Have you ever been told you are too much, too emotional, or too intimidating? For that matter, maybe you’ve felt too ambitious or too strong.
This word, “too” comes up all the time in my conversations with women. Maybe it’s the men in your life who have suggested you dial it back. Or, maybe it’s female friends who don’t quite know how to take you.
In fact, many women have been taught these qualities are downright bad. It comes across through subtle or overt messages like these:
- Who does she think she is?
- A woman should be meek and quiet.
- It’s better to stay small to get along.
In response, maybe you have tried to reign in your ideas, be less intense, hide your emotions, or even make sure no one knows about your secret goals or successes.
If you’re an athlete, maybe you took your strength, competitiveness, and drive out on the court or field, only to bury it everywhere else. If you excel at your work, maybe you quietly ace your job, but are very careful not to let anyone know.
It’s one thing to be humble, don’t get me wrong, but so many women feel that they need to hide aspects of themselves. They feel that they need to stay small to get along with others.
There are a lot of very good reasons we get this idea in our head. Some are silent messages that linger in our culture, such as:
- You should only think of others.
- You should always deny yourself.
- It’s your job to sacrifice your goals and dreams.
The subtle power of these messages is strong. They are in the air that we breathe. They are taught throughout homes, schools, and churches. We hear them as impressionable young girls. If you grew up in a religious environment, some of these messages were even portrayed as Biblical.
In more recent years, there is a different message many women are being taught. That message is reflected in voices like these:
- Only listen to yourself.
- Put yourself first.
- Who cares what anyone else thinks?
These messages take us to another unhealthy extreme.
Neither set of messages gets it quite right.
Neither set of messages is the way of following Jesus.
So, what’s the solution?
Let’s look at what Jesus said:
Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. —Matthew 5:15-17
This passages shows us 2 key countering messages: Your job is not to hide your light. It’s also not to focus so much on your light that you forget the larger goal—to shine that light into dark places so that everyone around you can warm up in its glow.
Instead, your job is to become the truest, deepest version of your God-given self. As you lean into becoming the woman God created you to be, your light shines in such a way as to lift up other people, too.
Why do we stay small?
It may be that you were shamed as a child for a really wonderful aspect of who you are. For example, you might have been shamed for being too assertive, speaking up too vocally, being the teacher’s pet or not playing along with the in-group. These burdens of shame we pick up as young children are extremely powerful. As adults, we might understand that we no longer have to feel this way, but parts of you have learned that it’s not safe to shine as your truest self.
In fact, if you were someone who didn’t fit into the socially sanctioned “group norms” as a young child—or as an adult—you likely figured out social survival strategies to camouflage parts of yourself.
If you’ve been in an abusive relationship, you may have needed to stay small in order to avoid retaliation. You may have experienced real harm for standing up for yourself or shining just a little too brightly. That fearful part of you is there for a reason. That part of you may carry a legitimate belief such as: “If you show too much of yourself, you’re going to get smacked down.”
If this is your experience, honor that fearful part of you and also reach out for help. Look for support from those who can help you find your way into love that is not fear-driven. As you disentangle from the toxic relationship, you can find healing from the inside out. You can learn to discover the kind of people who celebrate all of who you are. You’ll learn to heal the fearful part of you and transform it into bravery.
Some women are sensitive to the insecurities or challenges of those around them. They feel guilty, and as a result stay small as a sort of self-sacrifice. This sensitivity is a beautiful quality. However, it can also keep you from doing the hard work of coming out of your own hiding. The truth is that you living out of your truest self honestly with humility is the best invitation for other women to do the same. No one around you needs you to stoop down, so they can feel better about themselves. Instead, becoming all of who you are is the best gift you have to give other women, your daughters, and your friends.
Whether you deal with shame, guilt, or fear, remember this:
If you make yourself like camouflage and always blend in, you can avoid conflict, bullying, pettiness, and resentment.
You also avoid intimacy, connection, and the joy of being known.
Soon, you’ll look around and realize how lonely you are. You might even be surrounded by people, community, and friends. Yet, no one really knows you. They only know the version of you that stays in the shadows.
How to Stop Staying Small
Living out of your truest self doesn’t happen overnight. It starts with taking small steps every day to honor yourself with integrity in your relationships with other people. Here are some steps to consider:
1. Notice your instincts to stay small.
Start by honoring how hard parts of you have worked to keep you safe all these years. Get curious about the ways you have learned to blend in, diminish yourself, or fly under the radar. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you stoop your shoulders or hunch over so as not to take up too much space?
- Have you learned to talk in such a way so as not to appear too intelligent?
- Are you self-deprecating or do you often make fun of yourself? Having a sense of humor about oneself is often a good quality. But, if it goes too far and becomes a strategy for diminishing yourself around other people, it’s not healthy.
- Do you downplay or apologize for your accomplishments?
- Are you quick to deflect a compliment or scared to let someone see your good qualities or your successes?
All of these are habits or learned behaviors that you picked up somewhere to stay safe. Start noticing and ask yourself: how are these habits serving me now?
2. Identify small steps toward change.
Learning to live out of your truest self with authentic humility takes practice. Here are some small steps you can take that will grow into habits:
- Become aware of your posture. As you work on inhabiting your whole body—literally standing up tall—you are showing up as your true self.
- When someone asks you your opinion, answer honestly.
- Challenge yourself to 7 days of not apologizing unless you can identify something you actually did that was wrong.
- Try taking a 30-second pause before deflecting a compliment.
- Take an inventory of aspects of yourself you’ve been tempted to hide. What would it be like to reclaim those aspects as beautiful and God-made?
Notice the difference between the two columns in the table on the right. What would it be like to practice claiming some of the statements on the left column?
It can be hard to stand tall as a confident woman. Sometimes you may ruffle a few feathers around you.
But, playing small never served anyone. Instead, learning how to be your true self, with genuine humility, is how you honor God, yourself, and the people around you.