What is it about playing small that’s so seductive? To inspire myself, I’ve plastered the line from that famous quote of Maryann Williamson’s on the wall in my office, “your playing small doesn’t serve the world”. And yet still I battle the urge to shrink. So what is it? Habit? An issue of self-esteem? Laziness? Perhaps. Annoying? Definitely! Some days, I can spin myself in circles trying to swat at this tendency like one of those dryer sheets clung to the back of my favorite shirt.

I had the luxury of a long drive today – one in which I could listen to one of my many books on tape. Today’s choice was The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It was on today’s journey that I got an insight as to why this “playing small” keeps drawing me in with its icy cold fingers, beckoning me like some needy friend. In his book, Ruiz claims that it is not death that we fear, but being alive. Sounds familiar. He must be friends with Maryann – the beginning of her quote referenced above reads, “It is not our darkness that we fear, but our light”. So, what possible reason would cause us to fear “our light” or “being alive”?

One word: Risk. It’s the act of stepping out from the shadows and into the light. Now consider doing it naked. And alone. That just upped the anti, didn’t it? The shadows in this scenario not only represent being one of the many in a crowd, blending into the masses – it also represents all the clothes we wear, the roles we have comfortably settled into, the way people have come to see us, to know us. To step into the light naked is to be known and be seen. It is to be pure and real, flaws and all. It’s what we all crave, right? If I had a dollar for every one of my coaching clients who claimed one of their core values was “authenticity” (or some other variation of this like “being comfortable in my own skin”), I would be able to retire. This is not to excuse myself from this craving – my particular version of this desire is a value I call “Kathryn Hepburn” (bold, willing to be herself no matter what people thought, outspoken). In fact, so common is this desire that it stands to reason most humans crave, ultimately, to be seen. One particular culture in South Africa addresses this primal need to be recognized in their common greeting, Sawu bona, loosely translated to “I see you”. The response is typically, Sikhona, “I am here”. In essence, until you see me, I do not exist. The desire to be seen is universal understood.

So back to playing small and why it’s so seductive. As I grapple with this two-step daily and watch this topic come up with a certain regularity with my clients, I’m guessing the underlying hesitation for all of us is an infatuation with the game “what if…”. What if I’m not good enough? What if I stand out too much and people think I’m egotistical? What if people won’t like me? What if nobody likes me… or worse, what if I’m not loved as I am? You get the idea. It’s a pretty high stakes game, playing BIG. Therein lies the seduction. Play small and you’re safe. But is that enough? Not for my clients or me. It’s like a persistent itch. If you ignore it, it just gets itchier until you are compelled to scratch it.

Here’s some “what ifs” for you: What if we all took a pact to step into the light naked every day? What if we didn’t wait? What if we didn’t apologize? What if standing in the shadows was the exception? What if we celebrated it and broke into applause instead of pointing fingers, talking in hushed tones, and waiting to soothe and console when people grew tired of being bold and retreated back sheepishly to the safety of the shadows?

One thing I’ve learned about taking risk these days is that it takes a village. Pardon the cliché, but it’s true. I’ve often referred to the countless women, friends, family members, professionals, and complete strangers who have cheered me on as I’ve started my own business as “midwives” of mine. They’ve helped me give birth to this new phase of my life and to claim my BIGNESS, not shy away from it like a teenager playing coy. They are there for me with a knowing smile when I feel that urge to retreat. They truly SEE me and believe in me. Am I lucky and fortunate? Absolutely. But there is something more. Something I created. Somewhere along my recent path, a wise voice deep within me reminded me that I didn’t need to do it alone. So I asked for help. Again and again I ask for help. And again and again, I shoo away that persistent voice that tells me I sound needy or I’m being a burden or imposing on the lives of busy people. All I have to do is look at them – to SEE them – and I can tell they are getting something from this experience, too. They are living. They are stepping into the light with me.

So like the ball of pizza dough taken from the refrigerator, the urge to contract upon expansion is only natural. But over time and with some pluck and determination, the dough relents and allows itself to assume a new and bigger shape. So, too, can our lives. It just takes a little elbow grease and encouragement. Be willing to sweat, ask for help, and surround yourself with believers and you’ll be better prepared to strip down buck naked and leap confidently into the light of the living!