From Way Down Here

smallness, shadows, and self-awareness

I remember sitting in my best friend’s muggy Everett dorm room, chin on my knees, knees against my chest. It was a familiar and comfortable pose that made me feel self-contained. Safe. She and I were in the middle of a heated discussion when, in the middle of it, she stopped—“Claribel, why do you always make yourself small?”

I was a little taken aback. I’d never heard it framed that way, but I knew exactly what she was talking about. She meant the little things I do to, well, make myself little. To make myself non-threatening.

“What do you mean?”

“Well…things like inserting a but I don’t know at the end of each statement you make. It’s as if you’re always seeking to disqualify your own words. You should make a stronger case for yourself.”

“Hmm…that’s true, I guess.”

“There it is again. The I guess. The hmm. Everything about the way you speak has a tinge of indecisiveness. I never really hear you make any absolute, confident statements.”

It was hard for me to respond in that moment, because I was now infinitely more self-conscious. Every conversational path that I mentally walked through, in my search for a response, ended in something that still resembled my usual habit of nuanced self-deprecation and submissiveness. I preface many of my spoken sentences with that infuriating hmm because it’s a way of giving myself more time to think about the least offensive, most tactful response.

“Sometimes, I feel like you’re a bobble head. Even when you’re disagreeing with something, you voice it while nodding in affirmation.”

I ironically found myself nodding along to that statement too, as I realized with disappointment that I was a bobble head. This is what I have constantly reduced myself to, in the interest of avoiding conflict and tip-toeing around confrontation.

“What else do I do?” I ask, both curious about and afraid of what I would hear.

“Let me think—yeah, the cadence of how you speak is very particular. Your vocal inflection goes up at the end of a sentence, and it makes your words sound uncertain, as if you were asking a question. You also sprinkle in a you know pretty often, which makes people more inclined to agree with you. ”

“I think it’s because I’ve lived my life with an inherent and deeply-rooted fear of conflict.”

“You can’t always live that way. You can’t appease everyone. I know you like being a mediator so that everyone can be happy, but that can be emotionally taxing. Plus it’s not always productive.”

I still think about this conversation from time to time. My mother had confronted me about this issue throughout my upbringing—about this hyperdocility—but it sounded different when I thought about it as “making myself small.” When my friend said this, I was forced to confront how this abstract habit had manifested itself in physical instances.

I thought of my badly folded posture, and the way I liked to curl up and compress myself. I thought of how I avoided high heels in high school because I’d get sideways glances from the boys—a very literal way of shrinking myself down to make others feel bigger. How dare I damage their masculinity? I thought of how, in particularly crowded hallways, I would get thrown around like debris in an ocean current. I was always trying to make space for others if I could, and that often meant carving that out of my own space.

I suppose the root of the problem is that I always thought of it as a good thing. And I still do, to a certain extent. I pride myself in being a good listener and an empathetic person, but every good trait comes with what I call a “shadow,” or the darker side to a perceived positive characteristic. Take candor,  for example: There’s much to be valued in honesty and truth, but approached from a certain way, it becomes rude or blunt.

It’s important to realize that shadows are natural and inevitable. They are always lingering, and at different times of the day they inch closer and closer to the light. There is no hard line: It is a gradient.

For me, it is the constant tension between being agreeable versus submissive. But it’s difficult, even now, to distinguish the moments where one bleeds into the other.

“Funny, as a child I always used to let the other kids be the most ‘desirable’ characters or play with the best toys because I wanted to avoid upsetting them into the throes of a temper tantrum at all costs––I got used to playing the role of the sidekick. I found creative ways to enjoy inhabiting an alternative minor role, because I thought it was a cool thing that empowered me in a different type of way.”

“That’s valid.”

“Yeah, you know all the parents used to fawn over me, this amiable kid who ‘plays well with others.’ They’d always be telling my friends to ‘Be more like Claribel,’ and that made me uncomfortable––it put an imaginary space between us and made me feel like a typified goody two-shoes. There’s always a weird stigma.”

“It’s sad that you put yourself down for something like that. I mean, that’s sort of flattering, right?”

“In a way, yeah. That’s another thing my mom always accused me of: self-disparagement. Before I offer an idea or show someone something I create, I usually start or end with an apology. I’ll be like, ‘Hey, listen to this song I really like it! Well actually, don’t set your expectations too high. Sorry—if you don’t think it sounds good, I can change it.”

It’s not a rare condition, though. I see it in a lot of people around me, especially women of color, because we have been cultivated in a society built on systematic mechanisms that seek to oppress our voices. So many of my friends are overly apologetic. Why must we always be sorry? Three tall white male athletes take up the whole of the sidewalk, and as I struggle to squish by, I bump against a shoulder. “Sorry,” I mumble.

When I think of framing myself as a non-threat, it begins to become a politicized issue. I have to question whether I am falling into a predetermined role that society wants me to assume and whether I am complicit in perpetuating the stereotype of the soft-spoken and submissive Asian woman. I’ve realized that this “shadow” of mine comes out when there is an oppressive force that I am in fear of offending.

I reach an impasse when talking about this, because much of it is ingrained in who I am as a person. It is in my self-deprecating humor, my distinguishing quirks, and the way I physically carry myself. It is evident as I write this, sitting on the fifth floor of the library with my back hunched over my computer and my legs folded against my body. How am I supposed to escape it, and is it even possible to?

Like I said, shadows are a constant. You can’t run from them, and you shouldn’t try (I realize that sounds sinister, but it doesn’t have to). I’m on a quest to build myself again with a new sense of self-awareness. It’s an odd situation to write so vulnerably and explicitly about a fatal flaw, but this is me confronting myself. Confrontation: something I avoided not only with others but with myself.

Being “small” isn’t always a bad thing. It has given me the ability to step back and make space for the people I care about, and not always in a way that sacrifices my own. It has taught me how to listen rather than constantly fight to speak. It has made me a humbler and hopefully more considerate person. The danger lies in the moments where I mistake shadow for light.

A wise response from my mother:

“Avoiding confrontation with others doesn’t mean you have to make yourself small. You can be self-assured and yet avoid confrontation in a gentle and understanding way. In fact, true empathy precludes one from making herself small in order to prop up the other person.”