What if Playing Small is a Trauma Response?

I see so many posts saying, “Stop playing small,” as if people who aren’t showing up fully in their power are eagerly choosing a smaller life. 🙄 As someone who has been “living small” as a result of many disempowering beliefs, I thought it might be helpful to provide some perspective. It may prove eye-opening for people like me who are the last to volunteer for leadership roles, and for those who eagerly “step up to the plate.”

 image of 2 children in superhero costumes (masks and capes) standing, with text that states;  'Marlene Dillon Empowerment Specialist What if playing small is just a trauma response? mdillondesigns.com

From birth though the toddler years, we are typically very confident and feel we have a right to everything our soul desires. We’ll grab and take and cry for what we want until someone does our bidding. However, as we get older there many opportunities for us to learn that the world does not revolve around us, that people will not applaud everything we do, and that we can get in trouble for not following the rules everyone else seems to know.

These lessons can shift us from being naturally empowered, confident beings. Depending on the severity of the lessons, we may learn that it is not always safe to show up fully in our power.

This is why I believe “playing small” is a trauma response. I know that term is often overused, but it is true. If at some point in our lives (likely childhood) we were taught (directly or subliminally) that we don’t get to show up fully in our power, or that it’s not safe, we can develop a habit of choosing to take a back seat.

If you eagerly went out for the lead role in the school play, and not only did you not get the part, your classmates laughed at you for even considering yourself worthy to audition, it might leave a lesson in your mind that you don’t have the right to step into big roles. If you are the youngest of your siblings, and were constantly told “you’re not big enough” or “that’s too big for you” or “you’re too little,” you may still be holding that lesson in your mind and it will cause you to hold back and feel unworthy to step into bigger opportunities… until you address it. If your science project presentation in middle school went horribly, so horribly that even the teacher was giggling, you may have trouble speaking up in meetings at work. We often don’t realize that events in childhood, or at other significant intersections in life, are the reasons we don’t step fully into who we are meant to be.

Many, who don’t deal with these problems, can be less compassionate and say things like, “Oh, get over it. You’re grown, now. Let that go.” But for the mind, it’s not always that simple. We do the bulk of our learning between 0 and 7 years old. Then we spend the rest of our lives proving those lessons right. If you learned what a dog was at 2 years old and spent your entire life seeing dogs, and hearing people call these animals dogs, and noticing the difference between dogs and other animals, no one can come to you at 37 and tell you a dog is actually a cat. You’ve spent over 30 years solidifying that belief. The same goes for hard wired beliefs about who we are, what’s possible for us, and what we believe about how life works. We’ve been solidifying those beliefs for a long time.

However, if someone provides us with convincing evidence that what we believed is completely false, it’s possible to shift beliefs. We have to go back and override the lesson we received way back when. This is why I love inner child work. It may feel a little weird, but it is actually very effective. We can go back to those moments in our childhood where we learned a lesson that is not serving us, and reteach our inner child the new lesson. We don’t have to wait another 35 years to condition ourselves into a new belief. We can use the power of our imaginative mind, visualize having a conversation with our 6 year old self, explain the new lesson, and choose from that point forward to only affirm the new truth! Inner child work is fascinating.

When we use the term “trauma response,” people often think it’s too extreme. Trauma isn’t just a major death, abuse, a car accident, etc. To the mind #trauma can simply be the moment that what you once believed was dramatically shifted to another belief—possibly because of the actions or words of someone else. For the mind, traumatic moments are often simply the events that forever change the way we view a person, place, thing, or situation.

It is often through introspection—going back and healing these moments—that we find peace to move forward fully in our power. Inner child work is one of my favorite tools for #healing old beliefs, and figuring out what is holding us back. I highly recommend it, and if you need help with it, consider booking me for a 15-minute Empowerment Coaching Chat (Reach out to me on Facebook.) I hope this explanation has been helpful for you.


Marlene Dillon Empowerment Specialist

Co-Founder of SISTAMoms with Yvonne Monique Livingston LLC


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Marlene Dillon Empowerment Specialist is a single mom who lovingly shares her insights here for free. BuyMeACoffee offers readers a great way to support her work. You can securely send her a gift (a cup of matcha) as a thank you for this post. Simply tap the photo. Then, to the right of the screen, choose “Support” (to send her a one-time gift) or “Membership” (to give monthly). You can even add a thank you message! Blessings!

Published by Marlene Dillon Empowerment Specialist

Marlene Dillon is the CEO of MDillon Designs & Publishing. I teach girls to believe in themselves and choose relationships that support their goals. I teach children that their dreams are possible and that they are lovable. I teach parents to communicate with their children in healthy ways. In short, I.U.S.E. people. Inspire. Uplift. Support. Empower.

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