Discuss: The Incredible Shrinking Woman

Oct 18, 2013

Originally, I intended to share this video in the Weekly Reading.  But as I watched it for the second time, my eyes filling with tears, I realized that it was too important to be catalogued in a list.  The message shared is one that every woman needs to hear.

There are so many women desperately trying to make themselves smaller.  Shrinking in spaces that they have every right to fill.  Keeping their thoughts to themselves when they are at work.  Asking for less, expecting less, pretending to need less from their partners, children, friends and relatives.

Like the poet in the video, I learned by osmosis that if someone doesn’t give you what you need, you learn to live without it.  You lock the door to the empty room their love, or their time, or their empathy should occupy, and you pretend the room isn’t there.  Like when a child dies, and you leave their bedroom untouched–a shrine to something lost, something mourned.

That emptiness is corrosive.  It adheres to the positive things in life and chews away at them, devouring their foundation.  Over time, everything feels pockmarked and unstable, no longer whole.

Recently, I ended a relationship with someone I care about very much.  In the beginning, our feelings and our interactions were equal.  But over time, he withdrew.  Too busy with work.  Too many things on his plate.  No time, no energy, no effort to spare, he claimed.

I responded by giving more of myself, silently accepting less in return, but things continued to slide.  Before long, I felt hollow.  Trapped in the nagging, maddening confinement of a problem that you cannot fix alone, like wearing a mohair sweater that’s two sizes too small.  I was pouring myself into a bottomless pool, and I had to stop.

The axiom is as true in our careers, as it is in personal our lives: You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you ask for.  And it is never too late to ask for the things that you want, need and can’t live without.  We can have them, but only if we are brave enough to demand them and walk away from the situations and people that cannot or will not give them to us.

You cannot live a full life in a house made up of empty rooms.


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  1. Sarah R. says:

    Thank you, this post is what I needed to read today.

  2. AbsolutelyDC says:

    Thank you. I loved this and needed to read this today.

  3. J says:

    WOW. Thank you so much for sharing the clip and the honest reality of your recent experience.

    Two years ago I finally was brave enough to end a 10 year relationship (5 year marriage) with a narcissist, who excelled at manipulation. Needless to say, I allowed myself be brainwashed, but I thank the Lord that one day I woke up with clear thoughts and was finally able to make sense of the emptiness I was feeling. My decision may have seemed rash to everyone else, but I knew I deserved better. No point in wasting another minute.

    Never, ever, ever settle. Be happy. And if you’re not happy, be brave enough to make the changes necessary to seek happiness. Lastly, don’t look back.

  4. Becca says:

    Thanks Belle. I recently experienced the same thing. A good reminder about why is better to just walk away.

  5. LadyLawyer says:

    I saw this video for the first time two days ago. It’s so powerful because it speaks to something all women experience, even if we experience it slightly differently. My mother taught me how to not eat, not speak up, diminish yourself. It has taken much active work on my part to abandon that path. I am glad you are sharing your own story of self-care and self-empowerment. It gives the rest of us the ability to recognize that others struggle like we do, and that we can choose a path different than the one laid before us.

  6. Kate M says:

    Thank you for this. It’s hard to remember, in the midst of things, that we don’t deserve less, we’re just used to it.

  7. Mary says:

    Thanks for sharing the video and your recent experience.

    I am thankful to be married to a man who doesn’t expect his wife to shrink back despite him being raised to expect that. There are times when he falls into the habit, and there are times when I automatically shrink back (that caught inheritance thing mentioned by the poet), but for the most part, that is not expected or tolerated of me as a wife.

    But when I became a mom, it was a whole different ballgame. After 10 years of infertility, we adopted a 9 year old boy through foster care. I had years and years of expectations about motherhood built in my mind. I had the example of my mom, who disappeared among all her kids, and I had a child who had a lot of special needs which demanded a lot of time and attention. After a few years, I realized that I had shrunk back. Our son is now 15 and still has a lot of special needs. Reclaiming my space in a way that is not threatening to him has been very, very difficult. But I’m proud to say that, even though the last few months have been literal hell for our family, I am still standing, and I’m stronger for it. I know that if I had not already begun the process of reclaiming myself, I wouldn’t be able to say that. And when he needs me most, I might not have had anything left to give him. Additionally, because I am advocating for my own needs, I am teaching him how to do the same for himself.

  8. Shelley says:

    I needed this today too! I was engaged to a man who is successful and pretty well respected and he expected me to sit on the sidelines and jump when he snapped his fingers. Always asking things of me, but never reciprocating. I put up with it for a little while, but I realized I would always be in his shadow, helping him succeed. It’s so nice to be myself again and focus on my own goals. Thanks so much for this!

  9. Stephanie says:

    What an inspiring post! It gave me chills. Powerful message.

  10. annon says:

    Beautiful! It took me many years to advocate for my own financial, physical, and emotional needs.

  11. Cait says:

    What a phenomenal young woman with an incredible talent!
    The part about beginning questions with the word “Sorry” especially struck me. This seems to have become a social convention that we women use, but what are we apologizing for? Sometimes, yes, apologizing for an interruption seems justified, but other times? It’s apologizing for not sitting quietly, for not having all the answers. We apologize for trying to learn.

    • Belle says:

      I can distinctly remember women apologizing for asking question in college. I’ve even noticed it in Hill meetings. I’ve never heard a man apologize for interrupting.

  12. GoGoGo says:

    Damn, woman. Snaps.

    Thanks for sharing this is wonderful.

  13. ak says:

    Thank you for sharing both the video and your recent experiences. I can appreciate both. break ups are the worst – always. It’s hard to know when compromising is the right choice and when walking away is for the best.

  14. Charleigh says:

    Thanks for sharing Belle. You don’t often talk about yourself, so it’s nice to hear a little about the woman behind this lovely blog, and inspire others who read you.

  15. Kit says:

    Thank you, Belle. This really hit home. Not only does this capture how many of us find ourselves behaving in our personal lives, but also at work. And I think it shapes not only women’s behavior, but men’s, as the poet says. When a woman prefaces her questions with “sorry”, few people are really surprised by it. But if she doesn’t make gestures of self-effacement, then she’s assertive, or even aggressive, arrogant, or bitchy. Food for thought.

  16. Dolly says:

    I have mixed feelings about this, but nonetheless think it’s an incredible piece of poetry and this young woman is a fantastic artist.

    My mom is precisely the mother described in this poem, but she and I have talked a lot about this topic and she always — ALWAYS — insists that raising her family demanded sacrifices of both her AND my dad. Or, to borrow the language in the poem, they both “shrank.” She also insists that this was done joyfully. As with everything, I think, there’s a healthy balance. You naturally have to “shrink” if you are sharing your life with someone.

    I also grew up in a family which encouraged me to be as open or as closed as I wanted to be. It was going to school and interacting with kids — particularly girls — my own age, rather than my home environment, that really browbeat me into “shrinking.” Both of my parents were the ones who encouraged me to speak louder and go farther, or, taught me “to grow out.” Nearly all of the discouragement, or lessons “to grow in” growing up, in college, and even sometimes professionally, have come from other women. Where all those women learned to act the way they did, I couldn’t really speculate. As the poet suggests, though, at some point you do have to make the decision that you are valuable, you have a voice, and can’t let other people shrink you.

  17. Lar says:

    Belle – this is why I love your blog so much. You post about things that not only help us to feel beautiful on the outside, but you bring up questions and issues that help us look inside ourselves, too. Thanks for sharing.

  18. J says:

    This could not have come at a better time. I try to accommodating and understanding, without putting my needs first. Professionally, I have this strength, but let it go when I’m dating. I recently had a similar experience with a guy who I trusted, and in the end he left me and initially I made it easy on him. It made me fall into hole. I finally realized that the only way I could feel better and re-claim myself was to tell him that I lied and was actually very mad for the way things went, and the way things ended. I don’t even care about his response, but being honest and expressing my real feelings to him was the first step in finding myself again. I need to constantly remind myself that all feelings need to respected, including mine. Here’s hope to us all that we remember that, and we be brave enough to put our needs first. We deserve It, and nothing less.

  19. E says:

    This is excellent. I can totally relate. I am pursuing a career, despite being raised in a traditional setting (both my husband and I have mothers who stayed home with us and neither of them have college degrees), and I make about 3 times the amount of money my husband makes. He is my biggest fan and is so proud of me but other people? Other people from my father-in-law to people at church to people I work with push me to shrink. They make comments to my husband like “You must be low man on the totem pole at home” and “Can your wife buy our dinner? You know she can afford it”. If I speak up in meetings at work or if I’m not overly apologetic when I’m right I’m “pushy”, “bossy” “bitchy” and “aggressive”. Since I have a job that I love that provides us with fabulous health insurance and allowed us to pay of our first home mortgage in under 3 years I’m called everything from a raging feminist to a bad wife to a bad Christian to a bad future mother (and I quote “I don’t know why you’d even bother to have kids since you’re obviously just going to let someone else raise them. <—that one came from my mother in law.) I think we have a major issue with gender roles in this country and I think it takes women like myself and men like my husband to conquer them. I'm hoping we will teach our children better than what we have been taught.

  20. Janine says:

    i haven’t had a chance to view the video as I am still at work reading your blog and the video is blocked, but this post is so on time..I’m currently going through a divorce and for the reasons mentioned in your post, I recognized i deserved more and that my husband wasn’t capable of matching my needs. He is a great man, so this is not intended to bash him but I took a stand for myself in order to live life fully! Thank you Belle!!!

  21. anon says:

    powerful video. i oscillate between wanting to leave my boyfriend and not, he started medical residency just a couple months ago and it’s killing our relationship in so many ways; namely, trying to “support” his career is totally exhausting. he is a naysayer about anything i do except the things he seems to find interesting, and all i do is clean the house and feed his ego. i should break up but i’m too poor to move out plus we’ve been dating for almost 7 years. so instead i’m working on creating more metaphorical “space” for myself — even though my boyfriend makes fun of them, i try to pursue my hobbies and dreams. ugh, i hate residency. sorry for the rant.

    • Belle says:

      Don’t be sorry. It sounds like you’re taking it on the chin. I hate to ask this, but have you thought about finding a job. Even something part time? Sometimes…and I’m not saying this is the case here…but sometimes, finding work can help clear the cobwebs out of your head and help you move forward to get what you want. But you shouldn’t stay with someone just because you put in the time.

      A good friend of mine was with the same guy for over 5 years. The relationship stopped feeling right about year 4, but she’d put in the time and didn’t have a lot of options for leaving since their finances were comingled and she was working part time. She picked up a job in retail, banked the cash and they went to couple’s counseling. After a few months, it became clear he wasn’t going to ever think she was more important than his career, so she took her nest egg and left. Getting the job gave her the security to make the choice she needed to make when efforts to save things failed.

  22. Rachel says:

    Such a great piece. I try to go out of my way to not shrink, especially at work in my male-dominated industry; the result is that I feel labeled as brash (at best) and emotional and feel compelled to apologize for myself at every turn. How wonderful to be reminded that I’m not alone. Thank you for sharing your own experience too, Belle. Please know that your readers really wish you the best and appreciate hearing what is going on in your life. Keep up the amazing work on the blog!

  23. Jenn says:

    This was just the video I needed to see. Was blessed to grow up with a realitively healthy relationship with food, but still trained to accommodate the men around me. Shrinking into the least offensive, bend over backward to fulfill your needs, space.

  24. Jacqueline says:

    Thanks Belle for this powerful post. I was never the shrinking woman. However, I recently bought a home with my fiance and suddenly I have zero hobbies. He has so many while I stay at home trying to make things perfect and “homie” for us. It is exhausting and I realize I am shrinking in our home space and becoming quieter and quieter. Maybe it is because I don’t know how to occupy this home space yet? When I was single it was so easy to do what I wanted. I had endless things I wanted to do. Now that I have someone to come home to, I am kind of lost on what those things are. I don’t know how it happened really, but I realize I need to find spaces that are mine outside my home . Thank you for sharing this.

  25. Parker says:

    Thank you for this Belle.

  26. Erin says:

    Hi Belle. I really enjoyed this piece when you posted it and thought about it again when I watched the TED talk that Wendy of Wendy’s Lookbook posted today. Perhaps you have seen it – it is about the body language of power. I know that I see myself “shrinking” both metaphorically and physically in many situations and both the poem you posted and this talk have led me to be more aware of my patterns of behavior and my body language.


  27. […] This post from Capitol Hill Style literally made me cry. Guys.. don’t shrink. […]

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