The Secret to Living Your One, Wildly Authentic Life is to Claim Your Space. Here’s How
For years, I was afraid to be my own hero. I was waiting for someone, anyone, to fly out of the sky, à la Superman in that first movie with Christopher Reeve, and scoop me up just like Lois Lane! (She was so pretty! I wanted to be just like her!)
Eventually, however, I began to question if this was a solid and stable life strategy. Waiting for Superman to emerge from the sky and take you on a joyride, when you have zero flying skills yourself, is problematic to say the least. What if he has to drop you off somewhere because there’s some sort of crisis? You really have no control over where Superman drops you before flying off to save the world. And not only are you stuck in some random place, say Antarctica, but you can’t really help him solve the crises.
So, Superman will go off and have exciting adventures without you. He will set the terms of which crises get priority and how to solve them. He’ll be the hero. Meanwhile, you’ll be freezing your ass off with a bunch of penguins, praying he’ll remember to come get you when he’s done. Eventually, I came to this conclusion: Nah. Lois can have him.
After reconsidering my dreams of being Lois, I decided if I wanted to fly like a superhero, I would have to become one myself. Until I was in my 40s, I didn’t fully understand my biggest barrier. It wasn’t that I didn’t come from Amazonia, or that I had no cape—although both would be total badassery. The barrier I faced could be summed up in two words: claiming space.
To claim space is to live the life of your choosing unapologetically and bravely. It is to live life the way you’ve always wanted. Your choices become yours. Your life is yours. To claim space is to never apologize for being the rule-breaking, rule-making badass/superhero/boss lady that you are. Not once. Not ever.
How I Cracked the Code to Claiming Space
By the time I was a teenager, I had become a pretty damn good communicator—but I was also a master of ceding space. Somewhere deep down I believed that to stay safe, my true self had to stay invisible, so I used tactics women have been taught are acceptable. I flirted. I acted dumber than I was. I stated my opinion with apologies and questions. I often waited patiently for “my turn” to talk, while the young men at the table talked over me with impunity. I was getting the job done, but I was shrinking, losing a small piece of my power with every victory.
Then something miraculous happened. A car slammed into my head while I was riding my bike. I fully realize you may be thinking right now that I’m a bit nuts. Isn’t getting hit in the head with a car a bad thing? Well, yes, it was. Indeed, it was really bad for a while. But it ended up being a good thing too—it transformed my life.
Here’s what happened: The driver, while texting and driving, ran a red light. (Please don’t text while you’re supposed to be driving. Not ever.) After the car hit my body, I was thrown onto the hood, my head smashing into the hard metal. Then, unconscious, I bounced off her car like a rag doll, into the air, and landed on the ground. That’s when I smashed the other side of my head on the asphalt. I woke up with a bilateral brain injury and bleeding in my head, otherwise known as a subdural hematoma. My world was turned upside down.
After my injury, my once-rich vocabulary was basically gone. I was terrified. All my passions, all my work, had involved my communication skills, and now I couldn’t communicate. My mother, once a brilliant poet, writer, and beloved English teacher, had developed paranoid schizophrenia in her late 20s—trapped in her own mind. My deepest fear was that something might go wrong with my brain—it was my waking nightmare. Now, I was living it.
My intuition had always guided my communication. The accident seemed to have knocked that right out of my head. If I wanted my life back, I would have to rebuild my communication skills by meticulously breaking them down into component parts and then mindfully rebuilding from the ground up, brick by brick.
I began to watch everything. Why are some people heard and others ignored? What makes a sentence compelling? How do people cede power? Take power? Make people happy? Scare people? How do they inspire? I tired easily, so watching wasn’t as terrible as it would have been before my accident. When groups of dear friends visited, my ability to keep talking eventually faded. That’s when I would watch. During my solitary moments, I researched voraciously.
Then the day came when I could finally tolerate leaving my house. I’d always loved people watching, but I did it more closely now, analyzing every tiny detail. That woman sitting quietly in the coffee shop, sipping tea and reading the Times … why didn’t anyone approach her? What signs did she give off that allowed her to read in peace? And that equally attractive woman at the table next to her, seemingly doing the same thing. Why did she have to fend off two men who tried to strike up unwanted conversations within a span of only twenty minutes? And why did it take her so long to shut each of them down?
I thought, and I watched, and I questioned, and I read, and I thought some more. The women who fared best in work and in life were masters at claiming space. But what did that mean?
At first I didn’t have a full understanding of what that meant; I just knew “claiming space” kept popping into my mind. The fiercer, more successful, and happier a woman was, the more of a badass space claimer she was. What was the one quality that allowed a woman to be visible without apology, to claim space like it was her damn job? There had to be a magic bullet—one simple, clear answer for how to do it. Eventually, I came to this inevitable conclusion: there wasn’t. But I did figure out that space-claiming queens understand the importance of five distinct qualities:
No. 1: CLAIM PHYSICAL SPACE: BOW TO NO ONE!
(a.k.a. Communicate powerfully with your voice and your body.)
To claim space is to have great posture and speak with confidence. Know where your body is in space, always. The story your physicality and voice tells can clearly project confidence and strength.
No. 2: CLAIM SPACE COLLABORATIVELY: AMPLIFY EACH OTHER!
(a.k.a. Forge relationships that uplift you.)
Claiming space is not a solitary activity. Carefully attend to your friendships, cultivate your professional relationships, lean on other women, and help other women. Create and nurture effective, powerful “old girl” networks.
No. 3: NEVER CEDE YOUR SPACE: NEUTRALIZE YOUR KRYPTONITE!
(a.k.a. Stop damaging patterns of self-sabotage.)
Claiming space requires more than the physical. It means looking carefully at your past, identifying and knowing your pain points. Are you susceptible to dangerous, toxic relationships? Do you have impostor syndrome? Gaining an understanding of what can bring you to your knees will allow you to work toward never self-sabotaging again.
No. 4: CLAIM SAFETY IN ANY SPACE: SHUT IT DOWN!
(a.k.a. Thwart aggressors and protect yourself.)
Claiming space means refusing to put up with interruptions, mansplaining, microaggressions, and other behaviors. You can achieve this in different ways—by cultivating an ally or through direct intervention yourself, you can learn how to shut them down.
No. 5: CLAIM SPACE UNITED: COMMIT TO INTERSECTIONALITY!
(a.k.a. Create a better world for us all.)
Unless you are claiming space for all women, you are not claiming space. It demands solidarity and unity. Approach work and life with an open mind and heart. Listen to, believe, and advocate for other women. When we rise together, we rise so much higher.
A full life is a life of continuous discovery, growth, and change. Wise women understand they can never really master all of the five qualities above. Instead, they accept their shortcomings while at the same time striving to achieve mastery. These women are unstoppable forces. Their ability to powerfully claim space serves as their anchor during life’s inevitable storms and their wings when taking flight, reaching for the impossible.
Claim space without apology and you are a damn superhero—a fierce woman in control who makes things happen.
Adapted and printed with permission from A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space.