Why Women Sometimes Play Small…by Ginny Robertson
I know a lot of women. I know women who play big and I know women who play small. I also know women who play it safe in between A place I like to call mediocrity.
What do I mean by playing small? For me, playing small means that I am afraid to be “seen.” It means that I don’t step out and announce my presence. It means that I sit on my dreams waiting for them to find me. It means I let others define who I am. And it means that I take the road most traveled instead of forging a new path.
I haven’t always played big. The women role models I had growing up did not play big. They played the role they had been given and that role did not allow for a lot of ambitious thinking. In my experience, baby boomer generation girls were relegated to the sandbox, while boys were encouraged to climb the monkey bars. Growing up I often heard the question “Who do you think you are young lady?” or the stern caution of “You’re getting a little too big for your britches!” The message I got loud and clear is that nice girls don’t show off, don’t tell you how good they are at something, don’t brag, don’t have dreams that are “too big” and never, ever throw sand in the sandbox. So I figured out, at a young age, that in order to be a good girl I had to diminish myself. I had to play small so I wouldn’t look like I thought I was better than anyone else. I had to keep my dreams to myself because who was I to have dreams this big?
This started a good girl pattern that lasted well into my mid-30’s. Even today, at the age of 57, the good girl is right under the surface waiting to emerge at inopportune moments. Fortunately, I manage to quiet her most of the time. But for the fist 35 years of my life I did what I was told. I got good grades because that’s what good girls did. I went to the college my parents chose and majored in education because that’s what they wanted. I started a career with a major corporation who said they would pay for more education if I majored in business administration with a concentration in finance. So I did. I accepted promotions based on others’ assessments of my capabilities, instead of my own desires. And I stayed in a marriage that was dying on the vine because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.
Looking back, I see that I did not have a life plan. I did not have a career path. I was simply reacting to other’s choices for me and was not self-aware enough to know that I was not happy with those choices. However, it was very safe. The chance of rejection was slim. I didn’t make any waves so I pleased everyone but me. Playing small was the outcome of all of that training.
At the age of 35 something frightening and wonderful happened. I started to doubt those choices. I summoned up the courage to disappoint a lot of people and ended my marriage. I started wondering if maybe life was supposed to be fun and adventurous. I started to look inside to see what I was made of and what mattered in my life and I discovered a gigantic lack of congruence between what was most important to me and what I was showing to the world. There’s a terrible truth about self-awareness. Once know…things cannot be un-known. So what began as a restless internal nudge became a loud wakeup call. And there was no going back.
I continued this process of self-examination and discovered there were things I wanted to be and do. I discovered skills I didn’t know I had. I found I loved to be in front of a room talking to people, teaching and facilitating…something I had resisted before. I found that I was a natural leader and that people valued my opinion. I said yes to things that scared me…like leaving my well-paying, benefit laden career for a chance to do something I loved. I found that once I took a risk it was hard to go back to that fearful place again. When I stepped out of my comfort zone…my comfort zone expanded and I had a bigger playing field which made the next decision easier.
So how do you know if you are playing small in your life? Start by asking yourself these questions: (1) Am I feeling restless inside? Is there an internal gnawing and dissatisfaction that says something is not right…that there must be something more? (2) How do I react to others I think are playing bigger than me? Do I admire them? Scorn them? Am I envious of them? (3) Do I care more about what people think of me than I do about living my dreams? (4) Do I really know what is important to me and do I live accordingly? (5) When was the last time I had that adrenaline rush of stepping out on a limb and not knowing if it was going to hold me or not?
Taking some time to reflect on and answer these questions can be the first step to discovering where you are right now. And here’s what I believe…Once you identify areas of your life where you want to make changes…the perfect people and opportunities will show up to help you find the way. Pay attention so you don’t miss them!