Wright Foundation | November 17, 2021

Are You Holding Yourself Back or Weighing Yourself Down?

Like most people, you probably crave attention, affection, intimacy, and a connection with someone else.

Are you holding yourself back? Holding back in a relationship or your career can keep you from getting what you want out of life.


Maybe you want respect, acknowledgment, praise, and closeness, but you find that you’re holding yourself back.

Why are you holding yourself back? Well, it’s likely thoughts like, what will everyone think of me? Or negative stinking thinking, like, I probably won’t get what I want anyway, that person would never like someone like me, or my boss will never promote me.

You may hold back because you worry people will think you’re too aggressive or too much. You may have a long pattern of holding yourself back, thinking you need to keep yourself in check. Unfortunately, this holding back weighs you down, keeps you from progressing, transforming, and living the life of your dreams.

Why You’re Holding Yourself Back

So if holding yourself back is a recipe for missing out, why is it so common? Does holding back really weigh us down? The short answer is that, yes, holding back keeps us from getting what we want.

Learning not to hold back is essential. We can’t have true intimacy with others until we feel fully known and seen by others (and vice versa). For example, in a relationship with a spouse, every withheld thought, judgment, resentment, and unexpressed frustration can add distance.

When I work with couples, I often compare unspoken feelings to pillows. Imagine that every time we hold back, we’re placing another pillow between ourselves and our partner. Pretty soon, it becomes harder to hold each other, to touch each other, and even see each other—a mountain of unspoken pillows buries us. The space impedes intimacy.

The feeling of holding back, suppressing urges, and quieting desires, begins in childhood. Now, obviously, we all must learn that we can’t get everything we want by demanding it. We have to learn to express our wants responsibly and with sensitivity, but that doesn’t mean turning them off completely. When we’re children, though, we often don’t hold back our feelings and thoughts. When we want to talk to a new friend or want someone to share a toy, we pipe right up!

Young children, especially, rarely hold themselves back. Watch kids during a birthday party. Chances are all of them will want to take part in opening presents, blowing out candles, and getting attention (even if they aren’t the birthday boy or girl).

As we grow up, we learn certain rules about expressing ourselves and our feelings. We might have heard, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” or, “If you say that, she won’t like you.” We may also hear things like, “boys don’t cry,” or “act like a big girl.” These phrases tell us that our feelings aren’t okay and that we should hold ourselves back in our relationships.

Learning to Say What We Want

As we get older, we learn that it’s not always our time to shine. While that may be true of a birthday party, we often start holding ourselves back too much. We form beliefs and rationalizations about sharing feelings, addressing hurts, and asking for what we want.

Now, maybe we think we had a perfect childhood. We got everything we wanted and needed. But all of us form certain beliefs about ourselves and our relationship with the world very early on. We may not remember the experience that caused us to feel shame, embarrassment, fear, or discomfort with expressing our feelings. But these feelings become part of our makeup—our inner matrix—and we carry them with us as adults.

Even those of us who had a good childhood realize that nothing is perfect. Just as there are no perfect relationships, none of us has a perfect upbringing.

We may remember most of our experiences happily and fondly, but many moments powerfully shape our later personality, reinforce our fears, and even cause us to form limiting beliefs.

As Alfred Adler taught, when we’re young, the world is vast and full of possibilities. But the world is also built for adults. We can’t do many things, like cross the street alone, cook food on the stove or drive a car, simply because we’re children. When we face these limitations, they are included in our worldview and self-image. As a result, we may start to see certain aspects of the world as dangerous. We may feel insecure. We may think that others are in competition with us, that there’s not enough, or that others disapprove of us.

When we carry these beliefs (even unconsciously), we project a certain image to the world around us. We send others the message that we can’t do it, we’re not capable, and we’re not confident. In a self-fulfilling prophecy cycle, people pick up on our projections. Because we’re putting out the vibe that we can’t do something, people believe us. They think we can’t do it, treating us as incapable and reinforcing our limiting belief that people view us as incompetent.

It’s easy to fall into this pattern and believe the narrative we’ve conjured in our head that says, “I’m not good enough. I shouldn’t put myself out there. Others will think I’m an idiot.”

Holding Back Holds You Back

Holding back can be detrimental in many ways, but it’s particularly damaging in our romantic relationships. When we’re holding back in romantic relationships, we’re often failing to express what we need. We end up unfulfilled. Maybe we even blame our partner for not “making us happy.”

When we work with couples, we often work on becoming clear and current in the relationship. For example, in our relationship, Bob and I have a “no secrets” policy. I’ll admit that it’s hard sometimes—even painful—but it helps us stay connected and trust each other completely. Yes, there are times when it’s tough to express certain feelings, but we both know when we hold back, we build up distance (like those pillows) between us.

There are times when I think, “I don’t want to tell him how much these shoes cost,” or, “I don’t really want to see this movie, but I should just go with it.” Sometimes it’s a more profound thought or even a judgment I’ve had about him. Those feelings and frustrations are especially hard to express, but since we’ve agreed on “no secrets,” we bring it all to the surface, and it keeps us much closer.

Often we’re feeling frustrated, not because our partner is inadequate, our job is terrible, or our life stinks. We’re feeling frustrated because we’re holding back—we’re not expressing and requesting those things we need to feel fulfilled and satisfied.

Deep inside, each of us has longings, wants, and desires. These wishes of the heart can best be described as yearnings. These aren’t cheap feelings. They aren’t fleeting desires or momentary wants. These are the deep longings of our souls. What’s more, these yearnings are universal. All human beings yearn for things.

Each of us has deep longings, wants, and desires. At the Wright Foundation, we call these our yearnings. Yearnings aren’t cheap. They aren’t wishes or fleeting wants. Yearnings are the deep longings of our souls. These are universal wants that almost all human beings share.

We may yearn to be loved. We may long for respect. We may yearn to connect with others. We may yearn to feel secure.

Many people experience these feelings. They’re different and deeper than “wants.” Someone may want a new car, a promotion at work, or a big TV. When they don’t get those wants, they might feel disappointed or frustrated. When those wants are met, they feel satisfied…briefly. Then they’re on to wanting the next big thing.

Yearnings are different. When our yearnings are met, we feel deeply satisfied. We feel fulfilled. When we feel loved, respected, cared for, and connected, we feel whole. We feel as though a longing in our soul is satisfied.

So we can each examine our yearnings. If we yearn to feel loved, what’s stopping us from going out and connecting with others—feeling the abundant love that surrounds us all? If we’re yearning for respect, why can’t we speak up in our team meeting, commanding the respect of coworkers?

When we start to explore these questions about our yearnings, we may discover that the thing that’s really holding us back is ourselves.

What Happens When We Express What We Want?

So what’s the worst that could happen if we start putting ourselves out there? What if we start a conversation with a stranger, stop holding back in a relationship, or sign up for a class? What’s the worst that could come of it?

When faced with that question, most of us experience some natural doubts. What if no one likes us? What if someone laughs at us? What if our partner gets upset or rejects us? What if…

The truth is, almost any of our fears could come true (in theory), but most likely, they won’t. And even if they do occur, what would really happen next? Our boss disagrees with us, laughs at our idea, fires us, and we end up unemployed and penniless? How likely is that really to happen if we’re simply making a suggestion?

Sometimes building out this worst-case scenario can help us realize how ridiculous our what-if line of thinking can become (as long as we don’t get too bogged down with it).

No one can predict the future, but we can predict what happens when we hold back and choose the status quo. When we don’t put ourselves out there, we get stuck in the same old patterns.

We urge our students to try living life as an experiment. Each day, see what happens when we experiment with new experiences. Realize that the world is a pretty big playground, and we can test out different scenarios. We can even try assignments or challenges. Our students often try assignments like making as many requests as they can throughout the day, talking to as many strangers as they encounter, or expressing their likes and dislikes with abandon.

Some of these actions may sound a little intimidating, especially if we’ve been playing it safe for a long time. One way to work through it is to play the “feelings game”—acknowledge our feelings and allow them to come through. As we like to say, “Name it to tame it.”

If we’re feeling afraid to express our feelings to someone, or if we’re holding ourselves back, we can actually say, “What I’m afraid to say to you is….” Then, we can build on this technique and keep going with, “And another thing I’m afraid to say is….” This communication technique helps us acknowledge the fear we might feel while still expressing our feelings.

Our students quickly realize that by putting themselves out there, they stop holding back and start moving towards the things they really want. They realize they can test the waters, try different scenarios, and stop living beholden to the beliefs they grew up with.

Most of us seek “other validating intimacy”—we’re looking to others to validate us. When we shift toward “self-validated intimacy,” We start sharing ourselves despite what others think. Maybe others will like it, and perhaps they won’t, but we are living in the truth. We’re getting out what we want to be known.

In expressing ourselves honestly and openly, we often realize that the world isn’t as scary, dangerous, or intimidating as we once thought. We can challenge ourselves to express what we want and need in our relationships, at work, and any other interaction. We will find that the world is surprisingly open to meeting our requests. When we start expressing our yearnings, we find new ways to get them filled. When we jump in and start playing, instead of observing from the sidelines, we’ll discover greater purpose and fulfillment.

For more ways to start getting more of what you want, visit Wright Now. We offer courses to help you get more out of your career, relationships, and personal growth. So start living the life you want today!


The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.