Learning how to stop playing small has become a theme in my life recently. I started this episode a couple of months ago when Root and Rise turned one. It had hit some pretty big goals – ones that I had no idea were possible when I first started this blogging journey. And I have actually continued to exceed those expectations since then.
I have been feeling truly proud of myself for this accomplishment. But I have also been really uncomfortable sharing this excitement with others. I have gotten so used to playing small that I fell back into that comfort zone. So, I set it down and started working on different content.
Recurring Lesson in How to Stop Playing Small
And now, my birthday is here and I find myself returning to this topic – how to stop playing small. It’s time to celebrate the past year of my life – how much I’ve grown, emotionally, mentally, as a mother, as an individual. A time to reflect on the obstacles that I have overcome. The goals I have reached. I find myself wanting to go back into my comfort zone and play small.
Because it’s almost time to celebrate me. Which can feel very uncomfortable. Think about when you are at a restaurant and people start singing “Happy Birthday” to you. And everyone’s eyes in the restaurant are on you. It feels a lot like that for me.
After discussing it in therapy, I began to unpack it more and more. I realized that I have always “watered down” my accomplishments. And my happiness. But I would never recommend that to any of my loved ones. In fact, I am more than willing to celebrate and acknowledge every tiny little win for them. If someone honors their needs, sets a boundary, or runs an errand that they didn’t want to, I will always ask to pause for a moment to feel proud and acknowledge that accomplishment.
Celebrating others is easy. It feels good. But it doesn’t feel as good when we are celebrating ourselves. We all want to be acknowledged and celebrated. And we all deserve it. It’s rewarding to offer that to someone else. And it can be rewarding to acknowledge and celebrate ourselves. But that doesn’t feel as easy for some of us.
That’s because playing small feels safe. It feels comfortable. But we deserve more than just safe and comfortable. We deserve to be seen, heard, appreciated, and celebrated. Whether we are nailing a project at work, overcoming challenges in parenting, or hitting milestones or personal goals. So let’s unpack this together. And learn how to stop playing small.
In today’s post, we are going to talk about what it means to play small, why we do it, and how we can start standing in our own beautiful light. Being seen, heard, and acknowledged.
What Does “Playing Small” Mean?
You know, there is a quote that I have loved long before I ever fully understood its meaning. Or the depth at which my soul could feel it. It’s an oft-cited quote from author Marianne Williamson that you may have heard before.
“Our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate, Our deepest fear is that we’re powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. But our playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
Yes, the darkness is frightening. But what a concept – to be more frightened by our light. Realizing this was a shock to me. The light seems like it would be the best and most comfortable place to sit. But for many people, myself included, it can feel like being in the spotlight. Which means you are all of a sudden available for criticism, judgment, or at the very least, feeling pretty vulnerable.
Why is it Called Playing Small?
And why do we call it “playing small”? Because we are shrinking ourselves, dimming our lights, quieting our voices, making ourselves small to not be seen, heard, or take up any space. The first argument that runs through my head when hearing this is that being humble is a good thing. I’ve had bad experiences with people who are too loud, too powerful, too boastful or want too much attention. To me, it feels like I will be acting like those people if I quit playing small. But there is a happy medium.
Signs You Are Playing Small
Playing small can show up in a lot of different ways for us. Sometimes I feel like a dual person. There is who I am authentically – my genuine reactions, thoughts, and expressions. And then there is the version of myself that I feel is more accepted with certain company. I find myself holding back a lot in some spaces.
One of the ways that it can show up for us is by being incredibly strong. Because what could possibly be wrong with being strong? Aren’t we as feminine identifying beings all striving to be strong, independent women? This was me for many years. Strong and independent – but to a fault.
There is a certain “hardness” that comes with being too strong. If we don’t know have at least a little bit of some lightness mixed in with that strength, we can forget our (very human) need to be seen, heard, and appreciated. We can forget that we need a support system to lean on and celebrate with. It’s ok to have feelings and needs, and ones that others can see.
Another way that Playing Small shows up in our lives is by conforming. Conforming to the people around us, the room we are in, the status-quo. Being too accommodating. We might begin to match the attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs of those around us. Or we might try to complement them. It’s exhausting to be constantly trying to match, adapt, and adjust accordingly to those around us.
And this is absolutely a form of people-pleasing. Because in doing this, we are sacrificing our true selves to be more palatable to others. We water down our thoughts, feelings, and actions to not come off too “strong”. Instead of allowing ourselves to just “be” as we are, say what is on our minds, not hide our feelings, needs, or accomplishments. We are putting ourselves second to our environment.
Keeping to ourselves
Keeping to ourselves is another way that playing small can show up in our lives. And not just us keeping to ourselves in the way of solitude. Because that is incredibly healthy from time to time. But keeping our true selves to ourselves. Keeping our ideas, plans, goals, projects, or passions to ourselves. Holding it all very close to the chest can feel safe.
We might have a fear of others seeing us fail. And by not clueing them in on what’s happening, they can’t possibly witness us failing. But you are losing support. Support that we all truly need and deserve. And you are losing the change at a deeper connection. Allowing others into our inner worlds creates more space for them to do the same. It can strengthen your relationship with them.
No additional help
Keeping all of these things to ourselves can also hurt our potential for receiving help. Not just support, but actual help in moving forward. Help in the form of necessary connections to other people, businesses, or services. Or help in the form of advice from someone who has been there before and can guide you on your journey.
The world is full of resources, guidance, and other people capable of helping you succeed. But they can’t do that if they don’t know you are looking for help. Or even interested in learning more about something.
Why Are We Playing Small?
Knowing all of that, it can help to understand why we are playing small. So let’s get real about the fears, learned behaviors, messages ingrained in us from society, and everything else that is keeping us from living in our true light. I want you to first know that this is a common experience for a lot of people. And something that is much easier to work on once we understand the root of our issue.
First, I want to speak to my women out there. Those born and those identifying as such. We were all taught to play small from a very young age. To be quiet, hide our accomplishments, and not share our opinions. We are constantly reminded to talk softer and shrink ourselves (both literally and figuratively). To be neither seen nor heard.
This is what society expects from us. Being weak, being quiet, and being small have all become feminine virtues. A lady would never dare cause a scene with her opinions, thoughts, or voice.
Messages in Media
You can see this messaging in movies and TV. Reese Witherspoon has an amazing Women of the Year speech about her realization that almost every movie she was in has that inevitable moment where the woman turns to look at a man and say “what should we do?”. As if that woman weren’t capable of handling the situation herself. As if she isn’t capable of coming up with a great solution or a great plan.
We see this message in our daily lives, as we squeeze to make more room for men on buses, in stores, at the table. Men seem to feel more comfortable taking up physical space, spreading their legs and arms out. Whereas women shrink themselves in as if our own physical space is a burden on others.
Women in the Workplace
And we see this in leadership positions. According to an article by Harvard Business Review: “Even in societies and organizations that value gender equality and invest in initiatives to reach it, women are underrepresented in most senior-level leadership positions. They account for less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs, less than 15% of executive officers at those companies, less than 20% of full professors in the natural sciences, and only 6% of partners in venture capital firms.”
Even though another article by Harvard Business Review says that “research shows women score higher than men in most leadership skills”. Explain that logic to me, please. We are not offered much space, if any at all, at that table. Let alone encouraged to show up as bold, bright, or strong.
Ok, I’ll get off that soapbox with that topic and get on with the main reason for this episode.
Messages from Childhood
Regardless of how we identify, we can learn these behaviors from our childhood as well as society. We may not have been allowed to be our fullest and truest selves as children. My own mother was not a good example of intense emotions growing up. She would only come out from hiding in her room when she was happy.
Whenever I had intense emotions, good or bad, it seemed that it was “too much”. I was deemed “emotional” and it kind of became a joke. When now, as an adult, I can see that I was never too much. My mom just wasn’t capable of handling the very real emotions that we all, as humans, experience. By having my feelings continually rejected in these ways, I learned that watering down my passions, feelings, and opinions would be more acceptable to others.
Even if your childhood was not an issue for you, playing small can come from a lot of different internal fears. Some of which are so deep, you might not even recognize them in a lot of areas of your life. Fear of losing people, offending others, or being made fun of. Or maybe that we won’t be accepted. Fear of being seen, fully seen, and the vulnerability that comes along with that. And fear of change. Because comfort zones are called comfort zones for a reason.
I want to dive a little deeper into some of these fears. Starting with ones that include people around you. There is a lot of shame out there for taking up space, in being seen and heard. Because it feels like a threat if someone else has more, we’ve been taught that competitive nature as a society. And others tend to quiet those people or cut them down.
Tallest Poppy Syndrome
In Australia, this is known as the “tallest poppy syndrome”. It comes from the idea that the tallest poppies in the field need to be cut so they don’t stand out. What a sad field to be in. No one person is allowed to grow beyond anyone surrounding them. Growth is literally discouraged and even punished.
In this way, a lot of people play small to keep others from feeling uncomfortable. But what if those other people around us started to grow, achieve, and succeed? We would likely celebrate alongside them and cheer them on. Don’t your own dreams and visions deserve the same respect that you give to those around you?
Fear of Being Seen
On a more personal level, playing small can come from a deep fear of being seen or celebrated. Some might even go as far as wearing a mask. Just like those filters we see across social media. But none of that is real. That mask, that filter, it’s all fake. It’s an attempt to be perfect and fit perfectly in with those around us. I just released an article on Perfectionism. Go check that out, if you haven’t yet already. I dive much deeper into this topic.
We also wear masks as a way to handle feelings of imposter syndrome. According to an article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, approximately 70% of people experience impostor feelings at some point in their lives. Which checks out, because my article on Overcoming Imposter Syndrome is one of my most popular articles. To keep from repeating myself too much on that subject, I’ll let you read that one next.
Another huge reason that some of us might be playing small is due to past trauma. I’m going to start this out by saying I am unpacking all of this in therapy. And if you can relate to how I feel, I recommend you do the same. Sometimes I just don’t even know how to be happy. I functioned in such a dysfunctional brain-space for so long that it’s all I know.
It seems more natural to me to be in a dumpster fire mess of a life, full of drama, abuse, and pain than to be happy. When something good comes along and I am filled with complete happiness, I’m skeptical. I start searching for the flaws, that hidden underground garage of depression that is surely awaiting me.
My Past Experiences with Trauma
So when something goes right for me, like Root & Rise hitting some impressive milestones, my first instinct is not to celebrate and be excited. It’s to hide it out until the storm comes. My abusive past in relationships also tells me to lay low because if I’m too happy, someone will come along and ruin it. Let me tell you, I once dated a guy who told me I was and I QUOTE “too happy that he needed to knock me down a few pegs”.
I’m sorry, what? That’s bullying, sir. Who knows why I chose to date someone like that. Well, actually I do know. My past history with abuse. And we all accept the behavior that we think we deserve. I, at that time, thought that I deserved that. My healing journey has come a long way since those days but the messages still linger. And come up disguising themselves as my inner voice.
So, when faced with all of these challenges, how can we change this?
How to Stop Playing Small
Look at your support system
My first recommendation here is to consider who we are surrounding ourselves with. Is our environment causing us to play small? Look at the relationships surrounding you. Do they make you feel empowered? Or make you feel supported in being who you are and doing what you want? Find your people who allow you to be your authentic self, living in your full truth and acting in your purpose.
And consider who you are getting advice from. Are they doing something you admire? I mean, seriously, think about it. Would you ask for relationship advice from someone who is in a toxic relationship? And not only in the relationship but is also actively participating in playing toxic games? Probably not. Who you turn to matters.
Look at yourself
Now, turn to yourself. Take a moment to appreciate everything that you have done, what you have created, and how you have grown. Acknowledge what you have overcome. Celebrate yourself just a little before just rushing into the next goal or task. Sometimes we get so busy moving forward that we don’t even stop to smell the roses that we have worked so hard to grow.
We need to really take ownership for all of the amazingness we have created. For how much we have grown. The “you” from 5 years ago would be so proud of where you are now. For who you have become. I guarantee that in some way, shape, or form, you have become a more experienced and wiser version of yourself. You did that. Own it.
How we can be grateful for our fears
After the well-deserved hype session, let’s take a look at our fears. And, as weird as this sounds, let’s try to appreciate our fear. Because, up until now, it has served a purpose in our lives. It has kept us safe and given us the space that we needed to heal or know ourselves better.
Our fears can be so overwhelming. But do you know what sounds scarier to me? Not following our dreams. And not living up to our true potential. Getting to the end of our lives and wishing we had just done what we wanted to all along.
I’ve got a handful of questions to ask you. And I want you to truly take the time to consider the answers to these. After listening, go journal or write down the answers on your phone. Because you reading through these questions will not be enough time for you to contemplate your answers. But they are important ideas to consider.
What does it cost us to play small?
To not be who we are called to be. Or spread the messages that have been placed in our hearts to share. To do the work we are brought here to do. It costs us our happiness, our voices, and our freedom to live in our true potential.
And what does it cost others for us to play small?
We have to know that our purpose is bigger than us. Your message, your work, your help is for others. It’s costing them their potential to heal, grow, or excel in their own selves. This is the impact that you leave behind in this world. It’s lasting beyond your own life. It’s not serving them to play small, and it’s certainly not serving you.
What are you showing your kids?
For all of you parents out there, really think about what you want for your kids. Kids are like sponges, they are soaking up everything around them. That means every single behavior, mindset, belief, and word that you put out there. What do you want to teach them about this world? About the way that they move through this world? Lead by example. Show your kids that it’s ok to show up as yourself. To stand fully in your light.
What parts of yourself are you trying to hide?
Really think about the person you want to be. You might even have a role model that fits the idea. What about them do you admire? Now imagine if no one else could judge you. Who would you be? And what would you do with your life? Really, picture the way you would dress, the way you would talk, and move about in this world.
Really, we all can slip into the fear of judgment from time to time. It’s too easy to look to the opinions of others, social media likes, and follows for validation. But is that really how we should be measuring our worth? I believe that needs to come from within us. We need to be measuring our worth based on how we really feel about ourselves.
How do you feel about yourself?
Like, are we sleeping well at night with the decisions we’ve made throughout the day? Are we living wholeheartedly and expressing ourselves in all of the ways that we need? Do we feel satisfied with where we are heading in life? Worry is wasted energy. So quit worrying about what other people will think of you. Their opinion isn’t the one you should be holding the highest. If those people are truly your people, they will support you.
Take Action and Stop Playing Small
Stop dimming your light, my friend. Just like a lighthouse calls ships into harbors, you call people into your purpose by having your personal light on. It brings people to you. And they can’t find you if you are playing small and keeping that light inside of you turned off. Those people need you. They need to see you. To hear you. And to see what you are bringing to the table.
Step into your true potential. That means living whole-heartedly. Not half of your heart, not half of your purpose, not hiding half of you. Whole. Do everything with your whole heart. As a whole of who you are. Start living on purpose. With your purpose. Go read my article on Following Your Dreams. And start doing it.
You can use this time and energy that you have right now to make progress. To move in the direction that you want. Or you could use it sitting here worrying about other people and living in fear. And what’s the worst that can happen? Let’s play a little game and go through some worst-case scenarios.
Worst case scenario #1: You lose people.
Like I said earlier if people don’t stick around while you live fully in your best and highest self, they are not your people. They were not meant for you. Unconditional love means you are allowed to live wholeheartedly. It means you are supported and encouraged to live wholeheartedly.
And for the people you might lose in your life, because let’s be real – it could happen. That’s ok. It doesn’t say anything bad about you. And it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. You could be the ripest peach in all of the land, but there will still be someone out there who doesn’t like peaches. That doesn’t make you any less juicy or delicious.
When others don’t support you
So what might be happening behind the scenes for these people to leave? Or not be supportive? It’s likely that they’ve gotten used to your way of being in the world. Not everyone responds to change the same. It might put them off a bit to see you living in a newer, truer way. The changes in you could change the dynamic of the relationship.
While relationships should always be growing and changing along with us, not all relationships are built that way. I talked about this in my article on Friendship Breakups. You are not responsible for someone else’s response to your presence. That’s on them. Let’s say you have a fear of being intimidating. Instead of wording that as being intimidating, change it up to the other person feeling intimidated. Do you see what I did there? I changed the wording to show it is the other person’s experience navigating their feelings – not yours.
Worst Case Scenario #2: You don’t like the way it feels or it’s too hard to live authentically
Just like others might struggle to accept this seemingly new version of yourself, you might too. For some, it might feel liberating. Like a caged bird finally set loose. Or it might feel like being pushed on a stage, with a bright spotlight and a microphone, in front of a waiting audience. It’s also quite possible to feel a mix of the two, and that’s ok.
But think about a time when you were empowered. What would have happened if you had played small at that moment? In the moments leading up to you feeling empowered? That situation would have been drastically different, right? You wouldn’t be sitting here thinking so fondly of that memory. So show up for yourself again. Choose to make your future self proud again.
Worst case scenario #3: You fail
I’ll keep this one short. You only fail by not beginning. Failure is a part of the journey. Thomas Edison once said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This means that we all can use our failures as a way of learning. And if we are learning, we are not failing – we are growing.
And while we are on the subject of failing, let’s give ourselves a little bit more credit than that. What if you don’t fail? Believe in yourself. If you need more of a pep talk on this, go read my article on Imposter Syndrome. Because you are not the imposter here. If you are following where your heart is being called to, you have to believe that you belong there.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable to show up. I get it. Trust me, I still find myself getting nervous. But being uncomfortable doesn’t have to be a bad thing. That feeling is just a visitor passing through, it does not live here in your world.
And before I leave, dump your excuses on me. Let’s hear it. You don’t have time, you don’t have money, you don’t want to offend someone else or rock the boat. Well, when you open yourself up to your true potential, life has a way of handing you everything that you need. It might not happen right away, but it will happen. Because it’s your soul’s purpose.
The Value of our Purpose
And no one person’s purpose is greater than another. We all have something to contribute to this world. Whether that is physical work, mothering and nurturing, or supporting a greater change in this world. The part you play has value. It impacts all of our futures, even if it feels like it’s only in the smallest of ways.
I hope you start to show yourself to the world. Living in your purpose. And I hope you celebrate that. Because you have so much to offer the world. And to yourself. Show up powerfully in all that you do. Take up space, it is yours.
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