Permission to be FIERY

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Not long ago I led a workshop in which I took academic researchers through an exercise for exploring personal sustainability.

Personal sustainability: what is a doable and enjoyable way to approach academic – or any – work for one person is not necessarily that for another. To look after yourself well for the long term and be a good steward of your energy, self-awareness is always the first step.

The exercise pointed some people towards slowing down and simplifying. For others, it was about going with the flow. For yet others, it was about keeping things light and playful.

These were body-findings, things people noticed when they tried out different movement styles to explore what feels sustainability-enhancing in this moment. “What I thought was sustainable was different from what I feel is sustainable for me,” one person told me afterwards. Quite so.

An interesting discovery

When we debriefed the exercise, an interesting finding emerged: what many of the bodies in the room wanted was more Fire. It felt significant that one person after the other spoke up, saying “those fiery ways of being and moving felt good.”

More Fire as part of a more sustainable academic life – really?

A fiery way of being is direct, clear, assertive. Bold. Forceful.

If this isn’t your idea of “sustainable”, I get it. And yet, it may be surprisingly nourishing to go there.

If, like many academics, particularly women and minorities in academia, you’re spending much of your time being careful, holding back and accommodating others, there could well be a felt sense of freedom, energy and home-coming in this for you.

Photo by Gleb Lukomets on Unsplash

A diagnostic Fire practice

To feel this out, here are some pointers for a short inquiry you can do on your own that’s a variation on what we did in the workshop. The point is to pay attention to what happens when you deliberately introduce more Fire into your movements. What information does that bring?

Set your sights on something 8-10 meters away and walk towards it in a purposeful way. Keep your eyes focused and move with complete clarity and conviction: “I am going THERE!”

Do this a handful of times. How does your body feel? Is this familiar, uncomfortable, or longed for? What happens when you vary the intensity?

Or try this alternative:

Get ready to push against something strong – a wall, for example. Fill your body with an assertive YES as you engage and put pressure (“I will push for what’s important to me”). Also try with an assertive NO (I won’t give up).

Do this a handful of times. How does your body feel? Is this familiar, uncomfortable, or longed for? What happens when you vary the intensity?

What information did you get from this inquiry?

But what if others get upset?

The workshop participants who felt a longing for more Fire had a follow-up question:

“How can I let myself be more fiery when it feels good for me but when doing so may offend or upset others?”

There are often very good reasons to avoid being direct, assertive or forcefully passionate. My advice is that you don’t argue with those reasons, and also that you don’t force yourself. There’s wisdom in the avoiding, just as there is wisdom in acknowledging your longings.

​What then, can it look like to give yourself permission to be fiery?

(1) Don’t shrink your own space

From a personal sustainability perspective, that you get to inhabit your Fire matters more than the specific way in which you do so. It’s not a narrow matter of whether you speak up in this meeting, or are bold and forceful with that person.

You will know in which relationships and environments it is best to thread cautiously. Trust yourself. And, at the same time, be careful not to make the space for your Fire smaller than it really is. Don’t conclude that you cannot be fiery when there are actually many possibilities at hand.

(2) Start with what you can do

Here are some ideas:

  • Writing: Create an outlet for bold expression and make this a space for you, free from expectations that your writing be understood or well-received by others (I personally love the Morning Pages). Steer towards directness, assertiveness and boldness not only in what you write but also how you move your pen across the page.
  • Walking: put fire into your step by pushing off through the back foot more than you normally would.
  • Listening to music that feels fiery: walk with it, dance to it.
  • Swearing: another one of my favourites for use in own self-dialogue or with close friends. (“F*ck it, I’m going to go for it!” “I will f*cking not let this stop me!”)
  • Resistance training.
  • Deliberately ‘punching above your weight’ (for example with journals, grant applications, publishers; going for what you really want).

Only the last idea is academia-related and yet the point is: they are all of the same kind. You can give yourself permission to be fiery by finding something on or off this list that’s doable and that excites you. And then doing it.

The bottom line

Personal sustainability matters: taking radically good care of yourself is a form of activism that benefits not only you but also others. If, like many of the participants in my workshop, Fire is what your body wants more of, then I urge you to make that happen.

And if not, then maybe there’s something else in this that’s of use to you today. There’s no one-size-fits-all, that’s also the point. It’s about learning the balance and preferences in your own system.

I hope there’s something here for you and am always delighted to hear any comments or questions.

with love,


Catelijne Coopmans

Catelijne Coopmans

Life coach, interdisciplinary scholar, advocate for inspired paths in and beyond academia.

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