Places To Shine

I’ve found myself in several group situations recently in which I’ve been feeling something I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s been very reminiscent of the feelings I had throughout my school years as the “gifted” kid in class and has forced me to confront the same questions: Do I pretend I don’t know the answers? Do I sit on my hands and act like I don’t know what to do next? Do I keep my big ideas to myself? Or do I speak up?

By age six, I understood the consequences of being true to my talents and abilities. Already a quiet introvert who preferred the interior world of ideas to the outer world of people, my academic successes further set me apart from my peers. There were petty competitions and jealousies, and I was quickly labeled a teacher’s pet. I’ll never forget the kid who sat across from me in first grade who would show me his math paper after each quiz, but just the top portion with the red-inked smiley-face. The rest he hid under his desk so I wouldn’t see it was the same quiz each time – the only one he had aced. His pain was obvious and it was a hard thing to know that just being myself (and doing what the grown-ups were asking us to do) was hurting people. So just as he lied to secure my acceptance, I often chose to hide aspects of myself in hopes of preventing such hurts and having something of a social life on the playground.

Fortunately, this didn’t go on for twelve more years. The school district we lived in developed excellent programs for “talented and gifted” students and I found peer groups in which I could relax and be average. In college, it wasn’t an issue at all. But still, even in high school, there were occasions among friends when I chose to keep silent rather than risk hurting others or their judgment of me. No matter how humbly presented, sharing something as innocuous as a standardized test score could elicit a plunge in the hearer’s self-esteem and make me a snobbish braggart at the same time. I could roll with people’s judgments of me – they weren’t fair, but they were understandable. What I couldn’t handle was their harsh judgments of themselves. So I shut up. And I stopped challenging myself (fewer achievements to hide that way).

But back to what I was saying: I’ve found myself in several group situations recently in which I’ve been feeling something I haven’t felt in a long time. And, as an adult, I recognize it for what it really is: not just intelligence, but also a sense of leadership.

Reflecting on some of these situations, I can see that acting on that sense of leadership was inappropriate. Finding oneself in a classroom situation, for example, which turns out to be a tad below one’s skill or knowledge level does not make it okay to usurp the instructor’s leadership position. My intent was enthusiastic participation, but by expanding on topics and getting discussions off on tangents, I prevented other students from equally contributing and, more importantly, from gaining the basic knowledge they came to learn. In these cases, the issue was not about hiding what I know, but about being considerate and respectful of the group, and mindful of its best interest. [The real lesson learned: I need to choose workshops more carefully in the future. I’ve also decided to teach some of my own – more on that very soon.]

But in another recent situation with less clear leader/follower roles than a classroom, my input – though solicited and offered in turn and on topic – was met with resistance. And when it happened I had that old familiar feeling of my abilities being a threat to people. The discomfort was palpable – up went their defenses and out came their judgments. It wasn’t so much my ideas that were the problem; it was that I clearly didn’t know my place.

Now, there are two ways of knowing one’s place – externally and internally. In the classroom situations, for example, my role was partially determined by the structure of the course – but how I chose to participate was determined by my own mindset. Problems arise when those outer and inner cues are mismatched or inaccurate. Just as others may not see me clearly through the lens of their own prejudice, whatever limiting (or exaggerated) beliefs I have about myself and the assumptions I hold about what is expected of me can cloud my perception of my rightful place in a group.

Not knowing one’s place within a group and not knowing in which groups one has a true place can both trip you up.

So, what’s a gal who’s feeling the call of leadership to do? In the face of such difficult group dynamics, should I withdraw my active participation, if not my presence altogether? Is the group and its cause important enough to me that I’m willing to stay and struggle through finding my place? Will that struggle ultimately benefit or hurt the group? Should I apply my leadership skills elsewhere to promote that cause or is this group the place to do it? Does the group need my leadership? What if what I think it needs is not what its members want?

When I was younger, I’m sure I would have sadly retreated from a situation that brought up such questions. But as an adult, knowing how holding back that way held me back from valuable opportunities, it just makes me mad. First the anger is turned outward: When there is so much we could be doing, who are you to ask me to hide my light under a bushel so you don’t have to feel uncomfortable or challenged? Then the anger is turned inward: Who am I to hide my gifts to spare the feelings of others?

There are occasions when retreat is clearly in the best interest a group. But in this case, choosing a silent and safe withdrawal seems a cowardly and selfish move that will benefit no one in the long run – not me, not the group, and not the people/community the group serves.

Turns out this group matters to me, as does its cause. So my reply to the questions of – Do I pretend I don’t know the answers? Do I sit on my hands and act like I don’t know what to do next? Do I keep my big ideas to myself? – is NO. I must speak up. For the present, I feel the group is best served by my generous and honest engagement in it.

And so I am reminded of this wisdom from Marianne Williamson and hope you find the same encouragement in it, wherever you may be holding yourself back.

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 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, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. 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.”

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