Playing possum

Ever heard of the phrase “playing possum”? It comes from the Virginia Opossum, who “plays dead” every time a potential predator is near. It looks like the picture above (that possum is fully alive).

A few years ago I was talking to a client on the phone about her self-sabotaging patterns that came up every time she started to get some serious momentum in her business.

“Lisa, it’s like every time I start to get momentum, I can feel this part of me that gets really whiny. Then I start to feel physically tired and overwhelmed, like I just can’t handle it all. And then everything starts to fall off track, I stop showing up for my team like I should, I don’t post as often on social media. And then I get this weird brain fog and don’t even know what to write about or what to say to my community.”

So I asked her, “if we were to give this part of you a name, what would it be?”

“The whiny-weak-woman” she said. 

As we continued to work together on expanding her capacity, every once in a while I’d hear her say “OH, LOOK I can feel the whiny weak woman coming up in me again now that you’re asking me to make this change in my work that feels new and hard.”

We’d have a good laugh about it and keep moving forward. That’s the beauty of building your capacity- you get to the point where you can see those parts of you but you don’t let them take over anymore.

By end of our time together, she’d not only filled her first ever mastermind offer, she’d also negotiated a raise for her other role as a trainer for a prestigious organization. And her whiny weak woman wasn’t ruling her business choices anymore. 

The whiny weak woman lives in every one of us assigned the gender “female” at birth and who identifies as “female” or is treated as “female” in society. 

She loves to “play possum”.  And she’s one of the biggest sabotagers of your success and your next level. She’s so deeply embedded into you, you probably don’t even notice when she’s messing with you.

Ever heard yourself say “ugh, I have so much on my plate, I just can’t deal. I just want to go bury my head in the sand.”

Ever put something off you know deep down is not only good for you, but necessary because “you’re just too overwhelmed right now”?

Or ever used the excuse that you have “too much on your plate” to get out of honoring a commitment or doing something you know is overdue?

Ever come on to a coaching call with a new coach you hired and expected THEM to tell YOU what to do on the call? To pull all the weight and do all the work for you? Or expected THEM to solve all your problems for you?

Ever gotten angry when someone you hired doesn’t chase you down and accommodate your “overwhelmingly busy schedule”?

ALL of those (and more) are ways in which the “whiny weak woman” shows up in you.

Because they’re all ways in which you’ve learned to abdicate responsibility for yourself, your life, your results and your goals

And where did we learn this? From society. Particularly the society we live in that is based on an old, outdated, toxic patriarchal dynamic that says that women are threatening or unattractive when they are powerful and sovereign.

Remember, women who were powerful and sovereign used to be burned alive as “witches.” Or were forcibly sent off to nunneries. Or put to death in hundreds of other ways.

So, in order to survive this system, many women learned to “play possum”. This is also known as “learned helplessness.” Psychologists describe learned helplessness as “the general belief that one is incapable of accomplishing tasks and has little or no control of the environment.”

If you identify as a woman in society, you’ve learned helplessness by the ways in which the current systems always left you feeling powerless. So some parts of you learned to play possum, or play the role of the weaker one who “doesn’t know” or “needs to be rescued”.  Because in your DNA is the DNA of all the women before you who had to do this to stay alive.

You forgot you know the answers and learned that when you give away your power and put the answers outside of you, you get approval and acceptance from the society you live in. This made you “less threatening” to the patriarchal system you live in.  

And it’s also a good way to abdicate responsibility for your life and put it in someone else’s hands, so that when push comes to shove you don’t need to look at how you played a role in the areas you’re currently struggling in. Ouch. I know. But we’ve gotta open our eyes to how we do this. 

A few times now a woman has hired me and either been surprised or ANGRY when I’ve shown up for our first session and said “So what did you bring to the session today to work on?” 

They were so in their pattern of “learned helplessness” that they were expecting me to tell them what to do for every little thing in their businesses and lives. Good coaches don’t do that. They don’t tell you what to do. They empower you to know the answers within YOURSELF. They empower you to empower yourself.

I once had a client sign up to work with me, then get angry because I didn’t chase after her to schedule her sessions or didn’t text her every day to “push her” to do her work. She expected to farm out her own self motivation to me!

Yet, part of the reason she hired me was that she had reached a business plateau and couldn’t get past it. She told me it was because she was so busy that she didn’t have time to focus on growth-related activities. She always felt stretched and helpless, like she was being swept along by some big wave of busy-ness. She used this busy-ness to justify her “spaciness” un forgetting to eat well, show up on time for appointments and honor her commitments.

Naturally, she was playing the “too busy” game with me. “Too busy” to schedule her sessions with me, “too busy” to sit down and get clear about what she wanted to discuss on our calls. Too busy to show up as a functioning adult and take her own reins. So she expected me to play into her “too busy” story and chase after her “too busy” self, to keep perpetuating that very story that was blocking all of her success.

You should have seen the look of shock on her face when I said “listen, we’re all grown ass women here. I trust that you can prioritize the coaching you’re paying for, respond to our scheduling emails in a timely manner and text me whenever YOU have a problem you need support with. I’m not going to chase you. You hired me to help you become a grown ass business woman. So that’s how I’m going to treat you.”

She sent me a thank you note after getting over her initial shock. And six months later she not only was having HUGE, never-before-seen revenue breakthroughs in her business, but she had attracted a mature, non-co-dependent relationship, too. 

Too many of us “play possum” with ourselves. We say things like “ugh, I’m so TIIIIRRRED, why can’t someone just do this for meeee?” 

Or we make people chase us to get on their calendars. We take weeks to respond to an email and make it so that others have to follow up with us five times. We throw our hands up in disgust when we’re hitting a new edge of growth for the first time and don’t like that it’s not easy. 

(Have I ever told you about the ex client who wrote a scathing post about how terrible I am because I told her that no, her business wouldn’t “feel like a dream vacation every day”.)

We hire people for our team hoping they’ll solve problems for us and “save us” without us having to be involved in it at all. We make the coaches we hire our “saviors” and then rage against them when they won’t do the work that only WE can do. As they say, your coach can lead you to the water…but they can’t make you drink.

Then we wonder why we aren’t where we want to be in our work and lives.

It’s because your work in this world requires you to LEAN IN. It requires YOU to take the reins. It’s YOUR horse to steer. No one else’s. 

No one is going to do the work for you that you’ve been avoiding. No one is coming to save you. Only YOU can save you. Even the knight on their steed gets tired of rescuing you after the millionth time.

Sometimes when you’ve made a mess by abdicating responsibility for years, the ONLY way to fix it is for you to roll up your sleeves and dig in. You might have to sit down for hours with a new team member and walk them through your processes step by step, even though you “hate” developing standard operating processes and “it’s not your zone of genius.” 

You might have to completely re-brand and start a whole new marketing plan from scratch because your previous audience is no longer responding. You might have to do some hard work that you don’t feel like doing.

But you’re not helpless. You aren’t incapable. And I promise, NO ONE is going to care more about your business than you. Ever. If they do, they’re probably buying you out. But even then, if you want someone to buy you out, you better have that business in tip top shape aka not a train wreck behind the scenes because you’ve been waiting for a savior.

A long time ago, a former casting director told me this story about Oprah…

She said the reason Oprah rose in the ranks so quickly at ABC when she was young was because she would set up meetings with the head of the network. She’d walk into that meeting with the entire plan for what she wanted to do drawn out and ready to present. She’d tell the network head EXACTLY how she wanted to produce her show, how her idea would play out and the steps that needed to happen to get it there.

The network head often said yes to her demands because SHE HAD THE REINS OF HER VISION, wasn’t expecting him to do any of that work for her. SHE did all the pre-work herself. She LEANED ALL THE WAY IN. She took the responsibility for her vision. And she made it happen. All the network head had to do was greenlight it.

If you want your next level of success, you’ve got to stop playing possum and lean in. It’s time to put on your big girl panties and take responsibility for your life, your goals and your results. 

Not sure how to do that? That’s where capacity work comes in. Capacity work allows you to switch your perspective from “ugggghhhh I cannnn’t” to “you know what? Let’s do this. It may not be pretty or fun, it might be hard there for a bit, but I’m the only one who’s gonna get this ball rolling and get it done.”

Capacity work allows you to learn to see yourself (and feel yourself) as capable. And when you change how you see yourself, and you change what you believe you’re capable of… you’re capable of doing anything.

Want to change the way you see yourself and build your capacity so that you stop playing possum in your business?  Fill out the Capacity Discovery form and we can chat about ways to work with me. Our programs start at only $375 a month and go all the way to VIP private coaching. There’s something for everyone.


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