Finding A Way To Take Up Space

May 20, 2021 | Mindset & Identity, Top Articles

Building an audience requires you to take up space.

And that can be pretty difficult (even dangerous) for many of us.

Whether because of gender, race, sexuality, neurodivergence, disability, or individual trauma, there is no small number of us who learned to take up as little space as possible.

Always be the first to step aside on the sidewalk. Never use the armrest on a plane. Make yourself as compact as possible waiting in line, at the bar, or even on your couch at home.

I watch people who move through the world with no regard for the space they’re taking up. I have no reference point for what that must be like.

I would say that “taking up space” is one of the hardest things for me to do…

…but the truth is I just don’t do it.

I realize that may sound absurd. I’m writing an essay that will literally take up space in the inboxes of thousands of people. But it’s true.

The internet is the one place where I felt like I could take up a little space. It’s given me the room to stretch out—ever so slightly—and be seen.

But even so, I know I’ve been (un)consciously cautious about how far I extend my virtual limbs or how loud I allow my voice to get.

I’m constantly fighting an inner battle about how I show up online.

On the one hand, the internet gives me the tools I need for a level of self-expression I don’t have access to in the analog world. On the other hand, using them to the full extent of my power brings the possibility of being misunderstood, trolled, or harassed.

Mine is a fragile peace with the everyday world; I can live with it for as long as it doesn’t demand too much of me.

Katherine May, The Electricity of Everything Living Thing

Using the digital platforms that allow me to stretch out enables me to imperfectly peer into others’ needs and expectations. I care desperately about other people’s needs and expectations—but I find it really challenging to interpret and meet them.

It’s a delicate balance—a fragile peace.

When I screw up, I shut down.

I retreat in on myself until I am taking up no space—online or off—at all.

There are times that I cannot talk on the internet.

Patricia Lockwood, Vox Conversations

This is just one of the ways that autism presents itself in my life.

Over the last year, a trickle of evidence turned into a raging river of certainty that how I interact with the world differently than many other people has a name. And that name is autism.

This is hard for me to share, not because of the stigma that a label carries with it, but because I am petrified that the common response will be, “I knew there was something off about her.”

I’ve made it through almost 4 full decades working my butt off to fit in and behave in ways that others perceive as “normal.” Finding out that I haven’t always been pulling that off is devastating.

Every inch of space I take up in the world is one more inch of potentially being rejected for being weird, too literal, or aloof.

It’s another inch of risk that I’m not picking up on what people are saying or doing. Another inch of having to mask what’s really going on in my head.

And yet, taking up space online—to a certain degree—has been such a gift. It certainly doesn’t alleviate the potential for rejection or embarrassment or inadvertently hurting people I really care about.

But being online gives me a way to stretch out that the analog world never has.

I think it’s probably equal parts luck, skill, and the unexpected strengths of autism that have meant that taking up space online has led to also gathering an audience online.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity.

And truth be told, sometimes the demands of having an audience are too much for me. Not because you demand too much, but because I simply can’t navigate all of the expectations that come with being a person that others expect to be outgoing or accessible or even charismatic.

The last year has been especially challenging to manage because I felt like I was playing a constant game of catch-up with the often conflicting and variable emotional responses to the uncertainty of the moment. I lacked the intuition and theory of mind to follow along.

And so I found myself shrinking yet again as the year pressed on—growing smaller and smaller to avoid fracking up and hurting someone.

I can’t pretend to know what unique demands or limitations or differences might make taking up space difficult for you.

But I do know that most of us struggle on one level or another with whether it’s okay to stretch out, be ourselves, and ask others to pay attention to us in a way that supports the work we do.

I know this because the struggle courses through your questions.

When I get questions about emailing your list without annoying people, I know it’s really about taking up space in someone’s inbox. When I get questions about following up on an offer, I know it’s really about taking up space in someone’s decision-making process. When I get questions about what to post on social media, I know it’s really about taking up space in the feed. When I get questions about reaching out to potential podcast guests, I know it’s really about taking up space on someone’s calendar.

In the last few weeks, some incredible people have taken up space inside our community—they’ve shared deep struggles and asked for support & connection. It’s an astonishing thing to witness, and I notice that with each new person who takes up a little space, someone else is emboldened to take up space, too.

That’s the kind of world I want to live in. I want all of us—especially those who don’t fit the colonial, ableist, and patriarchal definition of “normal”—to feel free to take up space.

You can’t run a business and not take up space.

You can’t run a business and avoid being seen.

Forgive yourself. For being broken. For being you. For thinking those are things that you need forgiveness for.

Jenny Lawson, Broken (In The Best Possible Way)

The space you take up and how you are seen doesn’t need to match the way I take up space and the way I choose to be seen.

You’ve got to find what works for you.

  • When do you shrink to take up less space? When do you feel comfortable stretching out?
  • What conditions do you need to feel safe(r) in the way you take up space?
  • What forms of visibility best allow you to connect with others?

Beyond any specific strategy for building an audience or finding customers, the answers to these questions are fundamental to the way we conduct ourselves as business owners.

When more of us with different bodies, different wirings, different abilities, different beliefs, different experiences from what’s presented as “normal” take up space, the world is a better place.


Host of What Works

Tara is a podcaster, small business community leader, strategist, and speaker. She’s been helping small business owners build stronger businesses for over a decade.  

Tara McMullin, What Works Weekly Newsletter

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