How I’ve spent a lifetime playing small, and why that is no longer an option
As we pulled into the busy gas station, all the bays were full with cars waiting. I picked a line, waited my turn, and then felt the anxiety mounting as I hurried to get out of the car, run my card, open my fuel cap, and fill my tank. People were waiting and I needed to get out of the way as quickly as possible.
The wind whipped my hair, and as I shook it out of my face, I looked around and noticed no one else was rushing like I was. I looked like I was panicked, maybe late for work, maybe just high-strung. Others were getting into their cars and taking time to put their cards away into the purses and wallets; I always shove mine under my leg while simultaneously wrapping my seatbelt across me. In that moment, though, I just felt this shift: It’s OK if you take up space. It’s OK if you take your turn.
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Thinking back through the years, I realized I’ve been playing small, trying to take up as little space as possible, getting out of the way for others, sometimes disappearing if needed. When I’m driving, I will exceed the speed limit if there’s a line of cars behind me, because I need to keep going or get out of their way. At the grocery store, I unload as fast as I can so that others don’t have to wait on me. And at any kind of event with a line, I have a tendency to keep stepping back for others to go ahead of me.
On the surface, this can sound in some ways like I’m just being courteous. But the truth is, it’s a leftover survival technique from my past. Be quiet and no one gets angry. Stay out of the way and no one gets hit. Just take the abuse and it’ll stop rather than getting worse.
How do you know if you’re making yourself small?
- You apologize for asking questions
- You don’t ask for help when you’re struggling
- You don’t share an opinion
- You sit in the back of the room
- You rush to get out of everyone’s way
- You never take pride in your accomplishments
- You are a people pleaser
- You say yes when you mean no
- You take care of everyone but yourself
- You talk negatively to yourself about yourself
Life coach Toni McLellan* shares this bit of advice —
Here’s a handy mini-practice for anyone who has a hard time loving themselves and says mean things inside of their head: Don’t call her terrible names, because that inner voice is a part of you, and the goal here is to cultivate love for all parts of yourself. Consider that inner meanie as a well-meaning relative whose goal is to keep you safe and protected. When we try to stretch outside of our comfort zones, that inner voice steps in to protect us, sometimes even by saying really awful things, like “You’ve always been a failure; who do you think you are to go back to school?” Why? Because it works; if we listen to that voice, we shrink back and stay where we are. And that inner meanie is a stodgy old curmudgeon who loves everything to remain exactly the same, which isn’t exactly a good thing when you want to change.
So, when that voice comes up, pause, take a deep breath, and say “Thanks for the input, but I’ve got this.” You can even write a letter to your inner critic/mean voice/dowdy headmistress, thanking her for her years of loyal service, but that you need to take risks and try new things in order to grow, and you’ll be safe the whole time and they don’t need to chime in or come to your rescue anymore.
Loving yourself, walking tall, and being fully you means understanding you are worthy. You are allowed to occupy the space you are in. You can ask questions and seek help. You are allowed to make noise and sit up front and be proud of yourself. Just don’t give up.
Understanding and acknowledging how I’ve been living has split me wide open to possibility. What if I allow myself to be BIG? What if I allow myself to be SEEN? What if I allow myself to TAKE UP SPACE?
The people of my past hold no more power over me. They don’t get to hold up space in my head and heart. And they certainly don’t get to make me rush to get out of their way, to be small, to be invisible. I will no longer give power to those who once hurt me, nor to those who think me unworthy. I will not give up on this journey, and I will not give up on me. As I continue to work on the reclamation of myself, I vow to play small no more.
“Your playing small does not serve the world.” -Marianne Williamson
*Toni McLellan is a coach, writer, podcast host, and speaker. She can be found being super amazing online at tonimclellan.com