Tags: comparison, fear of outshining, Imposter Syndrome, perfectionism, Renovaters and Florences, self-compassion, self-soothing

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Last week, I had what I refer to as a ‘punchbulb moment’: a lightbulb moment that punches you in the head, aka an epiphany. Like when I suddenly clicked that what had happened with my father and his family (being frozen out and the Chinese whispers) was part of a bigger pattern that existed before I was even born and the grief anguish dried up. Or when a series of incidences related to having failed my driving test twice while pregnant along with a few work-related things shone a light on the fact that I am a perfectionist (a recovering one now, thankfully, although it takes vigilance!)

Anyway, last week I failed my driving test for the third time. Guess what? The sky didn’t fall down, although I did bawl my eyes out a few times on the day. I felt embarrassed (I hadn’t realised the car had crept up to 35 in a 30 zone) and desperately overtired. But I’ve rebooked my test and have done plenty of self-soothing.

Anyway, I digress…

Last year, I had hypnotherapy because I kept having a dodgy tummy when feeling stressed. Overnight, these symptoms vanished, and I now feel like I can rely on my stomach. A couple of days before my driving test, I had a ession with the aim of calming my anxiety. Sitting there in the chair, chatting what to my own ears sounds like crap, I experienced my punchbulb moment.

I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of, “For some reason, I’m thinking of my brother [the one who’s eighteen months younger than me and we were almost like twins growing up]. I used to feel bad because I was always made out to be the brainy box, almost genius. And they were always making out that he wasn’t... I learned to feel guilty and wanted to protect him… I wanted to give him a chance…” Despite [what I was saying] seeming unrelated to my anxiety, it felt vital to sit up and pay attention.

I rambled on some more, including about how I’d learned to rebel and not stretch myself so as not to invite even more expectations but also because I didn’t want to lose him. In the days since, lots of things have started slotting into place, and I see something so clearly now:

I was a perfectionist, but more importantly, I’m someone who unwittingly trained herself not to outshine.

When you try not to outshine others, it’s about the people pleaser in you that wants to protect somebody from feeling bad due to your feeling good or doing well in a particular area.

At some point, you made a link (association) between your talents, achievements, accomplishments, as well as people’s perceptions and expectations of them, and a particular person’s own set of these as well as how they are perceived. You may have mistaken “love” and “care” for playing it small. And even though that person has evolved and essentially got on with the business of living, you don’t even realise that you’re in protection mode or that you do it in general.

Fear of outshining others can show itself in so many ways. For example:

  • Not wanting to ‘outshine’ with your feelings and opinions. This is likely to be the case if you were raised by someone who dominated the home with their feelings, opinions, needs etc., possibly belittling yours in the process.
  • Going out with people who on some level you recognise you’re punching below your weight. You pump them up while diminishing you.
  • Minimising very real problems because, you know, everyone has bigger problems. In reality, of course, sure, there are ‘bigger’ problems. That doesn’t, however, mean you’re not hurting or that your problem isn’t a problem.
  • Putting aside a talent or hobby out of fear that your peer group will ostracise you. This is especially likely if you were bullied or penalised in some way for seemingly outshining as a child.
  • Not wanting siblings (or half- or step- ones) to think you believe you’re the favourite or ‘special’. You then mind your Ps and Qs around them, trying to push parents or other family members to do more for them, and feeling on edge. You may, in fact, have pushed these people away from you to ‘protect’ your siblings.
  • Believing a parent doesn’t like you because the other parent seemingly prefers you [to them]. Next thing, you’re also so used to this dynamic that you find yourself going out with or chasing married/attached people.
  • Suffering from Imposter Syndrome. You don’t internalise your accomplishments and achievements all while feeling ‘bad’ and like a fraud. Of course, to internalise these would alter your self-image, and you may be afraid of upsetting somebody in your life. Part of the reason you might have Imposter Syndrome in the first place may be because you’ve got into the habit of denying what you do and who you are to protect others.
  • Struggling to accept compliments and even batting them back. Claiming that this stuff is ‘luck’ or ‘fluke’.

Once you bring awareness into the equation, you’re already on the path to change.

In recognising my fear of outshining, the dynamics of some past friendships and why certain things upset me suddenly made sense.

Within these friendships, I’d found myself becoming aware of an underlying tension with the other party. I was upsetting them by being myself and so wanting to protect them. I also felt safe in these friendships, which was unhealthy in itself. This tension also showed up in a number of my romantic relationships. I remember feeling that I was going to have to dial myself down in order to keep the peace. Three particularly toxic exes claimed it was only a matter of time until I had no use for them. I had to reassure them I wasn’t getting “too big for my boots”. At the same time, I wondered why they said this when I always felt so worthless.

I’m journalling a lot and still making sense out of my realisation, but I’m already feeling a shift. In my case, my brother has never asked or implied that I should ‘sacrifice’ myself for him. As is always the way with reasoning and, in turn, beliefs based on childhood perspectives, I believed avoiding outshining ‘made sense’ at the time. It helped me ‘fit in’.

Trying not to outshine people is not only attempting to control the uncontrollable (a misappropriation of energy) but we’re also judging ourselves and the other party in a particular area when we (and they) are so much more than these ‘parts’. We assume this thing matters more than it does or that they won’t fare on their own without us playing it small. Stop comparing! Stop playing it small to magnify another person. Our powers lie in lighting ourselves up.

It’s easy to assume and believe that avoiding outshining others is a good deed. It’s not.

The person we’re dimming our light for doesn’t need our inadvertent pity that we’re mistaking for compassion and empathy. While our avoiding outshining might be conscious, it’s likely that we’re doing it on autopilot. We have child-like assumptions that we can control the uncontrollable and that we’re at the centre of and responsible for ‘fixing’ a problem. We may, in fact, have given up that original role with the person in question but are unwittingly repeating this pattern in another area of our lives. I don’t dim my light with my husband or friends but avoiding outshining others has shown itself in my work and possibly with my half-siblings.

Suspect fear of outshining has been getting in the way in an aspect of your life? Ask yourself:

Who am I trying to protect or help feel better about themselves by playing it small?

Where am I playing it small and why?

Where did I learn that dimming my light is what I ‘should’ be and do?

Remember, people pleasing is something that you gradually learn to take control of and life will shine a light on where you need to step up for you more, by throwing you situations that force you to recognise a pattern of habits that need to be adapted. Take care of you and be self-compassionate in your growing awareness.

Your thoughts?

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
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