How is playing small serving you? This is a question that came up for me in a morning journaling session recently. It got me thinking about how I play small. Turns out, it was harder to reflect on than I thought, forcing me to admit some hard truths to myself. But, let’s start at the beginning…
What does playing small mean?
Playing small means that you avoid risks and actions that might cause a problem or make you feel uncomfortable. The result is that you don’t achieve your goals. I think of it as a form of self-sabotage. Playing small means that our actions are motivated by our fears, insecurities and low self-worth.
When we act in this way, we are running on the theory that we are protected from risk, that any failures aren’t so visible or we may even think that we are safe from failing. We might stay in jobs that we don’t like, take promotions we don’t want, or keep pleasing people in the same way, thus staying within our comfort zone.
We're taught to play small from a very young age. To be quiet, hide our accomplishments and keep our opinions to ourselves (especially girls). There is a lot of shame out there for taking up space, in being seen and heard. Why? 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. I do it myself, my kids are loud in the house, but outside the home, I ask them to be quieter, let people think they're feral! Ah, the fear of being judged and rejected.
This is a really common fear but there are others like a fear of losing people, offending others, or being made fun of. We might fear we won’t be accepted or even fear being vulnerable enough to be seen in the first place. Another common one is a fear of change because comfort zones are called comfort zones for a reason.
Getting stuck in our comfort zone
The issue with comfort zones is that we keep growing to fit them and then, at some point, we feel uncomfortable. Perhaps we feel restless but we don’t know what to do about it, so we feel stuck. In these moments we are often afraid to show the world our true selves, but it is by opening our true selves to the world that brings us happiness and fulfilment.
In the past, I have felt this way and deep down have known why but not wanted to act on it. I was too scared. I was playing small, frightened to put myself out there. I would share my intentions, and my goals and get so excited but then, inevitably, the fear would set in and I would get back into my comfort zone.
How are you playing small?
Playing small can show up in a lot of different ways for us. Sometimes I feel like a dual person. There is my authentic self – 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.
When I received the question "how are you playing small?" recently I had to acknowledge I was in the spiral again. I spent some time in reflection and I realised that when I play small it's because I am scared of rejection so then I either don’t try, or if I do and I receive a no, then I take that as rejection and then make up a story about how it's my fault. I tell myself that it’s me they are personally rejecting because I am not enough.
For me, playing small shows up as the following behaviours:
- I wait to be asked instead of believing I have something useful to offer
- Procrastination on tasks that might result in me being rejected
- Fixed mindset when it comes to feedback and/or being defensive about it
- Making up stories as to why I am a failure
- I try and do everything for everyone and resent it
“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.” - Marianne Williamson
How to stop playing small
Sounds fun doesn’t it?! There is some good news though, once I notice myself in this mindset I can do something about it. This is the same for you too if you’re feeling this way.
Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to celebrate others and to be kind to others? When I look at my behaviour when I'm playing small, I can’t celebrate my achievements, no matter how small.
This is because I'm telling myself a story that being humble is good. That being loud and powerful is bad; that it draws attention and makes me look arrogant. I tell myself that I will be perceived as "too much" if I celebrate my achievements. But this isn't true.
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.
Instead, I challenge this story. I considered the advice I would give to someone else and I challenged the root cause - the fear of rejection. I've focused on times when I have taken risks and it's all worked out, all of the kind words I receive from the folks who I work with. I remembered all of the times that people shared their stories, their own fears and their accomplishments.
Acknowledge what you have overcome. Take ownership for all of the amazingness you have created. For how much you 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.
Consider your support system
Who are you surrounding yourself with? Does your environment encourage you to play small? When you look at your relationships, do they empower and support you for who you really are? Are they playing small or are they inspiring you to go further?
When we surround ourselves with people who allow us to be our authentic self, live in our full truth and act in our purpose, we can play bigger. These folks cheer us on, they give good advice and listen without judgement.
I love the quote Brene Brown gives in her dare to lead book. A quote by Theodore Roosevelt:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.…
Stop dimming your light. Just like a lighthouse calls ships into harbours, 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.
I would like to pose you a question: What if you believe that people want what you have to offer - how would that change the way you behave?