes I love. Not apologize for my personality or amount of time I talk. Stand tall in my body and love each part of it. Show up for things I may not be ready to try. Just build a life that allows Frank to be present but doesn’t let Frank be the conductor. When you see that your fear is ruling your decisions and your life, you can then make changes to your operating mode so it serves you instead of hurts you.
We talk all the time about how hard it is to be a woman in this society. So much judgment, so many expectations, so many rolls to fill. What if we changed the conversation from being exhausted and consumed by trying to “be everything” to just tuning into ourselves and managing our relationship to our own fear? If WE showed up differently, maybe WE could change the conversation, expectations, rules, and rolls placed upon us. Instead of waiting for the world to change what it wants from us, how about if we change the rules? Changing the rules means not being run by fear or worrying about what others will think when we don’t bring the perfect cupcakes to the next office birthday. We say fuck that and let Bill bring the cupcakes, because we’re no longer afraid of not being the person who takes care of that shit.
And maybe we won’t get the perfectly matching heels to wear with the summer dress for the baby shower. And maybe instead of buying some plastic bullshit off a baby registry, we’ll show off those woodworking skills we’ve been too afraid to try because it’s not what girls do and we’ll make that baby a chair, or a shelf, or a fucking stool to sit on when it’s bored. And we’ll show other women that it’s okay not to follow all the rules and we’ll show men that we’re not going to blindly step into that flea box anymore. Because it sucks in there. And it’s lonely. And gloomy. And scary. And it doesn’t let us breathe into ourselves. It doesn’t let us see ourselves. It doesn’t let us become anything.
Step one is naming our fear. Give it any name you want. Nancy, Tulip, Banana, Mitch, Star, Fuck Face, whatever.
Step two. Get to know it. When does your fear show up? What does it tell you? What’s true? What’s not? What comes up most often?
Step three. Write that shit down! Capture it. Look at it. Learn from it.
Step four. Make one step each day that’s different from what you would normally do.
Start finding out that you don’t have to follow every directive given by your fear. You don’t have to stop talking at the birthday party because you’ve already said too much. You’re in control now. You won’t allow yourself to feel bad anymore. It may take some time, but it’s a relationship worth cultivating. It’s a relationship that will save your life and the lives of other women. Get to know your fear. Be the friendly boss of it. Let’s get out of the competition and comparison net and build a new space for ourselves. A space where we can breathe, explore, create, experiment, and see life as an adventure, not a torture chamber that has one acceptable path: the one that keeps us as far from knowing ourselves as possible just so we can fit in.
Angela Lussier is the CEO + Founder of the Speaker Sisterhood and an award-winning speaker, author, and host of the Claim the Stage podcast. An audio version of this essay read by the author can be found on episode 58 of Claim the Stage.