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  • Chealsea Wierbonski

Transcending Smallness to Go BIG! (part 2)

Note: This post is written from my own perspective, which is that of a white, cisgendered, able-bodied woman. I would like to acknowledge that some of these perspectives may not pertain to women of cultures and communities outside of my own.

As women, we have spent years being inundated with messages of smallness, as well as being rewarded for making ourselves small both in and out of the workplace. Given that so many of us want to be strong leaders and have a larger presence in the world, I believe it’s necessary to transcend these messages to make ourselves BIG. Embracing bigness allows us to take up more space, have our voices heard, and ultimately, make an impact. But how do we do this?

In simplest terms, it comes down to building confidence in each area of your life where you’re feeling small. In my last blog post, I invited you to reflect on areas of your life where you feel small. It’s important to identify these pockets of smallness in order to transcend them.

As a young adult, I felt small in many areas of my life due to my upbringing (and a host of other reasons that I’ll save for future posts). Perhaps the most profound feeling of smallness, though, was around academics, which inevitably bled over into my career.

This particular pocket of smallness had many resounding effects at work, such as feeling like I didn’t have the right to speak up or have an opinion, feeling insecure about my intellectual abilities, feeling like I wasn’t “good enough” to be there, and so on. As if these internal feelings weren’t bad enough, they manifested externally in the form of not being able to speak in large groups (even introducing myself in a group was terrifying) and I found that I would become tongue tied and easily derailed if I was in a situation where I needed to defend my perspective. Needless to say, work during this time was incredibly stressful!

After a decade of addressing the many pockets of “smallness” in my own life, I’ve found that confidence builders come from making yourself do something that at first feels next to impossible. There are so many examples of this, such as, taking a job that seems way out of your league, living abroad after having spent your life in only one place, going from being sedentary to running a marathon, or simply forcing yourself to speak up in a meeting when you don’t want to.

Each time you do something that feels scary, intimidating, or even possibly unattainable, you demonstrate to yourself that you are capable of so much more than you realized. It feels uncomfortable and sometimes may even hurt, but at the end of the experience, you have grown. You are bigger. And this is true even if you fail at whatever it is you set out to do.

Once I understood that the key to transcending smallness was to build my confidence, I saw a clear pathway to becoming the bigger presence that I wanted to be. I took a personal inventory of all of my pockets of smallness and tried to address them one by one. The one that seemed the most pressing, though, was my feeling of smallness at work.

As I mentioned above, the main quality of a confidence builder is to create and overcome challenge. And you can do that regardless of whether you succeed or fail at what you set out to do. My transformation at work didn’t happen overnight, it was a long journey of changing the way I felt about myself. But little by little, with each challenge completed, I could feel myself getting bigger.

Here are a few of the challenges I overcame that helped me to transcend my own smallness to become bigger at work:

1. Challenge through physical fitness. OK, hear me out. I know you may be wondering how challenging yourself physically could help you in the workplace. For me, I was approaching 37 and was an incredibly out of shape workaholic. I often struggled to open my glass office door and one time even threw my back out doing so. So you can imagine the wonder I felt after completing my first half marathon.

The sense of accomplishment that came from completing something that, at first, was so overwhelming boosted my confidence in a way that I could never have predicted. Not to mention, maintaining a regular exercise practice relieved my stress and improved my sleep. Over several months, I started to notice that my mind was less cluttered and as a result, my cognition improved. I was able to focus and retain information in a way that I hadn’t experienced since my early 20s.

As I became more adept at pushing through the uncomfortable feelings that go along with undertaking an exercise program for the first time (i.e. gasping for air, legs and calves trembling, feeling like you can’t possibly take another step, etc), the more adept I got at overcoming uncomfortable feelings at work. I felt proud of myself. I knew I was capable of doing and withstanding something difficult, and this translated to less anxiety and trepidation around difficult situations at work.

2. Challenge through uncomfortable situations. So now that I was able to withstand these physical feelings of discomfort without fainting or (gasp!) dying, I knew that I could handle more intensity in the office.

I once had a manager who had an extremely difficult personality. He knew his stuff, but he was loud, intimidating, and totally lacking in empathy. Whereas previously I would avoid him at all costs, I now felt (thanks to my newfound confidence from my fitness routine) that I was ready for the challenge of building my relationship with him. I knew that getting on his radar was a necessary challenge, if I wanted him to notice the contributions I was making.

At first, I was intimidated and afraid to meet with him, but I tapped into that feeling of overcoming struggle in order to finish a race and knew that if I could handle that amount of discomfort, I could certainly handle this. After a while, I got to know him better and before long, I didn’t find him so intimidating. He just became “him”. The personality traits that I previously found so destabilizing no longer rattled me because I had the confidence to hold my own space. I no longer allowed myself to shrink next to a personality that seemed so much larger than mine.

3. Challenge through difficult projects. Because I felt so insecure about my intellectual abilities, I used to try to stick to projects that I knew I’d be good at. The stakes were simply too high (or so I thought) to take on something new if I wasn’t certain that I could excel at it. There came a time, though, when I needed to change teams. The team I chose happened to work on projects that were way more technical than what I had previously worked on. Although I was intimidated by this at first, I knew that it was nowhere near as intimidating as it would have been a year or two before, had I not completed the first two challenges. By demonstrating to myself that I could handle a challenge, both in the physical sense through fitness and in the behavioral sense by building relationships with people I found intimidating, I felt ready to take on intellectual challenges. Over the next year in this new role, I pushed through, even when things got difficult and I felt discouraged, just like I did when training for a race or setting up meetings with my larger-than-life former manager. After a few months on the new team, I started to finally feel like I was intellectually capable to hold my own and I felt damn good about it.

4. Challenge through providing your perspective in large public forums. This final challenge didn’t really take place for me until about 3 years ago. I had gotten to the point where I was feeling pretty good about myself and my abilities at work. I noticed, however, that I was still struggling when it came to sharing my perspective in front of a lot of people. I was fine one-on-one or in smaller forums with my peers, where I felt stakes were lower, but in situations where there were more senior people present or folks I didn’t know well, I would clam up and not say anything.

I knew that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a leader, I would need to be seen as a thought leader, and the way to do that was to share my thoughts in large public forums, especially those in which senior leads or executives were present. Once again I found myself in a situation that felt pretty scary. What if they thought my points were stupid? What if I made a mistake? What if everyone disagrees with me?

I finally realized that I was faced with yet another opportunity to build my confidence around a new challenge, one that would benefit me greatly over the long term at work. Little by little, I started replying to email discussions and sharing my thoughts in meetings and in documents. At first, I did it reluctantly, but the more I did it, the more I felt confident in my ability to do it until it finally became second nature.

So what do all of these challenges have in common?

I didn’t want to do any of them! They seemed daunting, intimidating, scary, you name it. I DID NOT WANT TO DO THEM. But I made myself because with each challenge that I overcame, I noticed that I grew. I felt myself becoming bigger. And being uncomfortable for a finite period of time seemed like a reasonable price to pay for transcending smallness to become the bigger presence that I knew I was destined to be.

Now that you’ve gotten a sense for some of the challenges that helped me, I invite you to reflect on a challenge that would help you transcend one of your own pockets of smallness to go big!

Let me know how it goes!


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