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Taking up space is a birthright and something we innately know how to do, but not everyone feels able to do it. When we take up space in the world, we occupy a physical and psychological territory. Our bodies fill the area, and our presence is felt. For some people, taking up space can be a challenge. They may think they are not worthy of the space they take up or need to minimize their presence.
There may be a few reasons why someone does not feel able to take up space. Perhaps they grew up in a household where they were shut down a lot. Maybe they have been criticized for being “too loud” or “too needy.” Regardless, not feeling like you can take up space can hold you back in life. Taking up space can be a sign of healthy strength and confidence. It allows you to be seen and heard and manifest your gift to the world. This article will address how this psychological blockage comes to be and how we can change it.
‘There was my craving to be liked – so strong and nervous that never could I open myself friendly to another. The terror of failure in an effort so important made me shrink from trying; besides, there was the standard; for intimacy seemed shameful unless the other could make the perfect reply, in the same language, after the same method, for the same reasons’ -T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Do You Know How To Take Up Space?
— Are you afraid of silence? Do you fill your life with work, social engagement and activities so you will never have space?
— Do you feel like you don’t know who you are, how you feel, your likes and dislikes?
— Do you always try to shift the focus onto others when you are in a conversation or a group, to try and not talk about yourself?
— Do you feel like you are being selfish or narcissistic when discussing your difficulties or problems?
— Are you unable to show emotions— such as anger and sadness, in front of other people?
— Do you feel unable to say no?
— Do you apologise a lot, even when you are not at fault?
— Do you sometimes feel numb to how you feel on the inside?
— Do you not notice it when stress accumulates in your system until you become completely burned out?
—-Do you feel going to counselling or therapy is useless because there is no value in ‘talking about yourself?
— Do you find you don’t know what to do with your time unless you fill your schedule fully?
— Do you have physical reactions— clammy palms, raising heartbeat, whenever attention is on you?
— Do you feel haunted by the need to be ‘productive’ at all times and feel terrible when you cannot work for any reason?
— Do you find it hard to engage in any self-promotion, even in situations where it is appropriate, like a job interview?
— Do you find it hard to make time to engage in ‘free play’? That is, doing something that does not yield an exact, measurable, work-related outcome.
“As I began to love myself I found that anguish and emotional suffering are only warning signs that I was living against my own truth. Today, I know, this is “AUTHENTICITY”. Charlie Chaplin
The Meaning of ‘Taking Up Space’
When we speak of space, we usually refer to the physical territory occupied by an individual or group. But space is not only physical; it can also be psychological, emotional and relational. Psychological space is the “real estate” we use to express our thoughts and feelings. Taking up space is essential to our well-being and can be used to protect us from intrusion and boundary violations. In a relational field, we might take up space by drawing attention to ourselves and being the centre of attention, talking about ourselves in conversations, using our posture to exude confidence, looking others in the eye, expressing a strong emotion, expressing a strong opinion, etc. When someone takes up space, they assert their presence and confidence, honing their voice and protecting themselves from intrusions from others.
“Taking up space” can be benign, beneficial, or toxic. For instance, it is natural for a leader or expert in a group to take up space, so they are heard and respected. At the same time, someone can take up space in a toxic way, such as always dominating conversations, excluding others, acting contemptuously, etc. When people take up more space than is necessary, they communicate that they are superior and that their needs are always more important than others.
This article is written not for people who tend to take up too much space but the opposite. Unfortunately, as we will explain later, many people who have been hurt, traumatised or parentified feel unable to take up their rightful space.
Challenges of Not Being Able to Take Up Space
Suppose a person never had the opportunity to be themselves or authentically express themselves during childhood. In that case, when they talk about themselves, they may experience an inner shame attack, in which they feel guilty like they are being selfish or egotistical.
People unable to take up space often experience heightened social anxiety because they find unstructured situations intimidating. When there is no clear objective or rules to a situation, they would not know what to say or do, and if they do not know how to please the other person, they would feel lost.
When someone cannot take up space and talk about themselves, they sacrifice their ability to relate to others. Because they cannot talk about themselves or express negative emotions, it is difficult for others to get to know them in an authentic way. The inability to take up space is why many trauma survivors feel alone in life. Even when surrounded by people, they feel unseen, unheard, as if they are all alone. In other words, they are shutting the doorway to genuine intimacy by not taking up space.
Usually, people who have difficulty taking up space have a dysfunctional relationship with power, anger, assertiveness, and exposure. As a result, they constantly hide from attention and shy away from opportunities because they cannot bear ‘being seen.’ This means they hold themselves back from all sorts of possibilities, such as career advancement or acquiring a partner.
People who struggle to take up space may also be stuck in unhealthy relationships. Like everyone else, they want to be seen, heard and loved. However, they may find it challenging to find people who can love them how they deserve to be loved. Instead, they may attract self-centred, narcissistic, emotionally stunted, and selfish people who take advantage of their inability to speak their truth and draw a line. It is not uncommon for one person in a couple to tend to “take up too much space” —unstable, dominant, opinionated — and the other person to be “unable to take up space” — constantly conceding their needs and wants, unable to assert their needs, passively protest, etc.
Some people may think that taking up space is “selfish”, but in reality, taking up space is a sign of healthy strength and self-confidence. It allows you to be received by others and manifest your gifts. By taking up space, you say, “I am here and will not be ignored.”
“how you love yourself is
how you teach others
to love you”
Taking Up Space: Why is it difficult for you?
Children who have not been traumatized by a narcissistic parent or abusive sibling innately know how to take up space without fear and shame. Most children innately know how to claim their birthright to their physical and emotional freedom. They cry when they want to and laugh when they want to. Classic attachment research in psychology has famously shown that when a securely attached child enters a room, they are not afraid to go around and explore. They are happy to have a space where they can be spontaneous and playful, and they will explore new territory without fear of reprisal or shame. The story is different, however, for those who have been wounded in their upbringing.
When traumatized children enter an unfamiliar space, they become extremely cautious and vigilant, watching for any sign of threat and vigilantly observing their parents’ reactions. Even if they get permission to play, they do not know what to do in a vast open space without instructions.
If you had narcissistic parents
People with narcissistic parents are afraid to take up space because they have learned that it is not safe to do so. They may have been constantly criticized by their parents or made to feel small, which has caused them to doubt themselves and their worth. As a result, they often think they have to apologize for their existence and be quiet to avoid attention or criticism.
In addition, children of narcissistic parents may have difficulty asserting their own needs and desires because growing up; it was never about them. Whenever they express their needs, they are punished. So even as adults, they feel a compulsive need to always pander to others.
Because narcissistic parents are often controlling and possessive and like to tell their children how to live, their children may be deprived of the opportunity to develop their sense of self. They may grow up without the chance to discover who they are, their likes and dislikes, and their interests. A child damaged by a narcissistic parent feels that they have lost their identity. They may not be allowed to have their thoughts or feelings and are constantly ridiculed and repressed. As a result, they may feel chronically empty inside, as if they do not know who they are. Identity confusion leads to difficulties in taking up space that is rightfully theirs.
If you have emotionally volatile parents
When a parent is emotionally volatile, they naturally take up all the emotional space at home. On the outside, they may be charming and sociable, but their colourful personality and exciting life come at a cost for their children. They constantly have some kind of big ups or downs, drama or intense conflicts that demands attention, leaving no room for a child to express their needs.
If your parents are emotionally volatile, violent or abusive, you would have trained your nervous system to be constantly on high alert. You are trained to act solely based on what you see in your parents’ expressions. If you had the impression that your parents wanted you to laugh, you laughed. If you had the impression that your anger inconveniences them, you would suppress it. You would have done everything possible to keep the peace, not stir up conflicts or bring punishment onto yourself. If you carry this conditioning into adulthood, you will not know what to do in an organic relational space. So if you are with someone you cannot ‘read’ or who does not seem to tell you what to do, it would bring you deep anxiety.
Sadly, this means you are more likely to be attracted to someone who controls and dominates you than to someone who truly respects you. For example, you may feel a sense of familiarity when someone makes decisions for you, even if you know that’s not right. In contrast, when someone respects your agency and wants you to make decisions for yourself, you feel anxious and would instead reject these relationships.
When you feel loved only for what you do
Some parents do not abuse their children but are so emotionally vulnerable that they rely on their children for support rather than be in the caretaking roles. Children of these parents are said to have been ‘parentified’. One can be parentified by taking on tasks like running errands or cooking, but it is even more damaging to be emotionally parentified. (For an in-depth article on what it means to be parentification, please see here). If you were emotionally parentified, you would constantly be taking care of your parents’ psychological needs. You might be a counsellor, a mediator, or a friend to your parent. You may even fill in a gap left by one of your parents’ absence and stand in as a surrogate partner.
If you were parentified by vulnerable and needy parents, you might internalize the unconscious belief that you are loved not for who you are but for what you can do for others. This can bring a lifelong struggle for unconditional love and acceptance of yourself.
This feeling that you are only loved for your utility may also cause social anxiety. If you do not believe you can be loved only for who you are, you would feel you must always be doing something not to be rejected and abandoned by the world. This can mean you find it challenging to sit in silence. You would not know how to be helpful when there is no structure or direction. You feel lost and are confronted with the deep emptiness within you. You may describe it as “awkward” or “uncomfortable” when in reality, you might be faced with deeprooted shame feelings from your past— the shame of not being able to do anything useful for your parents, the shame of not being able to save your parents from the abusive partner or the alcoholic spouse, etc. There was no reason to be ashamed; of course, it was never your job to save your parents from their dysfunctions and unhappy lives, but as a child, you assumed those were your responsibilities. It was your way of loving them. Since there was no one to comfort your young soul and let you know it was not your fault, you have internalized the feeling that no matter how much you do, you aren’t good enough.
“Children who are respected learn respect. Children who are cared for learn to care for those weaker than themselves. Children who are loved for what they are cannot learn intolerance. In an environment such as this, they will develop their own ideals, which can be nothing other than humane, since they grew out of the experience of love.”
Having an emotionally absent parent
Many people underestimate how traumatizing it is to have emotionally absent and neglectful parents. Abuse can be done by ‘commission’ (something that was done) and by ‘omission’ (something not done). The fact that what needed to happen – love, attention, modelling emotional communication – did not happen could have deeply wounded you. They hardly asked how you were and made you feel like you were an inconvenience. If you had felt like a burden to others in life, it would have been difficult for you to take up your rightful space now.
A child is not capable of seeing the big picture. So if your parent had ignored or not paid attention to you, you would receive the message that you were unimportant and did not deserve a place in the world. You might also have justified your parents’ behaviours by assuming it was your fault that they neglected you. When these feelings and beliefs crystallize and are brought into adulthood, they can significantly hamper your ability to take up space and be confident and assertive.
Another type of wound that can cause someone to lose the ability to take up space is ‘gifted trauma’. This happens a lot to exceptionally intelligent, intuitive and intense children. These children often possess wisdom beyond their years and naturally shine with their creativity, perceptiveness, and deep empathy. They usually do not recognize this, but they stand out among their peers. However, others often perceive them as a threat, leading to jealousy and resentment.
One reason parents silence gifted children is to protect their siblings. This can happen in various ways but often includes the idea that the gifted child must not stand out or be arrogant. As a result, the gifted child is not allowed to participate in more challenging work or activities, not praised for their accomplishments, or even hidden from other family members.
Another reason parents suppress a gifted child’s ability to shine is that they feel intimidated. If you were a gifted child – whether intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually – your parents may not have intended to hurt you, and they may not have been aware that they were constantly silencing you. But because they were uncomfortable being seen through and confronted continuously with your radical honesty, they tried subtly or explicitly to keep you from voicing your views. Moreover, if they do not have a good relationship with their emotional world, your strong emotions and intensity may also be felt as a threat to them. So, to protect themselves, they make you think that you are in the wrong for showing your feelings and speaking your truth. Because you have internalized the message that your natural self is a threat to others and that your parents would “love you less” if you continue to take up space, you have been conditioned to mute yourself.
As an adult, you may constantly face a great deal of inner conflict. On the one hand, you can not help but see how things can get better, be highly efficient and wise, and be good at what you do. On the other hand, whenever you speak up, you have an uneasy feeling that “something is wrong” or you hear an inner voice saying “you should not outshine others.” Years of conditioning have taught you that taking up space will cause you to be criticized by others as “arrogant” or “showing off.” Even though your parents and siblings are no longer next to you, you continue to be haunted by the inner conviction that it is wrong to play to the forefront. As a result, you hold yourself back from your most profound potential and face unconscious self-sabotage, self-abandonment, existential anxiety, and creativity blocks.
“You are allowed to take up space. Own who you are and what you want for yourself. Stop downplaying the things you care about, the hopes you have. Own your passions, your thoughts, your perceptions. Own your fire. Stop putting your worth in the hands of others; stop letting them decide your value. Own saying no, saying yes. Own your mood, your feelings. Own your plans, your path, your success.”
Taking Up Space: Where Do You Start?
Taking up space means occupying physical or psychological territory assertively and confidently. You can do a few things to start taking up more space in your life.
Becoming aware of how you compose yourself
There is a lot of research that suggests that the way we hold our bodies can have an impact on our minds. For example, adopting a posture of confidence can make you feel more confident, while keeping yourself in a shrinking posture can make you feel insecure. One way to take up space physically is to focus on your posture, on lengthening your spine and broadening your shoulders. That is how taking up space in a healthy way looks like. You may also observe how leaders, public speakers and confident people compose themselves. Becoming more aware of your body and learning to express yourself can help you feel more powerful and in control. When you take up space, you communicate that you have a place in the world and that your voice deserves to be heard.
Try not to think of this as an egotistical act. Instead, think of your expression as a contribution. When you speak up, you share your thoughts and open up opportunities for others to share theirs. Afterall, even if only one person benefits from what you say, it would be worth bringing it out into the world.
Be yourself even when you feel awkward
Many people who have not known how to take up space for years feel empty and lost in their identity. You may think you need to know who you are and feel secure before expressing yourself or socialising. However, if you wait until you are ready, you may never be.
How can I “be myself” if I do not know who I am? You may ask. But the chicken or egg question applies here. We are social beings and do not exist in a vacuum. Only when you are in the company of others and see yourself in relation can you discover who you are. If you allow yourself to be more genuine with others – regarding your feelings, thoughts, opinions, needs, likes, and dislikes – you will be better able to discover who you are.
Honing the skill of self-awareness is a good start. This means getting to know your feelings, beliefs, habits, and particular emotional triggers and reactions. When you understand your feelings and preferences, you can figure out how to express them in healthy ways. Remember, there are no “bad” feelings. Even often dismissed emotions like anger and sadness have value and serve an essential function.
Being authentic means your words reflect who you are, not who you think you should be. This requires you to let go of the worry about how others see you, which can feel uncomfortable. But when you realise that no matter how hard you try, you can never control how others perceive you, you may feel free to follow your heart and express yourself anyway.
Ultimately authenticity is the only way you can genuinely connect with others — how can others relate to you and build a deep connection with you if they never hear what you feel and want?
Believe that you are loved for who you are, not what you do
To learn to take up space, you must recognize your intrinsic value as a human being, regardless of what you can do or accomplish. Once you have a solid foundation and know you are inherently worthy, you can also accept love from others.
Suppose you have to strive to prove your worthiness constantly. In that case, it will be challenging for you to be playful, spontaneous, or creative, relax in relationships, and produce original, impactful work.
Trusting that you are being loved for who you are entails having faith that others will love and value your inner qualities, such as your personality, character, and what comes from your heart. In contrast, to be loved for what you do is to feel or believe that others want you around solely because of what you do or have accomplished, your social standing, and what you can do for them.
Feeling accepted and valued for simply being ourselves can be a profound experience because it allows us to connect with others deeply. Thinking we are only loved for what we can do for others, however, frequently requires us to perform or please others.
When interacting with others, practise simply relaxing in their presence. Try to experiment with not doing anything, saying anything, or impressing anyone. You are not asked to advise, be useful, or advise anyone. Even when others are expressing distress, you can practice ‘just’ listening and offering your quiet presence. This will help you gradually realize that your mere existence is sufficient and that ”doing” has its limits.
You have the right to be imperfect and accepted for who you are, even if you have flaws and limitations. When others criticize you unfairly, you must learn to defend yourself. At the same time, accept compliments graciously. You could say “thank you” or “I value that,” but refrain from downplaying the praise or responding in a self-deprecating manner. This may initially feel unpleasant. You may believe you are arrogant or egotistical, but this is not the case. In contrast, accepting a compliment can mean a great deal to the person who offered it. They would be pleased that their genuine sentiment was taken.
Even if it sounds trite, you may want to remind yourself daily, while looking in the mirror, that you are valuable and loved simply because you exist – not because of things you do or produce.
Practise not shrinking in the face of criticisms
It is natural for a highly sensitive person to take to heart everything someone else says about them Therefore, many HSPs fear critical feedback and quickly collapse with shame when they receive or perceive criticisms. This can make relationships very difficult, especially in a professional context or with authority figures.
The truth is that many people who have been told that they are wrong or “too much” have developed a strong negativity bias— they almost always hear only the negative and blow it up, neglecting other factors.
If you have been traumatized by narcissistic or overly critical parents or are highly sensitive, you must guard against this tendency. If someone is trying to give you feedback, sit back and allow yourself to evaluate what is being said objectively. Remember that anything someone says about you will inevitably be clouded by their subjective experiences, personality, limited knowledge, and even fears of their own. Thus, a critique is never entirely objective or entirely fair. No one knows you better than you do, and the opinions of others are not necessarily authoritative.
Confidence in your inherent value also means that you are less reliant on the approval or affirmation of others, which makes you feel more secure within yourself. A person’s opinion does not define you. Even if there is truth in what the person says, it may be unfairly biased or overly critical. Of course, you want to be able to accept constructive feedback. That’s why separating what’s fair and accurate from unfair attacks is essential. If you can find something valid in their criticism, remember you are no less perfect just because there is more room for you to grow. Rather than allowing shame to consume you, congratulate yourself for having put yourself out into the world, even if that means taking risks.
If you tend to react with shame or fear when confronted with conflict or disapproval, try to remember that although it may feel terrible, someone not acknowledging or agreeing with you is not the end of the world. You do not have to be perfect to be loved despite what you have been taught to believe.
Remind yourself that a relationship should be a two-way street
A relationship is a two-way street; not just the other person but you also need to get something from the relationship.
You may think this sounds overly ”transactional,” but in truth, all relationships are transactional in that they involve an exchange. In a romantic relationship, for example, each partner may provide the other emotional support, companionship, or more concrete things like money and sex.
In a healthy relationship, what you exchange is balanced and not overly skewed one way. Thus, you shouldn’t always be the listener or supporter but also have room to ‘take’ other people’s support, listening, and time.
This may mean you must practise talking about yourself and expressing your feelings, even if you start small and only do a little of it. The truth is that people can only feel connected to you if you are occasionally open and able to talk about yourself. As much as possible, trust that other people want to get to know the real you, not a made-up version based on their expectations.
“Loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself.”
Take Your Space
It is essential to learn to take space if we want to be successful in life and have good relationships. Perhaps you know you need to change, but part of you is afraid – of disappointment or of being attacked. But not changing is also a risk. The risk of a dulled soul and wasted potential can ultimately be much more painful than the discomfort that comes with change.
You can create space for yourself through your words, actions, and presence. Start by standing tall, making eye contact, and asserting yourself. Taking space for yourself is not selfish or egotistical. When you express yourself, you bring your gifts into the world, which ultimately benefits others. It can be difficult to unlearn what you have been told about your presence and power, but with time and practice, it is possible to find your voice and assert your rightful place in the world.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.