Your childhood trauma tried to destroy you when you were little and you survived. Right now is the time when you get to decide whether you will take the path of real healing and become your full and real self — or whether you’ll take the road that looks easier, and keep playing small.
It sounds scary and difficult, but the hardest road of all is when you don’t heal your past. It’s when you don’t find a way of calming those intense triggers, and you have to keep your life very tightly controlled and isolated to avoid getting triggered.
You may think that if you don’t control yourself in this way, life will break you. I want to show you how you can open up (a little at a time )to experiences like friendship, romance and career growth – things that may have felt too stressful in the past – without breaking. It is possible for you to get out of “small” and get into the big, beautiful life you really want.
Let’s look at what’s really going on when you play small. If you’re like just about everybody with complex PTSD, people are triggering and sometimes they’re so triggering that you end up cutting them off, removing yourself from opportunities, just because you’re afraid of your own reaction. That’s going to come out of you when you’re triggered.
IF you have PTSD and you’re hanging out at work and somebody says something — they praise somebody else where actually you should’ve gotten half the credit for example. That’s a common trigger, getting overlooked. Adrenaline starts coming up. Your brain starts to dysregulate and emotions boil up. In this state, even though you’re a good and considerate person, you’re at risk for harming your realtionships and reputation on the job.
When I used to work in an office, there were times when something would just set me off and I would blurt things out that were too raw, too angry or defensive and I’d regret saying anything. So I learned to keep my mouth shut, to hold my ideas to myself, to go ahead and let things that were unfair happen, to not ask for a raise, for example, just because I was living afraid of how intense I would get if I were turned down.
We now know this kind of overreaction, followed by self-suppression, is fairly normal for people with CPTSD. But if you control it by avoiding life, you end up alone and unhealed. That’s a form of playing small.
A second thing that you might be doing when you play small is you’re staying stuck in blame. Now, if you were abused and neglected as a kid, that is so a hundred percent NOT your fault. The people who hurt you, they are to blame for hurting you; there’s no question there.
But right now they can not do anything about the past, even if they wanted to. And in most families where there was abuse and neglect, apologies are rare. Things are seldom set right. But even so, even if the abusers wanted to set it right, the damage has been done. Your brain has sustained that injury associated with abuse and neglect. It’s you who’s been suffering from having a dysregulated nervous system for much of your life, and it’s been affecting your behavior and your choices. So now it’s you who can heal that and start to change what happens next.
When put all our focus on the past, and avoid taking responsibility for healing from these harms, we simply give away all power to change the problem. And that is why I encourage you to hold abusers responsible, but refrain from losing yourself in bitterness and blame — not because they didn’t hurt you, but because you need to get that power back into yourself.
When you take back your power and move the locus of change into your own life in present time, you can start using all that energy for changing your life right now, for noticing where CPTSD is affecting you and learning how you can still succeed at the things you’re trying to do.
A third thing that might be a factor in you playing small is that you’ve grown too mentally foggy to take action on things, even when you know the right thing to do. And worse, you might have blamed yourself for not being sharper, more aware. The fog and the self-blame are common for people who went through abuse and neglect as kids.
You might be attacking yourself believing you’re stupid, lazy or that you have ADHD. You don’t necessarily have that. Sometimes that is a misdiagnosis of what are really symptoms of CPTSD (though sometimes it really is ADHD — you can consult your doctor about that).
When you’re making a plan to improve your life and take action and brain fog comes and settles down on you, it can feel like you’re like walking through honey or sand — so thick and awful. And it’s hard to see clearly and hard to move forward.
Sometimes just following through on a series of items on a list, just feels like so much and you only get one thing done. Then you slip into the fog again. That’s also a CPTSD thing.
Luckily, there are a lot of workarounds that you can do to start improving your mental acuity.
One of them has to do with diet, and there are many ways that you can eat in a healthy manner, but it usually involves eating lightly and not eating too much sugar or high-carbohydrate foods. You might want to try what happens if you just cut out sugar, just cut it out for a day and just see what happens to your ability to pay attention.
There are other things you can do too. I teach a technique for writing fears and resentments followed by meditation. That is the most powerful thing I ever did to get my brain back. I used to be really good at crossword puzzles, good at math, and really be able to write. These started to slip away as my CPTSD progressed (even though I didn’t know I had CPTSD). I chalked up my mental dullness to anesthesia or childbirth or aging. When I learned to master re-regulation through using the techniques I teach, it felt a tremendous boost in mental ability come back to me very quickly. I recovered a natural intelligence that I was born with; you were born with it too. But early trauma suppresses and drains people cognitively, and makes it necessary for them to play small.
You need and deserve to recover your alert and intelligent mind. Even if you’re in your sixties, seventies, or eighties or nineties, there’s more mental acuity available to you by learning to re-regulate yourself when you’re triggered and dysregulated.
Another reason you might be playing small is out of fear of expressing yourself, either because you worry you’re “too much” or because your ideas (you fear) will not meet with approval from others. That was a process I had to go through in order to start Crappy Childhood Fairy. It started out as a very safe and boring blog that nobody could object to what I was saying. Grradually I learned that the only thing that really made a difference in people’s lives or made them want to read my posts, was being real. So gradually I learned to talk about my real experiences, and discovered that thousands of people not only related to me, but were very happy to discover that they too, were not alone.
At times, doing this work has prompted individuals to try to get me “canceled.” It’s happened to me several times and I just kept going anyway. You can’t let them win. When you give in and stop speaking, it kills your spirit, your purpose in life.
When you begin to show up as your real self, telling the truth, having experiences worth sharing, having opinions that you’re courageous enough to express, having a heart big enough to express yourself both truthfully and with kindness, you can feel good about what you’re doing.
On the other hand, just telling the truth before you’ve learned the kindness can introduce more harm than good. And so we learn how to be kind and considerate and truthful, and do our research before saying things that might harm others’ relationships, livelihood or reputation.
I do hope more people will be morally rigorous about speaking truth, and standing up for others who are attacked. he more people speak up gracefully, the more they will claim their power back from those who’d suppress them for challenging common paradigms. It’s only when many people try to fly under the radar, afraid to speak, that that the person who does speak up becomes a target. It’s harder to make a target out of thousands of people.
So don’t let yourself play small over speaking up. Yes, there are risks, but it’s not as big a risk as shutting yourself down and ceasing to express yourself. Everyone benefits when we remain open and in robust conversation about a mixture of points of view, that’s very powerful and good and how it’s meant to be.
And finally, another reason that you may be stuck playing small is that you’ve gotten too used to waiting for opportunities, and you’ve forgotten how to ask, “How can I bring my unique talents and gifts to the world and make it better?”
That can be a threatening question for people with CPTSD, especially because good intentions can get sucked out of you as if by vampires. Growing up in an abusive or neglectful household often meant that as a kid, you had to take care of yourself and maybe even other siblings. And you ended upwith a big wall built AGAISNT saying yes to responsibility. That may be a great coping strategy for a 12 year old, but it’s not for 30 or 40 or 50 year old.
It’s time to say Yes to life and to show up and start using your gifts. That feeling that life is passing you by, that feeling of emptiness — that can mean there’s been too much avoidance and not enough standing up to bring your gifts into the world where they are desperately needed.
People need what you have to offer. CPTSD can make muddle your clarity about what that is. You can end up without enough trust, nor financial security, nor confidence to pursue it.
When we heal our trauma, we start to make a space in our lives for these new possibilities to come in. And we actually have a choice to say yes or no to them. A boundary is where you say no to something that isn’t right for you. When you do that, you make a big space in your life where you can say yes to the thing that is right. You learn to detect what is right for you through the gradual day by day process of healing your trauma, starting with dysregulation. This is where big life changes begin.
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