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Mental Health

How women who are always told they are “too much” are flipping the script

Ever been accused of being ‘too much’? Here’s how to find the positive in it …       

In my late teens, I remember walking down the road with my then new-ish boyfriend and one of his buddies. We were flirting in that typical teenage way, ie slagging each other off relentlessly. I’ve always been assertive, never one to mince my words and I gave every bit as good as I got in that relationship and every one since. I can’t recall exactly what I said to provoke the response that came next but I distinctly remember his friend announcing that while he was happy for his friend to have met me, I’d be “too much” for him.

“Too much”, “a handful”, “a big personality”, “no shrinking violet”, or just “a lot” – I’ve heard them all before, from friends, family, boyfriends, teachers – but no matter who said it I always took it to be a pejorative.

To me, it all had the same intent – it was a way to tell me to pipe down a bit, be me – just a little less me. You know that episode in Friends when Ross stays with Chandler and Joey but keeps shushing them with that annoying hand gesture? It felt a bit like that. It got under my skin but I never really understood or acknowledged why it felt hurtful, humiliating and belittling. 

The ‘too much’ club

If you’ve ever heard the same thing, and not quite known how to take it, then welcome to the club.

Judith Quin is vocal confidence specialist and life coach who was told she was “too much” from an early age. “From my teachers saying things like ‘she is very vocal’ or ‘she could do with quieting down’ to an introverted ex-boyfriend’s ‘Shush!’ or ‘You’re being too loud again’ (even when I was sober)… and various others in life saying ‘you’re a bit full-on’, I’ve been labeled ‘too much’ in different ways throughout my life.”

Producer Petra von Schalien has a similar story. “I’ve been told [I’m too much] in various forms since childhood. Throughout my twenties it was often shaped around being too opinionated, having an opinion or arguing back, being ‘stubborn’, talking too much about certain issues, be that professionally or regarding politics, but primarily when discussing subjects to do with equality.” As a kid, she says “it was a lot of being too loud, but used when I speaking ‘like the boys, not like a girl should’”… It definitely leaves a mark”.

For social media writer Amy Lo being labeled too much started at home too. “For as long as I can remember my parents have told me not to be loud or argumentative, and to be more amenable. Women are often taught to be as quiet and blend into the background as much as possible, and that’s especially true in Chinese society where we’re portrayed and expected to be meek and mild.”

Seema Joshi, who works for Macmillan Cancer, says her it wasn’t until she was married that her now ex husband started to use the ‘too much’ card. “The expression annoys me”, she explains. “Now I’m 40 and have had a lot of therapy and been able to take a step back and see how my ex husband used it against me.”

“It stopped me from being my authentic self”, she continues. “It definitely made me play small. Just because this one man told me! He couldn’t cope with my real emotions and feelings if they weren’t something that could be easily slotted into a box and that made everyone else feel OK. It’s as if women and especially women of colour can’t be themselves. I now think that he was just not enough for me and I revel in my ‘too much-ness’ now.”

As a child and a teenager Letitia Jarrett struggled with her mental health. “As a kid I was always very sensitive, always crying, always reacting to something and as a teenager my mental health issues meant that emotionally and physically, I had more needs than the average teenager.”

“Even if I didn’t misbehave, and I’ve always been academic and I wanted to please my family and my teachers, I was always labeled as ‘a handful’ or ‘difficult’ or ‘too much to deal with’. And at the time I just accepted it must be true, I’m The Wrong Thing in the world, rather than maybe just a child with things going on, who needed support from adults. And I think I got the sense generally that emotions/having needs make you too much for the world, but it wasn’t as if I could be any different than what I was.”

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As for Seema, Letitia knows that race played a role in how she was labeled. “Being Black and having mostly white teachers, I think they were less likely to see me in the same way as other kids who maybe just needed a more gentle approach. Like there was a girl who was really similar to me in my high school, she had a lot of mental health needs. We both came from loving families, everything was the same, except she was white. So obviously the teachers were much sweeter to her and much more accommodating, than with me, where it was just seen as me deliberately making everyone’s life harder.”

Later on in her life, in the workplace, it reared its head again. Letitia explains: “By nature, I tend to want to perform really well in all the jobs that I do. However in one particular job I remember them telling me I almost didn’t get kept on because I needed to ‘tone it down’”. 

Despite performing well her manager mocked the little ‘extra’ things she did “like making fun of me having like little colourful handmade affirmations at my work station.”

After returning from annual leave, she had a realisation that she didn’t want to be there any more. “We all kind of discussed in a meeting that I was unhappy and it was suggested to me to hand in my notice. A year later, I was chatting to another one of the managers and she told me the general consensus was that I was too much”.

“That affected me hugely, it shaped the course of my twenties into believing all that I am, like a person with lots to say, a person with lots of emotions, a person that doesn’t always get the rules, a person that isn’t able to necessarily colour within the lines – all that’s too much and something I should apologise for. I’ve actively tried to take up less space and say less because of it.”

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Is being ‘too much’ a bad thing?

Mariana Bodiu, clinical psychologist at Plumm says because as humans are very sensitive to social inclusion. When a woman is being told that she is “too much” her subconscious may easily perceive it as a threat and this may cause self-doubt and criticism. “Isn’t that a great shame?” she asks. “Especially since people who believe they can act in such a manner are more frequently than not highly insecure and use shaming as a defence mechanism. It’s pretty shocking how many women have been told they are too much, and to understand why it happens so regularly, we need to explore the phrase in the context of our society.”

“Historically, from a young age, men have been rewarded for showing leadership and ambition; however, when a female does the same, she’s at risk of being perceived as ‘bossy’.’ This typically stems from the stereotypical traits associated with men and women: men are seen as assertive and women are seen as compliant.

Although it is not as prevalent today as it used to be, woman are trained from a young age to avoid being outspoken and loud. Should they go against these gender norms, they will often face criticisms, being disliked, and generally be discouraged from growing up as authentic.

Really, in translation, if you are ever called “too much,” what it actually means is: “You are so fabulous that I am scared you may steal my authority away with that ‘dangerous’, brain of yours.” Write it down!”

So what’s a good way to react or deal with being called too much if and when it happens? “Ask them to elaborate on their perception and back it up with facts. This could feel emotionally difficult for you, in which case, don’t push yourself to do so. In a work setting, you may feel most comfortable talking to the HR team regarding the comments and working through it that way.”

“You might feel more confident broaching the topic with a friend, partner, or family member. Once you question them, it will hopefully prompt them to think about what they’ve said and take the time to further research why they should change their attitudes.”

She adds a note about boundaries we could all do well to observe. “Women have historically been encouraged not to have, or let alone set boundaries, so sometimes, it feels unnatural. However, it is not your responsibility to educate others, and if you need to make space for someone who is negatively impacting your emotions, do so. This can be done in a kind and clear manner using verbal or written communication. If it’s happening in a workplace setting, like it did to Letitia Jarrett, Bodiu says speak with your HR team.

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Too much in love

It’s a little tricker when it comes to love and dating (no HR team to go to) but eharmony relationship expert Rachael Lloyd says if someone thinks we are too much when we are dating them, it’s time to evaluate. “Is it because we are not afraid to state need and wants, in an assertive way? Is it because we refuse to be packaged up in a pretty box with a pink bow, putting the needs of others before ourselves?”

“Often, if women are in relationships with partners who have an avoidant attachment style, they are criticised for being ‘too much’. It may be that the avoidant partner struggles with intimacy and clear communication, and therefore uses the ‘too much’ label to create distance in the relationship. This is a toxic tactic, and suggests the relationship is not a compatible match.

Obviously, if you’re consistently aggressive, demanding and self-obsessed you may indeed be ‘too much’. However, if this is the case, start looking at the triggers that are driving this behaviour, consider whether you’re really in a relationship with someone who shares your core values and traits.”

Forget about other people for a second, how can those of us who feel ‘too much’ reconcile with ourselves and move towards acceptance? Mariana Bodiu answers that one: “In life, you cannot control how people speak to you; you can only control your reaction. Accepting that you will feel emotional when someone speaks to you in a derogatory manner is the first step. It’s okay to be infuriated, upset, or hurt, and it’s okay to take the time to process those feelings. We often feel like we should bottle up our emotions and not show that we are upset, but the more you fight them, the worse you will feel in the long run.”

Practising mindfulness, yoga and accessing therapy are all options she recommends. “Introducing daily or weekly habits like this will help you build mental resilience and focus on prioritising yourself rather than the comments of others.”

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Reclaiming ‘too much’

With or without therapy or yoga women are reclaiming their too muchness and it’s great to see. Remember Amy Lo? She says it just makes her want to rebel and be even louder.

Same goes for Seema Joshi, now away from her toxic ex and living her best life. “I love wearing bright neon pink nails which I know [my ex] would hate. I also speak up a lot more at work and have definitely realised it has made some people go ‘ah she’s being bolshy and I wasn’t expecting that’. Me being ‘too much’ is me being me and I love who I am I’ve come to realise”, she says.

For Judith Quin, she appreciates all the positives too much brings. “It’s helped me. In the past it helped protect me emotionally (If I show them the ‘big’ they won’t see the ‘little’ me inside who just wants to be nurtured). It has made sure that I got seen and heard and been at the forefront of people’s minds. Being a ‘bit full-on’ means that every friend, boss, or client has always known that I give of my all and everyone knows if they want a party started I’ll be the first on the dance floor and give others permission to get up and out there too.”

In fact, she’s come to see it as something to be envied. “I’ve learnt that lots of people admire my ability to be big and especially to be seen and heard – in fact it’s a quality they wish they could embody more. Too many people, way too many, spend their life in terror of being ‘too loud’  and so instead they hide and don’t speak about themselves with confidence – so they miss out on opportunities, or don’t speak up when there’s a problem. They suffer in silence, or become perpetual people-pleasers who never say no, they get overwhelmed and feel underappreciated. When you can embrace being a bit bigger, taking up time and space, you get to have more control of and say in your life. I strongly encourage people to embrace it.”

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For Letitia Jarrett, it’s a work in progress. “To this day, it’s something I actively have to work on. I’ve had to change my wording a few times from saying I was “probably difficult to deal with” and even in my head, I’m like, “I bet people will see this and say, ‘Yeah but to be fair, she does sound like a lot!”. But honestly, I’m learning not to be afraid of being a lot. If having emotions, and needing things, and feeling things strongly or being excitable makes me a lot then yes, I am! I’m a lot. But I don’t see why I should be any less than that, I think all those things that make us a lot, make us human!”

Judith Quin emails me again later(a classic ‘too much’ move) and adds this important note which I think sums it up nicely: “Don’t forget”, she writes, “it’s also ALL about perspective – one person’s ‘too much’ is another’s ‘not enough”. 

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