Learning to Take Your Place: The path to owning the space you find yourself in

I remember my first attendance at the CSO Healthcare Science awards incredibly clearly. It was probably around 2015, and I had been nominated for the Rising Star award (I didn’t win, the amazing Lisa Ayres rightfully rocked it). It was my first dinner event, and I didn’t really know anyone. Everyone was in their finest evening wear, they’d all done their make up, they all knew each other. I remember sitting there on my own and feeling how much I just didn’t fit into this world. When the Lead Healthcare Scientist award was given out (we didn’t even have one at that point) I remember the banter on stage about where the winner had brought their dress from. I wouldn’t even know where my dress was from, at best M and S, not something that would be discussion worthy for over 100 people. I was so aware on that night that this was a world where I didn’t fit in, or have the tools to navigate.

Despite being Girlymicro, I’m not actually particularly good at the getting dressed up thing. I’m not one of those girls who has ‘wardrobe choices’ and saints help me if I have to paint my nails. It’s just outside of my wheel house. I’ve also posted before about how bad I am at networking and how I’ve had to develop coping strategies to be able to feel comfortable in rooms at conferences. I have friends and colleagues who are naturally gifted in this regard, but I am not one of them. I am not ashamed of who I am, or where I come from, I’m a proud brummy girl who has worked hard, but that doesn’t change the fact that in 2015 I stared at out at a room full of people from my profession, supposedly from my world, and just felt as other as it was possible to be.

Roll on eight years, and through some twist of fate I don’t think I will ever truly understand, I find myself standing outside of Westminster Abbey, waiting to go in to witness the Coronation of King Charles III. I have gone through a lot of emotions in the journey to this spot, but when standing here I didn’t feel like the girl who didn’t fit in. I arrived through those doors comfortable in my own skin, proud to be representing my profession and not scared to represent all that I am in the process. So how did I get from there to here? How I did I change and grow to feel like I could (most days) own the space I find myself in?

Honour the reason you’re here

The first thing for me was the realisation of how many people, woman in particular, have fought and sacrificed so that I could have the opportunity to even feel like an imposter in a space. I’ve posted about my mum and her journey to support science before, but there are so many woman who have faced so many challenges just so I would have the opportunity, or the door opened. Over time I’ve realised how important it is to seize those opportunities in order to honour those that came before. To move the dialogue on and to ensure that I leave things more open and equal requires me to do my bit, to make my sacrifices for those who will come after, to go through that open door and wedge it open so that others can follow behind and then take even bigger strides than I will. The cost of my feeling uncomfortable and experiencing self doubt is nothing compared to what those who went before experienced. If I think of myself as part of a wider picture, of just another brick on the yellow brick road, then it becomes less about me and more about the journey, and what I do to support others. That doesn’t require me to know anything about hats, false lashes or designers, that only requires me to be passionate about why I’m doing what I am doing. Suddenly everything else feels slightly less intimidating, after all, I know my why.

Be decisive: decide who you want to be in that space

So, you are not like everyone else, congratulations! I think that may just be a very good thing. When you enter a new world, a new network, a new experience, you have an opportunity to be deliberate in deciding who you want to be. You aren’t carrying the baggage of being know as ‘the new girl’ even though you’ve been there 20 years now. You aren’t that girl who spilled adenovirus tissue culture. You are shiny and new. You therefore have the opportunity to tell your tale, to share your why and really focus on the impact you want to have. Most of the time you have been invited into that space, so try to reflect on why that is and what you want to achieve. If, like me, you want to move the dialogue forward than it is OK not to be like the other people in the room, you have probably been invited into that space for just that reason. Don’t lose sight of who you are because of the newness, see it as opportunity to be the essence of what you want to bring into that space. If you can focus on why you have chosen to be there, rather than being overwhelmed by the choices of others, then I find it very grounding. For me, that reason can be anything from, I came to have 1 conversations with X that I couldn’t have other wise, to I came because I want to raise awareness of Y. Sometimes, for me, that can just be me actively introducing myself as a Healthcare Scientist and opening the door for people to ask me what one of those is, so I can discuss how awesome this work force are.

Acknowledge your fears

One of the things that has helped me most is to not just ignore my fears and pretend they don’t exist, but to spend time in reflecting on why they exist and what triggers lead to them overwhelm me. For me, it’s often about letting people down, or standing out in the wrong way – thus diluting my message and meaning I lose my voice. For the Coronation, because I knew not feeling like I was fitting in appearance wise would be a trigger for me and therefore not achieving the representation I wanted to achieve, I took steps before I went. I researched what to wear, I learnt to understand the dress code. This meant on the day I didn’t worry about that part at all, I could just focus on representing IPC and the Healthcare Scientist profession, this isn’t hard, because I have the best job in the world and love my profession. Suddenly I’m freed up to focus on joy and not fear. In 2015, I hadn’t done this work and it’s not something that happened over night. I had to take the time to learn more about me so I could then manage my responses. The work is worth it though. Obviously, this doesn’t always mean you won’t be taken from left field, but most of the time if you’ve put in the work you can free yourself up to be present and enjoy the moment.

Understand that the world is not you centric

The other things is, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s egos here, you’re just not that important. The BBC did not care what I was wearing at the Coronation, in 2015 I was probably hardly noticed at that event, let alone anyone bothering to think enough about me to judge my outfit or elevator pitch. Frankly, we are mostly just not that important to other people. Therefore a lot of the fears we have about being judged are really not that relevant, we’re just not that seen. Also, even if the worst happens, and you spill that red wine all over the carpet at the House of Commons drinks reception (yep, I did that) the likelihood is that no one will remember. In my case the only person who remembers is Professor Mark Fielder, mostly because I almost spilled it on him too, and we just laugh about it now. I have been to some truly awful conference presentations, but I remember the topics, I don’t remember the speaker. Even if the worst happens, when you get over the mortification, you will be the one that remembers it, it is unlikely that anyone else will. So be braver, the worst is probably not that bad, spend less time worrying over it and embrace the good that could happen instead.

Have the bravery to keep being you

Finally, and this may be because I’m just growing old disreputably, but be brave enough to be you. You find yourself in this moment, and no matter the reason you arrived at it you are the master of your own destiny. Be brave enough to bring all of you into that moment and be who you want to be. It’s not always easy in the moment but I promise you, you will regret the moments when you wuss out and toe the party line or try to be someone else so much more then any moment when you were truly yourself, no matter what the reception. For me, I guess its always about having honesty with myself, and building relationships with others based on the trust that I will be seen. Relationships and moments built without that honest and courageous authenticity will never be really real, you’ll always question them and yourself within them. By being who you are then, good or bad, what you create with others is the truth and has real meaning. I feel it is only by being bravely who we are that we can have the impact that we want for our lives and for changing the world for those who will come after. So lets raise a glass, to being authentically and completely us, and celebrate all that we are, both the good and the work in progress!

All opinions in this blog are my own

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