When I was in the fifth grade, I won a school-wide essay contest. The grand prize was a trip to the local water park which, when you’re in elementary school, is like winning tickets to Disney World. The catch? I had to read my essay out loud during a PTA night. I hard passed that one and ended up letting the runner-up claim the spotlight — and my tickets. For years, that’s how I lived my life. I flew under the radar for fear of being noticed. I let my speech impediment take precedence. I introduced myself in a faint whisper, kept my nose to the grindstone, and the entire time, I buried the lead: that I was actually a pretty awesome person.
Maybe you feel stuck in a rut at work. Maybe you’re not getting the tough assignments you know you can ace because you’re afraid to speak up and ask for them. Maybe you’ve stayed in a toxic or soul-draining relationship for far too long because you fear being single. Maybe you’re just coasting through life afraid to really step on the gas and see where it takes you. If you’ve ever wondered whether or not you’re meeting your potential or letting it slip idly by, this list is for you.
1. You don’t speak up unless asked.
Sure, you have an opinion. When you’re out with your girlfriends, you know exactly what you’d like to eat as the group appetizer. You know which movie you’d love for the group to see. When you’re in a meeting at work, you know exactly which pain points the client needs addressed and how to solve them. When you’re in class, you know the answer to every question like the back of your hand.
But, you don’t speak up. You don’t share your knowledge, your feelings or your opinion until or unless someone asks you. Why? It’s just not like you to raise your voice above the rest. After all, heads will turn and people will look at you and that’s a lot of attention all at once. That’s true, but remember that if you wait until an invitation arrives at your doorstep, it might never come. You may avoid embarrassment if you stay silent on topics that matter to you, but you may also avoid a ton of fun, new experiences and chances to grow along the way.
2. Confrontation is your enemy.
Your best friend said something that really rubbed you the wrong way. What do you do? If your answer is to swallow your pride, suck it up and never mention a word about it, you’re like a lot of us introverts. Remember my school essay story? I would have rather chewed a bag of nails than reveal my stutter to the hundreds of parents at that PTA meeting. After that fateful decision was made, I learned to avoid confrontation altogether.
I memorized the infamous Eleanor Roosevelt line that “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I vowed that no issue was worth causing drama over. I let my college roommates pick our apartments and spent a year driving an hour to my off-campus job because I never told her how far the commute was. I turned my cheek when a snarky coworker told me, on my first day at my very first job, that my tights didn’t match my dress. I never told her how late I’d stayed up the night before picking everything out. When my aunt rattled on about the dangers of storage units (many of which turned out to be falsified myths), I sold what meager furniture I had before my wedding, losing more than a few family heirlooms in the process, never saying a word to her about how much of a hassle it was, or what expenses I would incur down the road.
I thought I was being mature but in reality, I was becoming a doormat. In my refusal to speak up when I was hurt, I avoided making a ton of people mad, but I also injected falsity and fakeness into many of my relationships. It also made me more bitter and gossipy person. What I couldn’t say to someone’s face I learned to say behind their back. If you’re in these shoes, consider how much more respectful it is overall to face the issue head-on. If you do desire real change, addressing any grievances you hold can be one of the most freeing things you do. It can also be an agent to transformation, helping all parties heal.
3. You put the little rocks in first.
There’s a simple metaphor for busyness that goes like this: You have a glass. You can fill the glass with rocks or with sand. If you choose to fill it with sand all the way to the top, eventually you will have no room for the rocks to fit in. On the other hand, you can fill it to the brim with rocks, then pour in the sand, allowing the tiny particles to navigate all around the glass, in and outside of the bigger pieces until everything fits seamlessly.
In this example, the big rocks are the big things in your life. Your family. Your happiness. Your faith. Your relationships. Your self-care. Your time. On the other hand, the sand particles are the tiny, insignificant things that often take up our time. That never-ending inbox. That co-worker drama. That to-do list that never gets done. Those surfaces that need wiping down.
The sand isn’t insignificant in this story, and those little tasks still have meaning. The takeaway? If you take care of the big stuff first, the little stuff will take care of itself. If you’re constantly spinning your wheels but feel like you never get anything done, it might be time for a priority shift. That may also be why you feel insecure and unconfident in your ability to make real progress.
4. You can’t take negative feedback.
I can count on one hand the number of times I was called down in class from kindergarten to my master’s courses. Can I remember every single one of those instances, the names of my teachers and the warm rush of embarrassment I felt like it was yesterday? Absolutely. That’s because it took until I was in my 30s for me to realize that most of those comments were simply constructive criticism. I was just too tender-hearted and green to see them as such at the time.
Sometimes, we hear negative feedback and allow it to feed that nasty monster inside that tells us we’re not good enough. This is when a little perspective goes a long way. If you’re still harboring resentment over words spoken years ago or you find it difficult to take such comments even now, think twice about the intent of the message.
Who is speaking? Does this person have your best interest in mind? Is this someone you respect and who respects you back? If so, chances are what sounds a little harsh is just feedback that you need to hear. If the criticism is valid and can help you grow, it’s worth it to give the sender the benefit of a doubt — and cut yourself some slack in the process.
5. You have a million brainchildren but don’t allow them to grow.
Are you filled to the brim with great ideas? Do you find yourself taking down notes, brainstorming, daydreaming and planning to the hilt? That’s great! Do you immediately erase them, stuff them into your desk, crumble up that sheet of paper and keep your head down? If so, you’re only stifling yourself and limiting your potential.
What good are plans if you never intend to follow through on them? Sure, you might crash and burn. Or, you might create, discover, implement or share something pretty amazing in the process. Remember, no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Still, it’s worth it to pursue your dreams and stick to your plans. Better yet, share those visions with those around you and see how much you inspire them to act on their own urgings. Even if you have a setback the first time around, it’s a chance to grow and try again. Anything beats never knowing.
That’s the theme of this entire list. Anything beats never knowing whether or not you’re meeting your true potential. Falling short of the glorious, confident and capable creature you could be for fear of social rejection, peer pressure, personal inadequacy or any other hindrance is only a recipe for remorse. If I could go back in time and tell fifth-grade me anything it would be this: Read that essay. Take that chance. You might stammer through the entire thing but chances are, once you were in that inner tube at the water park, sliding down the tunnel with your head flung back with glee, you simply wouldn’t care.