Remain in the Light

Thoughts on playing small and learning to expand

Nov 05, 2022

Life Lessons Personal Development Growth Spirituality
girl dancing in field with sun shining behind her

Photo by Jackson David

I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.

— Hafiz

As a writer, there are those pieces or topics that you know need to be written but that you avoid writing for as long as possible. They’re always in the back of your mind, though, lurking, anticipating the day they’ll be cemented onto paper. They tug at you, not lovingly, until you have no choice but to tend to them, if only to shut them up. There is a reason, of course, for their unrelenting, ceaseless intrusion. There is something there they want you to pay attention to, perhaps to resolve, but often to grow from.

If you’ve been writing long enough, it becomes a form of therapy, a way to untangle the knots in your conscience and make sense of your experiences. But just like therapy, there are topics we avoid discussing or diving too deeply into. For me, the following is one of them. And as uncomfortable and unnerving as it feels, it’s time to write about it. No matter how much I want to be doing anything else right now.

Shrinking is easy for me. Making myself small, to the point of invisible, comes naturally. Put me in a room full of people, and I will instantly find the smallest corner to crawl into. Shine the spotlight on me and I will freeze up, looking around for someone I can quickly hand it off to. We’re not talking introversion… this is good-old-fashioned fear of showing up fully as yourself, and her close cousin — fear of judgment, what others think. If you had to name the one thing that’s holding you back most in life, what would it be? For me, as I’m sure for many, this is it.

What is so scary about being seen, I ask myself. It gives others the opportunity to criticize, and if we place our identity in the hands of others for them to mold, it makes sense that criticism is feared because it shapes us. Very rarely are our issues just one thing, separated from the rest of our being. They are always tied to other elements of our psyche. Fear of judgment is related to low self-confidence, which ties into not being assertive, which leads to avoidance of conflict. All of which come together into a smorgasbord of unhealthy characteristics, a damaging cluster that dictates how I show up in the world. And shrinking is my fabricated — but reliable — self-defense mechanism that I’ve been using for as long as I can remember. The Achilles’ heel that consistently leads me down roads that no longer serve me, paths that cause me to stumble and fall, heart-first, onto jagged rocks.

There is a quote by Marianne Williamson that I love and was drawn to years ago, and I’m starting to understand why:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. . . Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. . . And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. What a concept. And yet, there is something about it that rings true for me. The thought that light can be frightening seems bizarre, but it’s what the light represents that is terrifying — showing up authentically as ourselves, flaws and all, for the world to see and do with it what it will. The light is everything we are capable of, all of our latent potential that has yet to be tapped into. Discovering this and then actually fulfilling it takes work, and above all requires courage.

We must be willing to ask ourselves existential questions that take us down an unsettling path if we want to create any lasting meaning in our lives. Questions like, “why am I here?” “what is my purpose?” “what is the meaning of life?” If the answers we arrive at cause us to want to contribute our best to life, versus wanting to retreat from it, then we will begin to be equipped for the birthing of our light. As we start to unveil the reason for our being here on this cosmic cocoon, we will inevitably become a part of its harmonious design, intentionally placed into our role in its “kingdom on earth as it is in heaven” mission. Each of us has a part to play, but that part is impossible to take on when we are hovering in dark corners, hiding from our light.

We are all meant to shine. Why? Because sicknesses can’t be healed in a spirit of hopelessness. Because souls by nature reach for expansion. Because the best version of humanity rises up when we remember that love, not greed, must be the bottom line. Because goodness and mercy and compassion don’t operate in the dark. We come into the world, filled with a God-given radiance that is eager to emit. And honestly, without the shine, we aren’t much fun to be around.

This in no way is a message to be “shiny” all the time. Being human inherently means periods of depression, loneliness, despair, frustration, grief. These can’t be escaped.

The message is this — to not fear the light inside of us, and to live a life that is led by it, a life that is continuously going in the direction of its unfolding.

Our purpose cannot be separated from our light; they are intertwined. Like the stars that become illuminated in the night sky, our light radiates out when we are living purposeful, authentic lives. Through this symbiotic relationship, life moves a little closer to a kinder place to inhabit, one brave soul at a time.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. Liberates them from what? From all the insecurities that hold us back. The negative thought patterns that cause us to spiral. The grievances we are tightly holding on to. All the ways others have failed to love us the way we needed to be loved. When we are free of these, we automatically show up differently in the world. We become powerhouses of compassion and empathy, able to offer support as well as to receive it. For we are not liberated for our sake alone, but for the sake of all those we share spaces with. As we break through our individual neuroses and afflictions, we become symbols of hope for others, proof that these can be conquered, however seemingly impossible when faced with our own.

Your playing small does not serve the world. This one hit me the hardest. It is so blunt. Playing small is second nature to me. It has become the societal skin I put on when I walk out the door. Or, for that matter, what I leave on when I come back home. I fall into it by default, like the family roles we assume instantly when we gather together with our family of origin — black sheep, peacemaker, clown, good girl, rebel, caretaker. Playing small is safe. It involves no amount of fearlessness. It remains quiet and passive, ensuring it is met with no resistance, no harm. And yet for all its so-called benefits, it is utterly worthless when it comes to anything remotely concerning living a purposeful life or serving others. A hard pill to swallow.

There is a reason the path of least resistance is so well-trodden and accessible. It is easier to leave the undiscovered, unexplored. It is safer to live lives of obscurity and leave the hard stuff, the excavation, for others. Showing up becomes equated with getting daggers thrown at you. So hiding becomes the norm. We grow smaller and smaller, until no one expects anything from us anymore, including ourselves. And here, we come upon a choice — to keep walking along the familiar path we know and have grown attached to, but one that is keeping us stuck, producing no fruit, or to step onto a different road and dare to be uncomfortable for a while, not knowing where it leads or what it will demand from us. The choice we make will alter the course of our life, as it should.

What is the light asking of us? To be unapologetically ourselves. To trust our own intuition. To bring forth from within us the offering that this world needs for its healing.

This is deep, challenging work. But it is profound and fundamentally necessary. If we don’t step into our light, the world will suffer, more than it already is. And we will suffer, confined in a mental prison of our own making. It is unbearably constricting. I would know.

I tell you this as I preach it to myself the most: Step into your light and remain there. Unfurl from your fear-bound state and spread out as wide as the rays of your incandescence can reach. Lift your gaze to the heavens and remember that the one who created you has plans “to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). As harsh as the spotlight might feel on you, experiment with standing in it. God might want to use it to speak through you. And most likely, it’s something you need to hear first. Pretty soon, you will stand in awe of what God can do with the mere embers we offer Him.

The only antidote, the only conducive response to shrinking is expansion. This is what I’m working on, one small act at a time. What does it mean to expand? It is the daily stretching of ourselves into our potential. It is getting outside our dear comfort zone and choosing to grow past our mental and emotional impediments. It is making choices that align with our highest self. It is saying “yes” to challenges when we’d much rather say “no thanks.” And, I’m hoping, this gets easier to do over time. But there will always be another stage to aspire to. This is the work of being a growth-oriented human. And there are no shortcuts, unfortunately.

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. This is the world I want to live in. One in which everyone feels empowered to shine their light and bring forth their gifts in service of us all. Idealistic, I know. But still worth envisioning. At least I can do my minuscule part by working on myself. Because I recognize, wholeheartedly, that my playing small is not serving anyone, least of all myself. And frankly, it’s become draining to maintain.

So let the expanding begin. Even as I type that, old fears creep up, old ways of thinking that would much rather I stay small “for my own sake.” But, as Anais Nin so beautifully put it:

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

Let’s risk blossoming. Let’s see what happens when we boldly take up the space that is ours to fill. Our presence is powerful, beyond measure. I don’t want to waste it contracted, avoiding the luminance I am capable of. And neither should you. Today, and every day thereafter, let us remain in the light. Let us expand, embracing the journey that invites us to brave stepping off the path of least resistance onto one destined to transform us. For we were born “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). So if not now, when? The world needs us to show up fully embracing our unique gifts and talents and expressing them the best we know how. Maybe, on the other side of our deepest fear, lies the very spiritual freedom we are seeking. All it takes is the courage to step into the spotlight. The light might be blinding, but our eyes will adjust.