The Fear of Being Too Much
by Elle Berry | 24 November 2021 |
I was five years old when I tattled on him. Of course I told a grown-up; what else would I do at five? It’s a fine line between tattling and asking for help when you are only five years old. How could I possibly know the difference? All I knew was the billowing anger I felt at the boy who kept stealing my toy. He was annoying me, on purpose; frustrating without remorse.
So the girl I was playing with told me to go tell an adult. In truth, perhaps she already knew, and so delegating this to me was a way to escape personal risk. And perhaps I also knew, because if she had not told me to, I’m not sure I would have gone. But I went, and I told.
Albeit, this was not a graceful telling, as I loudly announced to a room of adults, filled with the unpracticed righteous indignation of five. It was not delicate or quiet. It was not small or sweet. It was also not untrue. Yet, my report was not welcome, and was met with rebuke. I was tattling on others. I was making him feel bad. I was saying too much. Didn’t I know too many words would cause too much harm? I felt ashamed for the largeness of my emotions, and the multitude of my words. I was too much.
I was six years old when I realized just how much space I was occupying. You’d think that to know this, with such conviction, someone would have needed to say to me, “You are taking up too much space!” But they had not told me. I simply knew, in the same way all children learn without being told. As I sat in the front seat of the station wagon, squashed up next to my best friend, I noticed my legs. They were very large legs, compared to her dainty thighs, with ankles likely smaller than my wrist. My thighs were two of hers, and I knew this must not be good. I was too much.
I was seven when I sat at an outdoor campout and watched this wisp of a girl crawl into her father’s lap, easily contained within his arms. I looked at my father and wondered if I too could be held in his arms like her. So I tried to climb onto his lap, where he welcomed me, and I fit (but barely). Yet, in only a moment I was making his legs fall asleep and we had to shift awkwardly, as I was too heavy to sit delicately on his lap. He did not say “You’re taking up too much space!” but I remember thinking about it anyway, and wondering, “Am I too much?”
By eight I already knew the rules of this game. My assumptions became more concrete, and my protests ever more hushed—laced with sugar and spice. But secretly I wondered; Did my desires matter? Were my wants ok? Was I always supposed to yield to make others feel good? When was the time to speak? When did my anger count? When was I as important as others?
What good girls are
Yet, even by eight the cultural conditioning was established; I already knew that good girls were small, selfless, and quiet. I knew good girls put others first. And I knew, as I did my own name, that good girls were never, under any circumstances, too much. Sometimes my inner-muchness would still burst out with unruly appetites, and I would look for acceptable anesthetics to numb these disordered places. Food was still a good girl’s opioid. Yet, yielding to too much food only reaffirmed what I already knew about my too muchness—after all, only someone who was too much would eat too much, therefore manifesting outwardly her inner too muchness.
What I know now is that I was not the only girl who learned about her too muchness. I had learned what not even the most conscientious parents could shelter me from— the ambient culture that all girls discover. And already by eight, I doubted if I would ever be good enough at not being too much. But I hoped, like so many little girls, that with practice I might learn to walk this tightrope of womanhood, mastering level-Goldilocks to become just right.
There’s a line in Genesis that I think about a lot. Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and they come to recognize their human nakedness. Suddenly in an instant they realize their uncovered human form is … too much. So in what seems a moment (but honestly must have taken some planning and skill) they craft coverings to camouflage, contain, and hide their unruly too muchness of a human body.
And there in Genesis 3, as God finds them in the garden, the Lord says to them, “Who told you that you were naked?” For just as all girls learn their too muchness without being told, so also Adam and Eve have learned of their nakedness without being told— and furthermore, they instantly believe it to be bad. Yet this part of them that is causing them shame — the thing they seek to hide and contain? God never told them they were naked, nor did God say that it was bad. In fact, only verses before, God literally sees their nakedness and calls it good.
Their nakedness isn’t new, nor is it bad. Only their awareness is new, and their perception of what it means. Suddenly what was already declared good is perceived as shameful. But who told them they were naked?
So also, how do we learn so quickly that we are too much? How do we know so innately that these bodies we dwell in take up too much space? Our voices? Too shrill. Our opinions? Too unreasonable. Our ask? Too large. Our creativity? Too unoriginal. Our desires? Too selfish. Our anger? Too dangerous. Our pain? Too dramatic. Our naked form? Too sexual. And us? Too much. But how did we learn that we were too much?
Who told you that you were too much?
Yet every woman seems to know. And of course the culture around us is inundated with this message; echoed in our art, news, media, magazines, and, oh yes, our churches. Good girls are lean, sweet, and quiet. Good girls do not fuss, act irrationally, become hysterical, or too opinionated. Good girls are accommodating. Good girls are not too much.
Yet, ironically, being too much is never quite enough. As we age, like quicksand, the too much that sinks us is also not enough to buoy us. So with a flick of the wrist, a nefarious sleight of hand consumes us, and suddenly we find that our too muchness flips into not enough. We are not courageous enough. We are not direct enough. We did not say no enough. We are not maternal enough. We did not cover enough. We were not flirty enough. We were not sexy enough. And worst of all, somewhere in this journey we also find that both too modest (prude) and not modest enough (slut) are actually the same thing.
Too much is never enough.
And there, having arrived at level-Goldilocks, just right, neither too hot nor too cold, we sit, finding ourselves lukewarm. And there we realize, nearly too late, we were not designed to be lukewarm, and we wonder why did we ever risk not becoming all that we were created to be?
Who told us we were too much, yes, but more importantly, who told us that our much was not good?
The problem is, both too much and not enough imply you are a commodity not a creature. Both too much and too little imply a product or an investment, where the price of you is too great, and the return you offer too little. When we sink into the defense that we are not too much, or work to prove that we are enough, we’ve already lost the war.
We find ourselves haggling over our being as though we were at market bartering for a thing. And we are not things. The body is not a commodity. We are neither a product nor an investment. Price and return are words that ought never apply to creatures.
And we are living, breathing, creatures. Who told you otherwise?
The mystery of creatureness is both vast and minute. Seeds become giant redwoods, and faith moves mighty mountains. Homeostasis ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, inhales and exhales, rains and convects, saturates and evaporates; we balance when we wobble ever so slightly from side to side. To be a creature is to be both vast as the ocean and invisible as the wind. To roar like a tempest, and nourish like a spring. It is symbiosis with all that surrounds us, while yet standing solo in the forest, an altar rising skyward.
No one dare tell the sequoia it is too much. Nor tell the lioness she is not enough. Commoditization of such grand creatureness quickly dissolves into ecological ruin. Ecosystem upheaval hemorrhages out into the world around, blackening skies with smoke and darkening streams with mud. We cannot afford to care so little for the creatures of the earth. Nor can we afford to care so little for our very own being.
The answer to creatureness is never commoditization. The answer to creatureness is being; through every season, a living ecosystem of both/and, a presence both now and on the other side of the way things are. You are a being; sourced from the abundance of I am, woven together with much and enough as your birthright.
As nakedness is a construct of our shame, so also is too much and not enough. As Adam and Eve’s nakedness threatens to separate them from their maker, so also we find our too much and not enough to be lies— finding us wanting and unworthy of love, separating us from our divine calling. We are indeed creatures, and our creator has found us good.
And I believe if you listen, women (and any humans) who have come to believe this lie, you also can hear the voice of the Lord asking from the garden—“Who told you that you were too much? Who told you that your being could be measured, or found wanting? Who told you that you are naked?”
At thirty-eight years old I can still hear the opposing condemnation— its writhing, rasping deception — telling me the same old lies about my too muchness, my not enoughness, and my nakedness, and how they render me unworthy. But I’m finding with practice it holds less dominion over me — for at the whisper of deceit I open my voice and tattle to myself (or as we adults might say, I testify). And I echo the words of the Lord back to myself, for my muchness has already been declared “very good.”
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Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.