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November 14, 2011

On Taking Up Space in the World

On Taking Up Space in the World

**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.

By Maia Polson, a woman in recovery

Many people experience physical changes in their bodies during the process of recovery. Your process may require weight restoration in order to get your body from a state of depletion back to health. Or, it may require you to accept your body where it’s at right now, and to let go of your desire to change your body shape and weight.

Regardless of whether you experience any physical changes in your body during recovery, there are definitely emotional changes that come with the process. One thing that I have noticed is fairly common is the process of reconciling ourselves with the space we take up in the world. Recovery requires us to accept that our bodies take up space, and we don’t get to choose our body’s shape and size. It already knows where it wants to be. But coming to terms with the physical space we take up in the world is only a piece of the puzzle. When I talk about reconciling with the space we occupy in the world, I mean it in every sense of the word: physically, emotionally, with our words and actions, and by getting our needs met.

Oftentimes, when we wish our bodies were smaller, or wish that we could simply take up less physical space, there is an underlying desire to take up less space in some other aspect of our lives as well. For me, it was about wanting to have essentially zero needs. I felt like needing absolutely anything, whether it was emotional support, new clothes, gifts, or just time with someone, was too much. Yes, I wanted to be smaller in my body, but what I ultimately wanted was to have a smaller presence in the world. I didn’t want to speak too loudly or to say anything that might offend someone else, because that would be claiming space in the world that I didn’t deserve. I didn’t want to have needs, and I didn’t allow myself to want.

Throughout my years of treatment, I’ve noticed that the desire to minimize the “space” we need or occupy is a pretty common theme among people with eating disorders. It manifests itself in different ways: we work ourselves to exhaustion at work because we are afraid to say no to a colleague’s request; we spend every waking minute caring for our children while leaving no space for “me” time; we constantly give our time and energy to others but never ask for that same care and attention when we need it. But the underlying current of thoughts is usually the same. I don’t deserve to take up space. Others deserve it more than me. How dare I express my wants and needs when others have less than I do?

My own recovery process has taught me that attempting to take up less space is a fruitless effort. Even more than that, it often ends up being counterproductive. The more I convinced myself that I needed nothing, or berated myself for being such a drain on others, the more I fell into the throes of my eating disorder and was able to give less. When my own needs are not met, I have less energy to give to others. When I take care of myself, and when I acknowledge the fact that I need sleep, food, love from myself and others, and time to myself, I have so much more energy to give to others. I am more emotionally and mentally present when I do give my time and energy to others, and I am able to give even more than I could if my own needs were not being met.

Beyond taking up space with physical and emotional needs, I’ve also discovered that it’s okay to let my personality take up space, too. I give myself the compassion and unconditional acceptance to be exactly who I am, to make mistakes, and to learn from them. I am not superhuman, and expecting perfection from myself often leads me to hold others to high and unrealistic standards, too. When I give myself permission to be perfectly imperfect, and to have the freedom to be human, I often find that it rubs off on others. Contrary to what I thought would happen when I first started letting my personality take up space, I have found that giving myself “space to be me” actually makes even more space for others to do the same. It’s sort of an exponential thing: when we accept ourselves and honor the space we need and deserve, we make more room for others to do the same.

Taking up space is scary, don’t get me wrong. When I first started to accept that I needed to take up space, both physically and otherwise, it felt like I’d never stop expanding. I was terrified that not “reigning in” my body would lead me to become this uncontrollably large person who was overly needy and completely selfish. But every day, I continued to fulfill my needs, and now, over a year later, I haven’t exploded on the world. In fact, I’ve gotten only positive feedback. I’m vibrant with life and energy now, and I certainly do take up space. But I take up the space I need, and that is all.

So now I’ll pass the torch on to those of you who are just beginning your process of recovery, and your process of taking up space and meeting your needs. Perhaps you, too, will find that taking up space is more than okay, that it’s a beautiful thing. And perhaps you, too, will make more space for others to follow your lead. Accept and honor the space you take up in the world, and in so doing, you will accept and honor everyone else, perfectly imperfect, exactly as they are. We all take up space, we all have needs, but when we accept that fact, there is more than enough room for us all.

Get help. Find hope.