Maybe like me, when you were growing up you learned to always make yourself small. Maybe like me, you were crying and you were told to pull yourself together. Maybe like me, you were upset and you were told to calm down. Maybe like me, when you were hurt or offended by someone, you thought you shouldn’t say anything for fear of retaliation or you always found something you could apologize for first. Maybe like me, you read this list and you think, “I mean, yeah, that’s how that works right?” Maybe like me, now these are patterns you still fall into, and all the ways you were treated when you were younger you have now internalized and normalized into how you “parent” yourself.
I believe that many women at Covenant, and many conservative evangelical women, have experienced this, at least partially. By “this” I mean the small, almost indiscernible, voice that tells you your emotions are not welcome or that there is something wrong with them; the message that says when you are offended you must have done something first to evoke their reaction; the incessant need to apologize for things that you are not responsible for, have no control over, or are simply not offenses that warrant apologies. We as women have been taught that our negative emotions as a whole are at best too much, and at worst immoral. We have been taught that we are culpable for others’ reactions to us, and that our own hurt is always overshadowed by others’ hurt and it’s best for everyone to just keep quiet.
Well ladies, I call BS.
I think that conservative evangelical culture in its unhealthy distortions of scripture and God’s design have both implicitly and explicitly taught its women that expressing strong emotion is inherently negative; that someone negatively responding to you is your fault; that the only way to maintain peace is to keep your mouth shut. This has bred generations of women who stifle their feelings and have little to no tools to engage their emotions healthily, women who believe that passivity equals peace, and tell themselves, and their daughters, “to get over it” when they feel silenced, suffocated, dismissed, or minimized. This has bred generations of women who have very little sense of what is their responsibility (their own actions, reactions, thoughts, feelings etc.) and what is not their responsibility (others’ actions, reactions, thoughts feelings etc.).
I recognize this is not the experience of every woman who has grown up in conservative evangelical circles in the U.S. nor is it only an experience of women growing up in those circles. It is neither a monolithic nor an isolated occurrence. Across times, cultures, and nations women have been conditioned in a myriad of different ways to make themselves small in order to conform (for everyone else’s comfort) to the society and subcultures they live in. Often, when women push against that cultural restraint or societal message, they are met with judgment, disdain, and even their morality or faith can be called into question. As an example, if I am angry, and I choose to express my anger in a way that is non-harming to others nor to myself, those who distort God’s creation of and calling for women see me not as a woman who is making space for herself, but as a woman who is “too much,” “overwhelming,” “confusing,” “frustrating,” “unapproachable,” etc. I find it hard to believe that other women like me never get angry. Rather, I think that we have somehow so internalized the idea that expressing your true emotions is morally wrong, that we have grown up unaccustomed to expressing them.
I’m not here to throw shade at the conservative church, or at women who do act this way. All of this is based on experiences I have had, situations I have observed, and what I have gathered upon reflection. I have been this woman…the one who always makes herself small…who, before anyone even says a word, bites her tongue and stifles her spirit, for fear of making others uncomfortable. It is so ingrained into me, that if I were to truly be my boisterous, strong-willed, expressive, passionate, and opinionated self that I fear I would automatically be labeled as “overly emotional,” “volatile,” “aggressive,” or even “bitchy.” Quite honestly, all of this has led to a genuine shame about who I am, and I firmly believe that there must be a “more excellent way” than this (1 Corinthians 12:31 ESV).
I am here to tell you that you are allowed to take up space. You are allowed to feel strong emotions. You are allowed to feel hurt and express it to who hurt you. You are allowed to express your passions, dreams, opinions, preferences and desires. You are allowed to not apologize for the things that are out of your control and/or not your responsibility. You are allowed to be more than quiet, small, submissive, gentle, and helpful. You are allowed to stop making sure everyone feels comfortable at the expense of degrading and minimizing yourself.
It’s a lot of work to develop a deep sense of self-awareness, of how to engage and cope with strong emotions, what you can and cannot tolerate in relationships, etc. It’s tough out there when you end up encroaching on others space, not because you are too big, but because others have not yet learned how to make space for themselves. It’s challenging to re-train thought patterns, rewrite self-narratives, weed out lies, and master insecurity. It is heavy emotional and mental lifting, that we need the Holy Spirit to do, but I believe is absolutely necessary. It is hard, but that does not mean that we should succumb to smallness at the cost of dampening our spirits, drowning our voices and degrading our unique worth. Yes, continue to walk in love, compassion, kindness and consideration towards others. That shouldn’t change, and you can still be a woman who knows herself, values herself, and makes space for herself, while also counting others more significant, looking not only to your interests, but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4 ESV). Let’s remember, that verse does not say “make yourself small so others can be big,” or “ignore your interests and only pay attention to others’ interests.” In fact, that verse sets a precedent that you are in fact significant, but with humility, we can elevate others above ourselves, without degrading our own value. We can, in fact, pay attention to our own interests and preferences, while simultaneously demonstrating that it matters to us how others feel and what they prefer. Christ was not self-seeking and did not stomp on the worth of others, and neither should we. I want to insist, however, that a genuine selflessness and deep and authentic value of self are not mutually exclusive. I would go even further to say that we cannot truly understand the depth and value of others’ if we do not first understand and accept it in ourselves.
My encouragement to you: dig into yourself and see what you find. Accept her, welcome her, give her space to be human, to feel a wide range of intense emotions, to speak up when she feels dismissed or mistreated, and to express the wild and beautiful landscape of her mind and spirit. Look not to others’ approval or opinion for validation of that worth, value and right to take up space. Look instead to Christ, His undeniable acceptance and love for you in the midst of your mess, and the infinite truth that you bear the image of the Creator of the universe, which you uniquely express, to find the validation and worth your soul so deeply longs for.