Why You Keep Playing SMALL

You had a hundred reasons not to shine when you were younger. Growing up with abuse or neglect, you may not have had the support or even the permission to be extraordinary – to be your unique, gifted and quirky self. If you want to fully become yourself now, you can’t let a traumatic past keep pressing you down just so that you can stay invisible and play small.

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Right now, you get to decide whether you will rise up onto the path of real healing and become your full and real self, or whether you’ll continue on the so-called “easy path.” In the short run, this path might feel easier, but you pay the price through your ongoing self-suppression – putting up with the empty and depressed feeling that playing small always demands.

I know from my own experience, recovering from abuse and neglect in childhood, that healing is the easy road. The hardest road of all is when you don’t heal your past – when you don’t find a way to calm those intense triggers – forcing you to keep your life very tightly controlled and isolated, tiptoeing around your own reactions.

You do this because you think that if you don’t control life, it will break you. I want to show you how to not break – how to open up a little bit at a time to experiences like friendship, romantic relationships and the pleasure of work, and to trying new things that used to be too triggering for you. I also want to give you the tools to enable you to get out of “small,” into the big, beautiful life you really want. If you want to stop instinctively protecting yourself, you need to look at what’s really going on when you play small. 

Keeping Quiet to Prevent Overreaction

If you’re like almost everybody with complex PTSD, you find people to be triggering. Sometimes they’re so triggering that you pre-emptively remove yourself from opportunities, just because you’re afraid of how you will feel if you put yourself out there. You don’t trust yourself to handle that feeling that rises up when someone triggers you.

There’s a little sequence that happens in your body when you’re triggered. Maybe you weren’t even aware that it was there, or you thought you were just overreacting. Maybe you told yourself you should just get over it (a self-attack that can make the effect of the trigger worse, by the way). Let’s say somebody at work praises someone else, when you deserve half the credit. Getting overlooked is a common trigger. Adrenaline starts flowing. You can feel it running down your arms, and your brain starts to dysregulate. It’s the pattern that happens to people who went through abuse and neglect when they were kids; reasoning goes down and emotions go up. 

Soon, an emotional statement comes flying out of your mouth, completely unregulated, and this outburst causes damage on the job. This used to happen to me, and I didn’t know then what the cause was, or why I would do something so self-sabotaging. I’d realize it was inappropriate or overly harsh later, but in the moment I felt like I had to speak out. I could see other people flinch when I spoke out, and would immediately feel shame, remorse, fear, and a desire to disappear. There were times when just the way I sounded saying certain things made me feel afraid to ever speak up. I’d make small talk, but when I had a strong opinion or needed to defend myself, I just wouldn’t open my mouth. I’d just let things go that were unfair or untrue. I didn’t ask for a raise or make a case to my boss to let me try new things that I wanted to learn. All of this was because I was afraid of how intense I would become when I expressed myself – especially when the stakes were high, or when there were some hurt feelings buried inside the reason I was asking to be recognized.

I now know that this silence during crucial moments is typical for people with complex PTSD. If you went through abuse and neglect as a kid, it’s normal to become dysregulated when you’re stressed and attempt to speak up courageously. If things tend to come out with a bit of an edge, you can learn to stay more regulated in those situations. You will have awkward moments in life, and you might have to apologize for your tone of voice sometimes, but this is a tiny price to pay compared to avoiding the problem altogether – withdrawing from your life, and saying nothing.

Staying Stuck in Blame

A second way you might be playing small is by staying stuck in blame. There’s no question that the people who hurt you are to blame for hurting you. It’s not your fault, and it’s good to heal from any idea you may have internalized that you deserved that treatment. However, right now your abuser can’t do anything about the past. They rarely even try, but even if they did admit to everything, they still couldn’t do anything about the past. The damage has been done. Your brain has sustained that injury of abuse and neglect. Now it’s you who needs to start healing. It’s now you who’s been suffering from a dysregulated nervous system for much of your life. Now it’s you who can heal the damage and start to change how this plays out.

When you believe that the problem that needs solving is the past, you give away all our power to change the problem. Take your focus off of the people who hurt you, even though they are to blame. You can step away from the blame game – not because they didn’t hurt you, but because you need to start using all that energy for changing your life right now. You need to bring that power back into yourself to notice where CPTSD is affecting you, and figure out a strategy to work around it, while still succeeding at whatever it is you’re trying to do. 

Getting Mired in Mental Fog

A third possible factor causing you to play small is that you’ve grown too foggy mentally to take action on things, even when you know the right thing to do. People who went through abuse and neglect as kids commonly experience brain fog, and often blame themselves – attacking themselves with the idea that they’re stupid, lazy, or that they have ADHD (which might not be true, even if you were diagnosed with it). Some clinical experts I trust say that ADHD is sometimes a misdiagnosis of what is really a symptom of CPTSD. You can ask a professional about that if you think it applies to you.

When brain fog comes and settles down on you, it can feel like you’re like walking through mud – something thick and awful that slows you down and wears you out. When you’re feeling stuck like that, it can be really hard to see clearly and make a plan of action. You might check one thing off a to-do list and then – oops! – back into the fog again! It’s a CPTSD thing. In fact, it’s a dysregulation thing. If you think you might be struggling with dysregulation, you can take my Dysregulation Quiz

Luckily there are workarounds that you can start using today to improve your mental acuity.

The first one is diet. Reducing brain fog usually involves eating lightly and not eating too much sugar and high-fast-carbohydrate foods. People love to debate the best way to eat, and there are many ways to do it, but try just cutting out sugar for a couple of days and see what happens to your ability to pay attention.

I also teach a technique for writing fears and resentments followed by meditation, which is the most powerful tool I’ve found to recover my focus and sense of inner calm.  Before I had this technique, I remember telling people, “I used to be really smart.” I was always good at crossword puzzles, and got good grades, but as my CPTSD symptoms worsened, I felt like my intelligence was wearing down fast (I asked the doctor if I could get checked for dementia when I was 30!). I had lost my ability to do math in my head, or write complicated ideas in a way that made sense. I was hopeless at keeping track of time, or remembering what was on my calendar.  I must have recovered about 30 IQ points since I learned to re-regulate my brain, my nervous system and my emotions through these writing and meditation techniques. They give me a tremendous boost in mental ability. It’s only in a state of calm awareness, achieved through this daily practice, that we can access the natural intelligence we were born with. Regardless of your age, you can always gain more mental acuity by learning to shift from a triggered state of dysregulation to a regulated state.

When your natural intelligence and awareness are suppressed, it becomes necessary to play small, or else you risk becoming too emotional or too angry. You can’t suppress yourself forever. You need that calm awareness. You need your intelligence back. 

Fearing Other People’s Disapproval

One final reason you might be playing small is because you fear other people’s disapproval. When you stop playing small, it sometimes means expressing yourself, including ideas that not everybody likes.

I had to go through this process to start Crappy Childhood Fairy, back in the day. I was afraid people would say I had no right to tell other people the things I was discovering about what worked, and what didn’t, so I started out playing it safe. I wrote a very safe and boring blog that nobody could object to – and nobody did, mostly because nobody bothered to read it!

Gradually, I learned that the only thing that really made a difference in people’s lives or made them want to read what I was saying, was me telling the truth. I started talking about what it was like to be me, how I felt when I used to try to tell my problems to a therapist, and what it was like when I had a breakthrough. What caused that to happen? What did I have to stop doing? The truth about my experience was messy and a little controversial, and I was always worried about getting canceled, but the blog ended up finding you.

I stopped playing small. I still get criticism and even hate mail now and then, but I don’t let it stop me. The work I share here has a life of its own, and it carries me forward now. I had to push it in the beginning but now it carries me along like a river. I was made for this river and the river was made for me. I wake up each morning excited to keep swimming.

When you play small, you don’t say anything that offends people. When you begin to show up as your real self, becoming open about who you are and telling the truth about what you know and believe, you take a risk. You’re able to take that risk when you also cultivate a loving heart, a commitment to be kind and thoughtful about how (and when) you express yourself, and a respect for other people’s right to disagree with you. 

Growing a sensitivity to others’ feelings and their dignity will gain you a lot of leeway to express how you feel. Nobody likes a bully, or a blowhard who spouts opinions without knowing what they’re talking about. But being kind and thoughtful and real is a powerful combination for opening other people’s hearts and minds, and this is where good things tend to start cropping up in your life.

If you’re in an environment where nobody speaks up, your self-expression will attract attention. Yes, there are risks, but they are not as big a risk as shutting yourself down and ceasing to exist or to express yourself. When you express yourself, you might even make it safe for others to express themselves. Everyone benefits when groups can remain open and in robust conversation about a mixture of points of view.

Your real self might come running out like a colt that hasn’t found its legs, or a little kid who is so excited they start crying. If you’ve had to suppress yourself, your development may have been delayed in some areas, so you might start out a little clumsy, but practice will make you smoother.

When you take your place among the people working to make the world better, kinder, and more supportive for those still struggling, you’ll begin to feel the unmistakable stir of happiness.  That feeling that life is passing you by – that emptiness – is what it feels like when there has been too much avoidance and self-protection, and not enough standing up to bring your gifts into the world where they are desperately needed.


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