How to unlearn ‘playing small’.

Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking, so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

How often do you take a step back? How often do you downplay your own potential in order to remain hidden among the crowd? Oh but we are always told that you’ve gotta stand out from the crowd but really, how often do you actively shrink away from the spotlight in order to be part of the background pattern and live by pre-conceived ideas about what a “shy” or “introverted” person should be?

I do it a lot. I did it during my teenage years, perhaps even more so as an adult. Come to think of it, the main reason I have stopped writing on this blog as freely as I did four years ago is because ever since starting my PhD journey, I always feel like there is someone else out there who could do a better job at explaining this than me, or, worse perhaps: who am I to be so conceited as to think that I am good enough to do something no one else is doing? Genuine thoughts, guys. You could think I’m exaggerating, sure, but just for one moment put yourself in the shoes of an introvert who barely stays chin-above the surface of an ocean of self-doubt.

You end up trying to occupy as little space as possible: physically, metaphorically… blending in. You admire people who approach life differently, but you could never be one of them. Your inability to take a compliment turns you against people and become dismissive of any sort of praise: “Your presentation was really good!”, or “You owned that main role as Buzz Lightyear in the Christmas panto!“, or “I read something on your blog and really liked it”, or “You’d make a great teacher”. These kind of comments tend to trigger my inner Holden Caulfield, dismissing them as phony or as a meaningless polite declaration. Because there’s no way in the world my presentation was any good! I am an INFJ, so by definition I should hate speaking – therefore I think I do. I am conditioned to think I do, and I allow others’ insecurities to define who I should be. But… truth is that it is not just me who feels this way, and recently I found out that others do, too.

Enter stage: a self-development course developed for female PhD students, SPRINT. I kid you not, this is the best thing I have signed up for these last couple of years.

PhD students come in all varieties, ages, ethnicities and life stages. Some of us are a blank 23-year-old slate, others have quit their lifelong jobs to pursue their dream of further study, others still have children to take care of and work two part time jobs to fund their research. And yet we all share something in common. SPRINT has facilitated a learning ground from women who are wise, experienced and inspirational: the other attendees of course, but also our wonderful coach and all the guest speakers, who shared their valuable life lessons.


Throughout the intense four-day course (spread out over four weeks), there were sessions in which we broke out into smaller groups of various sizes, participating in activities that addressed our ability to e.g. conduct an assertive (not aggressive!) conversation about an important subject whilst being continuously interrupted or not listened to; practice our ability to listen; to talk about our strengths and weaknesses; to think about our values and bounce them off each other into a wonderful spiral of realisation that we all share a common core. By enabling us to plunge into a diverse pool of ideas from a group of humble but awesome women, SPRINT has made us search within ourselves and come to recognise what it is that we do well in life, what we could do better, and what we could learn from one another.

One of our final small-group activities was to summarise SPRINT, what we got out of it and why we might urge someone else to sign up. One very creative group compared the course to an M.O.T: everyone needs one, no matter how old the vehicle, whether it is a bus, a Range Rover or a moped. You emerge with a toolbox of coping strategies for the long, arduous journey ahead. What a fab analogy.


Me? I will remember to eat my oranges mindfully and slow down. Life is not a race, and my PhD is not the be-all, end-all. It’s only the beginning 🙂

Somewhere within the depths of the resourceful folder (i.e. my new rulebook for professional and personal life), there was a poem. It is written by Marianne Williamson. It really struck a chord with me, as I had never previously been able to find that one quote or poem or speech that truly spoke to me… Until I found myself incapable of stopping my eyes from welling up at this, and my heart sort of skipped a beat.

“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. We ask ourselves, ‘who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?‘.  Actually – who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t 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, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we make our own light shine, we unsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Massive thanks to the organisers, Springboard, for facilitating this empowering progamme. And to Chris for being an awesome coach. And to my university’s graduate school for opening this opportunity up to us. And to all the guest speakers for being so inspirational. And to all the beautiful, strong ladies who provided such a supportive environment at times of vulnerability. You rock! And thanks to you for reading 🙂

5 thoughts on “How to unlearn ‘playing small’.

  1. Shamsa says:

    Dear Kaja,
    Thank you for the beautiful article. It’s well written and cherishes moments we had together during the Sprint programme. It also carries lessons learnt out of the experience we had from the comprehensive four days in springboard.

    It was really nice working with you and the rest members of Team Hope.

    Shamsa Al Sheibani (Oman)

    1. Kaja Milczewska says:

      Hello Shamsa, thank you for the kind words 🙂 I simply wrote what I felt, in the hope that someone out there might read it and decide to sign up if the opportunity arises!
      Working with you was great, I really hope we keep in touch. Thank you for being so full of honesty and wisdom, Shamsa!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s