Being Afraid To Get Emotionally Invested Is Why We Play It Small 

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“Do you think we’re just afraid of being happy?” 

My chin had been resting on the palm of my hand and I felt as old as that question sounded. 

I’ve been playing it small, literally and figuratively, for the majority of my life. I think it’s something we’re all conditioned to do. We find excitement in looking at the world as our playground until we realize just how small we are in comparison to it, or on the flip-side, just how big we’re viewed by others for doing only a quarter of what we know we’re capable of. 

Instead of fighting to live up to our full potential, we conform. We live within the paradigms of lives that were narrated for us. In the process, we start tiptoeing in our own lives. We start making decisions based off how we assume others will digest them. 

We find ourselves knee deep in caring more about what it looks like to others, that they’re smiling at us when they pass by, than we do that it feels like defeat and imbalance every time we get home. 

I have a friend who lives states away, but who feels the closest when we’re talking about all the ways we’re coming up right under who we actually want to be. It’s borderless - the desire to be who we actually are, the fear to actually be that person. We don’t want to be rejected, but until we’re true to ourselves we don’t actually belong anywhere, anyway. 

On paper, my life is one of triumph. That I’ve navigated this obstacle and that obstacle, positioned me in the minds of others as a champion that defeated life’s worst.

I looked like what everyone aspired to and it left no room for me, the person. My life eviscerated any permission I’d given myself to just be human. 

We can point fingers and say that the era of Instagram did this to all of us. We are reduced to our best picture and most eloquent caption, idolized in the process and left no room to live as a result. We follow people because we relate to them and because their initial offerings make us feel more seen, but along the way we start holding them to different standards than we hold ourselves. 

The hardest part is that being on the other side because we start doing that to ourselves. We search for the perfection that we believe we are expected to sell. We feed off engagement, but still we end up not feeling any fuller than when we started. 

I want to feel full. Deep breaths and honesty help us see what we’re holding space for that we just shouldn’t. Conversations with yourself help you decipher how to get the heck out of a city you just about laid the first brick for. 

My relationship was as public facing as the rest of my life was and it made it incredibly easy to point out those who cared too much about what it looked like and what they believed it could say about me. Their freedom to feel like they could define me based off what they saw negates that what it looked like was never my priority, I cared about the person who was on the other end of my hand hold, what he felt when our fingers were intertwined or what he knew to still be true even when there was intentional space between us. I cared about how I felt when I was holding his hand and what was still true when I wasn’t. 

Our attempts to drill down what others’ lives unfold like is time wasted because it’s time not spent focusing in on the ways that we may be playing it small. 

We’re afraid to get emotionally attached to the versions of us that we aspire to be because we know that even those versions of us are fleeting. 

They are who we want to be right now. It’s the relationship we want to be in right now. It’s the love we know we deserve right now. 

At some point, we decide that the slight possibility that right now may not be forever is enough of a reason to not move towards it. Instead, we choose to live in the now that we know we can hold on to until a separate force pushes us out of it — we’re okay lying to ourselves until someone points out the lie. We play it safe because it’s easier than playing it big and actually being happy. 

The question asked at the beginning of this essay is a question I asked months back that’s ultimately brought me here, answering with, yes, I do think we’re afraid to be happy. I think we’re afraid to be happy because it would mean putting in the work to take ownership of the lives we actually want, making peace with what our starting points actually are, and making the decision to throw our hands up and let others call it what they want because we know what it is.

So, instead, we coast. Playing a persona feels preferable because it gives us a false sense of security and control over variables that aren’t controlled in our real lives. I could edit my pictures, my voice, to project what I want you to consume. It’s not hard. I know a slew of people who do it. But in all the ways that it is logistically easy, it is soulfully taxing. We erase spontaneity, relationships that are dynamic and not limited by controlled variables. We eviscerate our humanity or someone else’s just because we want to know how it all turns out and that there isn’t pain or struggle interwoven in our stories. Because their humanity would out our own. 

To admit that those we idolize are human and navigate as much love as they do pain is a reminder that we too are susceptible to all of the above. 

I’ve been single for the last 7 months and I am more in love than I have probably ever been. My decision to not explicitly share this was out of respect for both of us, but also because what others would deem a failure, I saw as our biggest, proudest moment of growth. 

Him and I, we’re not vindictive people. The permission I gave myself to love him is that line of the Taylor Swift song that says “at least I did something right,” because before him I believed to fall in love was an action done once, instead of a decision made daily, sometimes minute by minute. 

There was a freedom born out of crashing and burning because it forced us to give up the need for perfection that had been so readily imposed on us. I didn't care about saving face, I cared about me and I cared about him. 

Outside of the eyes of everyone else we started becoming two individuals whose stories are defined by the people in the mirror. I became emotionally invested in not playing it small. I gave myself permission to stay present in the messiness of my own becoming and in how complicated it is to love anyone when you're only just learning how to love yourself. 

We shouldn’t regret the moments that underscore we’re capable of more. Those moments aren’t shame-filled, they have shame projected onto them and ultimately projected shame isn’t something we can control. It says very little about us and more about where the shame is rooted for others. 

I regret letting others equate my silence, or lack of acknowledgment, with shame. I regret fanning the belief that my decision to respectfully process and grow as a person was in any way synomous with wanting to erase me and him. 

It wasn’t. I would never. He was the catalyst to this version of my becoming.

He outed my lies and I worked to find and build my truths.