When Roaring is Discouraged, Learn to Roar Anyway
by Patti Digh
When I was young, I believe it was clear to my parents and teachers that I had a gift of some kind. I was unaware of it, but all my straight A report cards and audiences with the Governor and visits to a psychologist for IQ tests and summers at Gifted and Talented Camp would point in that direction, if I had ever bothered to add them up. I just thought this was how it was—this was my “ordinary.” I was recruited to grade the papers of others in my first grade class, for example, which I see now would have been insufferable in a child less humble, less intent on being like every other kid.
I wasn’t just smart with a genius IQ—and preternaturally so—I was wise and I was a leader, and that scared some adults, I can see now. It didn’t scare my fellow classmates because I never spoke of it. I just lived it, with a humility that bordered on self-deprecation and a loss of self, I now see.
The two messages I got in my youth were these: “You can do anything you put your mind to” and “You are smarter than other people and need to not outshine them.” Those two messages have translated through 55 years of life to these: “You can do anything you want—and you’d better” and “Play small so as not to overshadow others.” Only now do I realize how contradictory those messages were.
I have played them so well in my life, like a dutiful kid—the first by becoming an overachiever of the highest order and a perfectionist; the second by never owning my gifts, but good golly-ing them away as Gomer Pyle might do. I still do this—at a recent interview to become a Board member for a local nonprofit, we all introduced ourselves and told some of our background. I finished, and the Executive Director of the group said, “Wait a minute, Patti, haven’t you written a number of books?” Even still, it is hard for me to acknowledge what I have done, because I feel conspicuous when I do, and I have done a lot.
My parents and others in the community did not mean to give me instructions that were so contradictory, but they did. And all of us, when given the chance to examine our patterns, will likely find messages that work against one another, leaving us somewhere in the middle, unable to roar. I find it in myself when asked to give a speech and unconsciously lower my status as “expert” in the very beginning of the speech, to level the playing field. I would also prefer to not speak from a stage, but from a place level with the audience where, tellingly, many of them cannot even see me.
This has translated, too, in the dissolution of any boundaries between me and other people, because I am going out of my way to be with, instead of elevated above. To help others at the detriment of myself, to be unable to say, “I am a writer,” for example. There are so many ways in which I have perfected this.
As I read over this essay, I am cringing with what seems like egotism to me. I have, all my life, never said these things about being brilliant and wise and a leader. Ever. And in never owning these things about myself, I have not only diminished myself and the ways in which my gifts might help others in a bigger way, but I have diminished others around me. This became evident to me in a meeting with a psychiatrist a few weeks ago when these and other issues had become too much for me. I described this “playing small” directive and how it had played out in my life. He paused, raised his right eyebrow, and said words to me I had never considered: “Can you see how insulting that is to other people?”
And in that moment, I could see. I could see how playing small paradoxically assumed the inabilities of others. I had never seen it that way. I could see how being self-deprecating was insulting to people who thanked me for my gifts. I could see how humor had become my deflection of choice when someone noticed my gifts and offered praise—playing small had so deeply become the only way I could think of to minimize my own roar and help others roar, to insist that others had a roar in them as big as my own and that my job was to help them find and use it, rather than roar myself.
Now, with the help of Dr. Eyebrow and others, I see otherwise. I see that my own roar is a call to that roar deep within others. I see that my leadership abilities don’t serve anyone if I hide them. I see that my wisdom—my “old soulness”—is a gift I am not to squander by refusing to acknowledge it or by hiding it. I see that I have been living an either/or story: Either I could be humble, or I could be an egomaniac. Either I could be silent, or I could be an egomaniac. Either I could never acknowledge my accomplishments, or I could be an egomaniac. I now see that playing small or being brilliant are not an either/or equation, but a both/and one, and that I need never buy into a story of ego that seems unhealthy to me, that seems detrimental to me–but that there is another story of ego I can live, and healthily so. My psychiatrist gave me an RX: “Support and encourage people, but no problem-solving. No self-deprecating language.”
I now know that I am not here to fix other people’s problems, but to encourage and support their journey. I now know that by not having my own clear boundaries, I have encouraged others not to. So I am working hard to step away from my smallness, not by taking more on, but by taking on less. I am working hard to create boundaries that until now have felt like “playing too big,” but I now know are “playing to be healthy,” for me and others. I now know that when people say “thank you” in such lovely ways to me for my work in the world, I can simply say “thank you” without making small, which in turn diminishes their gift of thanks.
In truth, I have seen who I am as a liability all these years. I am finally ready to allow myself to roar. Sometimes, these things take time.
This is my first roar.
Patti Digh is the author of 8 books, including Life is a Verb, one of 5 finalists for the prestigious “Books for a Better Life” award. She is also the Founder of Life is a Verb Camp.