One afternoon after school, I was waiting for my mum at her workplace so we could go home together. While waiting, one of her work friends met with us, and asked me the typical question “Don’t you remember me? I met you when you were little” (and of course, I did not remember). Then she said something to me that I still hold so dear to my heart. She said she had asked me what my name was then and I had responded with so much sass “My name is Ataisi.”
It may seem so simple, but timid, extremely shy fifteen year old me found it hard to believe that she was speaking about the same person.
When I do think about it, younger Ataisi did have a lot of sass. She had a sharp mouth and she was constantly excited, but she was also a warrior. Whenever there was an opportunity to speak up for justice on behalf of someone or myself, she always took it.
But certain experiences chipped away at my voice and sense of identity. Speaking up or even asking for help became a challenge. I remember one day in my first year of university, I needed to get some information about the university’s gym membership. I do not remember what my specific question was, but I do remember how nervous I was to ask it and how sweat burned like acid in my armpits.
When I was in a room with other people, I could not speak. I was so critical of all my actions - questioning every single thing I did and wondering how it appeared to those around me.
"Existing and being me was a tough chore"
If I felt I was in an unsafe environment, in a place where there was the tiniest chance I could be judged, I would stay silent and try not to be noticed. But the minute I noticed I was in a safe space, with kind and welcoming people, I let loose.
Over time, I have grown more comfortable in who I am as a person, in taking up space wherever I am, and sharing my voice whenever it is needed or just whenever I want to. The following “steps” have helped me get to this place of comfort.
1. Recognize this is a journey
You may be stressing now over the fact that you act a certain way and wish you could do better, but remember change comes with time. I think of that famous saying, “Rome was not built in a day” and how that lesson can be translated to any part of our lives. Breaking out of your shell, if you are shy, or stopping a bad habit will not happen overnight, it will require time, patience and consistent effort.
2. Give yourself grace
Stop being overly critical when you are not satisfied with your progress in this journey. If you stumbled through your words in a presentation, laugh it off, and aim to do it better next time. I am learning to make a habit of laughing at certain things that could embarrass me. It helps me recognize that I am human, and I will miss the mark sometimes.
3. Acknowledge the hard things
I feel most of us have experiences, that we have pushed so far down, and refuse to believe they even exist. That’s exactly what I did. When horrible things happen to me, I typically forget them. But one day in 2013, I was forced to remember all the abuse I had endured. I never knew how deeply these things affected me, until they all rushed to the surface.
4. Take the time to heal
Acknowledging hard things in life is one thing, but healing is another. Healing can be complex and very long. But it is so important to seek out healing for whatever negative experiences you may have encountered. Having good friends and taking care of myself have definitely helped me but the biggest part of my healing has been in my mental health through restructuring my thoughts. I am learning and unlearning different things in my identity, and how I view the world around me.
5. Be true to yourself
I am learning to accept and enjoy every part of me; my dramatic laughs, my code-switching, ALLLL of me, even my food baby (your girl loves to eat but hates the gym, LOL). I believe every person is a gift to this earth. If you’re a sophisticated person or a total goofball, there are people who appreciate you just for you. You do yourself and others a disservice when you refuse to share “YOU” with the world. But you can only share what you have embraced as yours.
I could say that I did all this by myself, but that is not the full truth. My faith has been instrumental in my growth; it provided a good foundation for me to build on these steps and love myself more. I am always reminded that before I could accept myself, God already accepted me, and that always warms my heart. So in the low days, when I want to crawl into a hole and disappear, because I am “struggling” with my progress, that reminder keeps me grounded
That fifteen year old girl would be surprised to see how far she has come, but there is still so much more ahead, and I am looking forward to it.