Steph Ondrusek

Steph Ondrusek

Stop Playing Small
by Steph Ondrusek

I wasn’t born with confidence. Who among us was, really?

I am a body image coach, personal trainer, and writer. As a result, I spend a lot of time putting my work and, by extension, myself, out into the world.

I wasn’t always comfortable putting myself on display in this way. For my entire school career, I refused to raise my hand in class when I knew the answer to a question. I would wait with bated breath for another student to get it right, terrified of being called a know-it-all or a nerd, only to later discuss the subject matter in private with a full works-cited page at the ready. I was known to say, “[someone else] once told me…”when I was actually presenting my own thoughts, in case what I had to say was silly or incorrect. I didn’t even call myself a writer until I was 30, believing that until I wrote and published a book, I couldn’t confidently say I was a writer! I didn’t count.

In short, I believed I had to pay my dues before I deserved to be confident. Before I could walk around in the world as though I had the right to be here, boldly and unapologetically, I believed there had to be some sort of transformation from the weak, unworthy person I was, to the strong, shiny woman I was urged to become.

If you find yourself there, too, I’d like to let you in on a secret:

Confidence isn’t something you have to earn.

In my work with clients, I have noticed many women experience a lack of confidence that can be directly tied to three main areas: negative body image, fear of rejection, and shame.

Many of us have been led to believe that until we can squeeze into the smallest jean size, wear the latest trends, or take the perfect candid photograph, we aren’t worthy of being who we really are or engaging in activities we enjoy. We exhaust ourselves on treadmills and ellipticals trying to fit into Photoshopped ideals. We think an ideal body and the perfect diet will come together to create a neat little package we can propose to the world, and it will be received with nothing but praise. Many of us deeply tie our sense of self-worth to our appearance.

Our appearance isn’t the only thing holding us back from feeling confident. Whether we believe our ticket to confidence is our bodies, our bank accounts, our relationships, or something else, we believe that once we check all the boxes, we will be unconditionally accepted and allowedto be confident. We’ll finally be good enough. We’ll be, “in,” and, then (and only then) will we be free to pursue what it is that actuallysets our souls on fire, having earned the right to display our passions and our talents.

Since we aren’t perfect yet, and rejection is scary, we hold ourselves back. We don’t raise our hands. We don’t speak up. We don’t go after that job we know is the perfect fit. We don’t try that empowering strength training program. We don’t make waves. We might get turned down, so

we keep our heads down and lives small, playing only where we already know we excel, waiting our turn to take up space in our own lives.

Doesn’t that seem stifling?

Doesn’t it sound so obvious that we’re hiding ourselves in pursuit of someone else’sideas of “good enough?”

Can’t you feel the walls closing in on that part of you—the mermaid hair flowing in the wind, swirling behind you as you run after your wildest dreams, no matter what anyone else thinks?

My clients and I do a lot of work around confidence, and the most powerful driving force behind it all isn’t the hope that one day, we’ll all believe that our bodies and our lives measure up to the ideal standards so we can be, “good.”

It’s knowing that no matter what our bodies look like on any given day, no matter what we’ve gotten wrong or have yet to do, no matter what messages surround us flashing, “no vacancy,” lights over every single opportunity, we are good. We can release the shame telling us that we’re not justified in pursuing our desires. We areworthy of chasing our dreams, and thinking otherwise is distracting us from doing so.

Staying small and quiet may be protecting you from rejection, and it’s understandable that you would take this course of action, but it’s also holding you back from the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.

So, how do you take the next step? How do you embody confidence as your go-to belief? By practicing self-compassion, exploration, and affirmation of self-worth.

This can easily seem like pretty language, but just as confusing to act upon as, “just be more confident,” so I’d like to give you a few tips to get started.


Many of us ascribe to the notion, “fake it ‘til you make it,” but that has always felt a bit cheesy and inauthentic for most of us. Language is important. Calling our efforts “fake” until they’re above criticism undermines the powerful work we’re doing right now.Much more helpful to consider is, “be it until you believe it:” the notion that we can practice being the person we aspire to be, and practice doing so so many times, until we are.

You don’t have to have everything figured out right now; there is no picture-perfect end result you have to fake. All you have to do is take the very next step. What would that look like? Would it look like going for a hike instead of a run? Raising your hand instead

of looking down at the conference table? Letting your boss know which portions of the project you contributed to instead of lumping yourself in with the group as a whole?

As we speak, you can be bringing into existence a woman who is kind and compassionate to herself. With this reframe, you are allowing yourself to explore and figure things out. You are showing yourself that you are a woman who knows she is worthy of respect and accessibility and adventure and whatever else she pleases. You’re learning this is true regardless of the size, shape, or appearance of your body, and regardless of where you are right now in your personal development journey. It’s taking shape right before your eyes.


If your brain loves to replay everything you have gotten wrong in the last 30 years of your life, you’re not alone. Negativity bias, or our brain’s hardwired capacity to give negative experiences more weight, is a well-documented phenomenon present even at our earliest stages of development. Likely there for good reason—remembering negative experiences or damaging events helps to keep us out of harm’s way—it often is not serving us in our everyday interpersonal lives. Left unchecked, we can find ourselves steeped in shame, believing not only that we didthings incorrectly, but that we are, or our approach is, incorrect.

If you see yourself head down the shame spiral as you’re checking the mirror one last time before your work day begins, for example, and as you pull the buttons back together thinking, “no one will ever take me seriously. I don’t have the corporate office, ‘look.’ Remember that time I gave that presentation and my PowerPoint didn’t work, and I totally bombed it? No one will take me seriously ever again,” you have an opportunity to practice something new. Recognize what’s happening: your brain is simply trying to protect you, and you can take a different path. You are free to decide, “no, actually, it might not be my best body image day, but I’m going to put on this comfortable dress I won’t have to pull into place all day long, get ready, stand up straight, and give that killer presentation anyway, even if I’m feeling a little afraid and insecure.”

Over time, with practice getting off the negative thought train and naming the positive next step, you’ll see that you are highly capable, even if you’re doing it a little bit afraid. This creates a positive-reinforcement loop, as you step into your dreams. You begin to realize that what you have to offer the world is entirely independent of the vessel in which it arrives, the confidence-slaying negativity bias demons start to quiet down.

Slowly but surely, you give yourself permission to focus on the good stuff, building confidence without changing a single thing about yourself.


This might sound counterintuitive, so stick with me here.

Learning it’s okay to be wrong is pivotal to the development of confidence. We’re sold on the idea that personal development is set off with the flick of a lightswitch. We believe one day, we will arrive where we can do no wrong, and where we’ve figured it all out.

“Until then,” we think, “I’ll leave these desires on the table. I don’t know if I can achieve them now, but when I’m ____ [thinner, smarter, better], I’ll know what I’m doing. I won’t get it wrong, and I’ll go after them then.”

Confidence, however, has nothing to do with getting things right all the time. Think about it: do you have more respect for the person who insists they are always right, or for the person who says, “I’m not sure,” “I got it wrong,” or, “can you tell me more?” Confidence doesn’t say, “I am perfect.” Confidence says, “I am doing my best and worthy of respect regardless of my imperfections.”

Development is, by nature, a process. There will be times we get it wrong because we don’t know what we don’t know. We simply can’tbe right 100% of the time, no matter how hard we try. In getting things wrong, we provide ourselves with information about ways that don’t work and possible new paths to explore. We listen more intently, feel more deeply, think more profoundly. Give yourself permission to fully dive in and give yourself grace when things don’t go as planned.

Using these three tips, you can watch your confidence begin to skyrocket before your eyes. They are an integral part of my personal process, even today! I’ve watched women feel incredibly powerful with these three tips alone, and using them as a foundation for a practice to cultivate a deeper sense of confidence will show you how formidable you are. You are setting out on the adventure to create the life you have always imagined, one step at a time.

Steph Ondrusek is a personal trainer, body image coach, and writer based in Philadelphia, who coaches clients online to cultivate powerful, compassionate relationships with fitness and with their bodies. After getting her degree in Health and Exercise Science, she studied in Spain, picking up lessons in exercise, expansion, and enthusiasm for life along the way. She believes that women get to define ourselves, on our own terms, and in empowering all women to take up space in the world however they choose. You can find out more about her on her website and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.




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