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Taking off the mask I didn’t even know I was wearing

[ 23 ] February 29, 2012 |
Live life to the fullest by overcoming fear: take off your mask!

Image by el_floz on Flickr. Creative Commons License.

In a book I read a few months back, there was a question that’s haunted me.

“When it is dark and you are alone, do you ever say to yourself, ‘What will I do when they find out I’m me?'”

–Walter Anderson1

I pride myself on being open, being congruent, being real. I used to do the opposite, being careful to hide everything about me that I thought others might not like. Instead, I went all out trying to be what I thought they wanted. I was smart, studious, well-behaved, mild-mannered–“a joy to have in class,” according to almost every teacher I ever had.

The problem is, when you’re always trying to please others, there’s no room for your real self to shine though. Aside from the inherent waste of that, it prevents you from ever having deep, intimate relationships. When nobody can get past the pleasing front you present in attempt to make them like you, you can’t have interactions deeper than that faux surface.

I know all this. As I emerged from the shambles of my second marriage, I could no longer deny that the old way was clearly not working. With great trepidation, I started being real with everyone. As scary as it was, it was the best thing I’ve ever done, and I committed to living that way from then on.

So why should I still be afraid of people finding out I’m me, as it says in the quote? If I was following my policy of being real, everyone would already know I’m me. So what am I afraid of?

A few weeks ago, I figured it out. I’m still afraid of people knowing that I’m scared, and I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m not sure I can do this.

I know a lot of people think I was crazy to quit my job, and some of them haven’t been shy about their opinions. I want so much to be right about this!

At the same time, I’ve been having a lot of doubts about it myself. It’s hard to admit, but things haven’t been going as well as I expected financially, and for awhile it seemed like nothing I was doing was working at all. I started feeling like a fool and a failure, and I started trying madly to hide that from everyone but my closest friends, because I thought if people knew I was anything but a hero, I was definitely doomed. Everyone would catch the whiff of failure on me and run away before it spread to them.

Being fake and being afraid has made it almost impossible to work, which has only added to my anxiety. Most of what I like about myself is tied to achievement, so when I’m not getting anything done, my self-esteem tanks, which makes it even harder to work. Meanwhile, my fear was feeding on itself, using my lack of productivity as further proof that I was a loser.

With all of this mental static taking up more and more of my brain and sucking away my energy, I got on a plane to Portland for a meetup of a mastermind group organized by my awesome coach, Jonathan. I told myself I was excited and couldn’t wait to get new ideas and energy from interacting with all these brilliant people and hearing their suggestions and feedback.

The truth, which I didn’t even consciously admit to myself, was I was scared shitless that they would realize I totally didn’t belong there.

They all seemed so brilliant, so ambitious, so creative, so knowledgeable. So inspiring! And here I was, clueless, afraid, and depressed. What was I doing there? I felt like a fraud for even showing up.

When the group’s focus turned to me, I had to lay bare the numbers for my business, what I had been doing, and what results I was getting. All of my answers seemed utterly pathetic to me, but I spilled it anyway.

You have to understand, two of my three greatest fears are having people realize I don’t know what I’m doing, and crying in front of people. But there was no hiding in this group, and the others were so awesome, I decided to let go and trust them. I still hoped I wouldn’t cry in front of them, but everything felt so hopeless, I just couldn’t help it.

I told them everything. I cried. We talked. I cried some more.

I’m sure you know, from your perspective as Not Me, that the others wouldn’t laugh, scorn me, and throw me out of the group. I knew that, too, intellectually–but no deeper. At best, I still half-expected they’d go home that evening and think, “God, how did that basket case get in here? What a mess! I’m glad I’m not her!” before going back to their brilliant works.

Instead, they rallied around me beyond anything I could have imagined. Someone finally asked, “Do you believe you can do this?”

It was a moment of truth for me because I knew the “right” answer was “yes,” but the honest answer was “no.” I wanted to believe, but if I looked into my heart and faced reality, I knew I didn’t.

All my life, I’ve been a master at detecting the “right” answer. Giving it has carried me a long way–I always attributed a majority of my success to that, in fact.

I spent a moment suspended in time. Right answer, or true answer? What I know people want to hear, or real me?

I decided. I told the truth, wavering out the saddest little tear-strangled “no” I’ve ever spoken.

“Well, I believe you can do it. And I think everyone else here feels the same. [nods all around] You can do this!”

I don’t think I’ll forget that moment as long as I live. Everyone said a lot of comforting and inspirational things, and gave me a ton of great suggestions for making everything work, but that was what did it for me. That and my two biggest heroes offering me all-encompassing hugs while I sobbed on their shirts.

Why am I telling you all this?

Some might call it self-indulgent. I’m halfway in that camp myself. But two reasons:

  1. I feel like I’ve been putting on a false front here. If I’ve told you my failings at all, it’s only been when it could be cheerfully couched as a victorious learning experience. After all, I wrote a book called How to be Happy, and my flagship product is Beyond Fear. I feel like I should already have all this stuff handled and be out there kicking its ass. My friends had to point out to me how ridiculous that expectation is.

    Meanwhile, I think trying to act like I’m successful and know what I’m doing has caused such a conflict, it’s been getting in the way of what I want to do here. I quit my job because I loved writing, and here I’ve been, dreading every blog post and writing almost nothing. I’m through with that (I hope).

  2. If there’s even one person out there feeling like I have been, it’s worth writing this. You’re not alone. What’s more, you don’t have to earn compassion. That’s what really blew me away about the mastermind. I didn’t deserve any of that. But it was there for the asking, if I could only be strong enough to admit I was weak.

I’m tired of being afraid, so I’m admitting it again here. I don’t really know what I’m doing. A lot of things aren’t working so far. I’m afraid I’m going to run out of money before the business gets off the ground. I’m afraid I’m inherently lacking in some quality that makes successful entrepreneurs. (A few come to mind: faith, charisma, a passion for marketing…)

Every launch so far has been utter torture for me because I’m afraid nobody will ever buy my stuff, and I’m afraid it’s because they can all see how inadequate I am. I’m afraid I’m nowhere near cool enough to pull this off.

I’m afraid I’m wasting your time. I’m afraid I’ve already said everything useful I’ll ever say. I’m afraid no one will read this, or if they do, they’ll all laugh (and then unsubscribe).

I’m afraid this is all just a mirage and soon I’ll have to wake up and go back to sitting in some beige box somewhere while my life ticks away. I’m afraid I’ll die without ever having really lived.

* * * * *

I think situations like this are especially hard for perfectionists, people with impostor syndrome, and overachievers, all of which I am (or am recovering from). If you get used to things coming easily for you, especially if they’re things others struggle with, it’s easy to get stuck in outrageous expectations: mistakes are for kids, everything should come easily to me, not knowing what I’m doing means there’s something wrong with me.

For example, the day I fell in the woods and skinned my knee, I was ridiculously shocked. One of my best friends was totally casual about it: “oh, yeah, everybody falls sometimes.” I was like, “what? They do?!?!”

I think the last time I skinned my knee before that was in high school when someone pushed me down on the blacktop when we were playing basketball. Before, that, it was probably when I was six. I had no idea I was spending waaaaay too much time in my comfort zone.

The problem with never falling down is you start to think the world will end if you do.

I’d like to replace that idea with another image. A few weeks ago, before my mastermind trip, I was walking in the woods. I do that all the time, in pursuit of sanity. On this particular day, a young boy and his dad were out riding bikes, and we happened to start the same trail at the same time. They’d pass me and ride on ahead, and then they’d stop to look at something or the boy would get his bike stuck, and I’d pass them, so we ended up doing the entire trail sort of together.

At one point, we got past a big muddy spot and the trail became smooth and wide, with a slight uphill incline. The dad rode beside the boy with his hand on the child’s back, giving him a little extra gas to get up the hill.

Seeing this brought tears of longing to my eyes, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I have a great dad, and when I was little, he always helped and protected me, comforted me and treated me with compassion. So why the wistful tears?

It was only after I got back from the mastermind and walked the same path that I figured it out. I had been feeling like, now that I’ve quit my job and gone out into the big bad world by myself, nobody can protect me any more, or even give me a little extra push.

Now I know that’s not true. We’re all in this together, and our problems always seem larger from the inside. That doesn’t mean I’ll never despair again, but it feels good to know.

If you know anyone else who could benefit from this message, please tweet it or share it on Facebook. Thanks for reading.

 


1The Confidence Course: Seven Steps to Self-Fulfillment by Walter Anderson. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 32.

About Cara Stein: I'm a writer and dreamer with a PhD in self-reinvention. (Or was that computer science?) Whether you're stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, I want to help because I've been there!

Comments (23)

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  1. Mike Routen says:

    Cara,

    You _can_ do this!

    What a beautiful post. Thank you for taking off the mask and being the example for us. You may not feel like you have everything handled like you should, but being willing to open up like this is truly inspiring.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was sure that I was the poser, the imposter in that room!

    You really summed it up with, “our problems always seem larger from the inside”. I couldn’t agree more.

    Thank you.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks, Mike! I think you said it first (about feeling like a poser), and I’m so glad you did! I don’t think I would have been brave enough to admit I felt that way if you hadn’t already.

      Thanks again for all your support! You totally rock!

  2. Tammy says:

    This post so describes me up until about the age of 30! I was so afraid of rejection that I never showed people the real me, because if they rejected the fake me, it wasn’t nearly as painful.

    I so agree with you that people (and I’m definitely “people”!) do think that falling down means the end of the world. I was so afraid of failing that I never tried new things.

    Admitting to the world that I was not perfect, which I knew all along, was terrifying. So was standing up against the dissenting voices of my friends. That admission, however, let the real me see the light of day.

    I’m so glad that your problems feel much smaller on the outside.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Admitting to the world that I was not perfect, which I knew all along, was terrifying. So was standing up against the dissenting voices of my friends. That admission, however, let the real me see the light of day.

      Exactly! Good for you for doing it! It’s so scary before you do it, but such a relief after–at least, that’s how it’s been for me.

      Thanks, Tammy!

  3. Hi Cara,

    I almost dropped my iPad while reading your blog. You have summarized, with great eloquence and genuine honesty, my internal thoughts and tendencies. The over- achiever and perfectionist who is crippled with anxiety, self-doubt, and fear.

    I admire and respect the courage it took for you to acknowledge your fear, angst, and perceived vulnerabilities, not only to yourself but to the world. I feel strongly that there are so many people like you and I who wrestle with the shame and fear of not being good enough.

    It is important to acknowledge this and share those feelings. It is only too easy to tweet, blog, or write about the importance of finding balance, pursuing happiness, and realizing self-improvement. It’s another thing to actually feel it in your bones, to internalize the skills, and to really believe in yourself.

    “We” (you and me at least!) are going through the scary and painful process of turning toward the truth of how we feel. I wish I could offer some pithy advice , but I can’t. All I know is that as much as it hurts, I’m not turning back and ignoring my internal feelings. Perhaps you will do the same.

    One last thing. You mentioned that you didn’t deserve compassion. What you do deserve is to be compassionate with yourself.

    Thank you again for publicly letting go of the person you thought you were supposed to be.

    Tracey Holden-Quinn

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thank you very much for this comment, Tracey! It means a lot to me.

      All I know is that as much as it hurts, I’m not turning back and ignoring my internal feelings.

      Amen! I don’t think this is something that can be solved with pithy advice, we just have to grow through it, pains and all.

      About self-compassion, what you say is definitely true. I’ve been reading a bunch of stuff on how to do that. I thought I had it nailed a few years ago when I started arguing with my critical inner voice instead of just believing everything she said, but this goes deeper than that. I definitely want to write about it if I figure anything out to the point where I have something to write. :)

      Thank you for your support. I wrote this for you–I just didn’t know who you were. 😉

  4. …and I needed you to write it. Thank you!

  5. Christopher says:

    Hey Cara,

    Been reading your blog lately, your honesty and openness is damn awesome.

    In fact, this latest post caused me to quit being so resistant to transparency and to face some masks I’ve been wearing.

    Your writing works so well because it’s real, no-holds barred real.

    It seems you’ve done everything you can, given all you had and taken all the right steps to make a success of living your passion, rendering your eventual success inevitable; once that Universal momentum factor kicks in.

    Until then, you’ve inspired one more person who lives on the other side of the world, in Africa.

    Thank you for your example,

    Christopher

    • Cara Stein says:

      Christopher, thank you so much for writing this! I’m thrilled to know that I touched your life like that. Thanks for the encouragement, too–that feels great! :) Keep on rockin’!

  6. Holly Em says:

    So true your statement “The problem with never falling down is you start to think the world will end if you do.” Problems really do seem much bigger from the inside. Failure is not a fun experience, but a necessary one if we are to grow and learn.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Exactly! Jason Mraz has a line in one of his songs, “I reckon it’s again my turn/ to win some or learn some…”

      I tell myself that, but I always hope it will turn out it’s my turn to win some. :)

  7. Louise Ann Knight says:

    Cara

    You are brave and eloquent and long overdue to turn all your wonderful compassion towards people on yourself a little. I’ve literally been panicking in the last day or so about whether to write something myself and took the plunge. There comes a point, I think, where you know your truth will hold you strong and anything less is not good enough. Even if no-one else reads it or sees what the big deal is, as you said, it is often on the inside much larger, because we’re the ones living with that fear and conflict. Everyone else has their own though – we’re together in our struggle to accept ourselves! I admire you for being so open and hope you feel much better for having said all this. You’ve set the ball rolling for others to do the same, with your courage :)

    Louise

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thank you very much, Louise. I really appreciate your support, and I’m so happy that you took the plunge and wrote your truth! That is awesome! More power to you! :)

  8. Eveline Almeida says:

    Hi, Cara!
    I was looking at my email where I subscribed to a lot of blogs like this one and I saw you updated it. You updated it. And I thought to myself: Finally Cara updated it!
    And why would I even get a reaction like that, since I subscribed to a lot of other blogs? Your blog really got something else, and I don’t really know what it is.
    I admire your courage to share your truth with everyone. I’m a perfectionist myself and I know how hard it is to do that. At the end you know what? People really know that you’re not perfect, even with the most perfect mask you could ever wear.
    You said you thought you had no charisma for this, and I’ll tell you, people who pretend they’re perfect will never have charisma. People want real and not perfect. And you don’t need to pretend you’re perfect to write a book about happiness. We know that even happy people are not perfect and get sad sometimes. And that’s good, it shows they’re human.
    Keep it up. I love what you write.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Eveline, thank you so much! I can’t tell you how good your comment makes me feel. You’ve completely made my week. Thank you!

  9. Cara, your heart is so beautiful, and I thank you for so boldly opening it up in this post, and at the mastermind! This honesty and vulnerability is such a great platform and place to speak from. So many people, including myself can resonate with these fears. I doubt many of them would want to read from someone who pretends to have it all together and figured out. Limp on, Cara, because brokenness is where the greatest writing, poetry and art happen. Let us know how we can continue to help and support you.

  10. MW says:

    “The problem with never falling down is you start to think the world will end if you do.”

    This is really the heart of it. That’s the core fear and of course it is absurd, but we live in a society that scares us with well-intentioned advice. We’re taught to get good grades and go to a good school and get a good job, but what about LIVING a life? Rather than marking off time doing the ‘right things’ according to society? It’s certainly easier to control a population that is sedated into a monotonous life and has it ‘just good enough’ that they are afraid to lose what they have, so they believe it when the TV says ‘it’s a bad economy’. Being in a protective beige bubble can lead to a life where one merely exists, but does not live, does not fully come alive.

    The time now with the internet and wifi means we do not have to take it. We can indeed make a life worth living if we can be brave enough to let go of what we are holding onto.

  11. Matt Rider says:

    Hi Cara,
    I came across your post here because I am preparing for a presentation in Wisconsin next weekend for parents of deaf children. The event happens every year and they graciously invited me back for a third time to provide training for the parents while camp counselors work with the kids. Their theme this year is “Everyday Superheroes,” and my presentation is titled “Taking Off the Mask: Humanizing the Superhero Parent.” Your post was simply Godsent. Two things stand out for me that I’d like to mention. First, I’m wondering if you have, or would consider creating a recording (video or audio) of this post that I could play for the parents. I could just read it myself, but I’m guessing your own words with your own inflection would be way more powerful. Hearing parents of deaf kids have a very difficult and thankless life. They not only have to be a parent (which is superhuman at times on its own merit) but they have to constantly advocate for their children to school systems and businesses that don’t understand deafness and refuse to pay for interpreters, CART services, etc. Then they have to constantly be an interpreter all the time, everyday, in every situation whenever their child interacts with hearing and non-signing people. Their kids often have behavior problems that stem from an inability to communicate directly; and their kids are frequently bullied by hearing kids who assume that because the kid is deaf it must mean she is stupid, retarded, and emotionless. These parents always have to be superheroes with little support or guidance. They go bankrupt trying to pay for audiological, speech and counseling services and equipment like hearing aids and Cochlear implants to help their kid communicate with the outside world. It’s tough enough being a parent (my partner and I have two young sons), but to be the parent of a deaf child is especially challenging. So in reading your post I was struck by how your story would really fit into their experience. Many hearing parents of deaf kids struggle daily with self doubt and are sure that they are failing but have to keep putting on the happy mask in order to not discourage their deaf child who wants to believe that the world could possibly belong to them as well. Hearing your story in your own voice would be powerful for them. Would you be willing to record it and post it? Or maybe read it over the phone to them, perhaps?
    My second thought is far more personal. Like you I have spent a career being what everyone expected me to be and was successful in my own right. But I work in mental health as a counselor and funding in agencies for mental health services is one of the first things to be cut in hard economic times. I’ve lost my job through budget cutbacks four times so far. Add to that the fact that I’m an openly gay man has made me a target for homophobic administrators. So despite being the perfect employee with glowing evaluations and proven track records of growth and productivity, I’ve been let go from some jobs under guise of budget cuts. It sucks, but there is little I can do to change it. The last layoff took place in March of 2012 at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. I had been a training specialist developing mental health related workshops for parents and professionals of deaf children and then presenting them around the country. I developed a solid enough reputation nationally that when Gallaudet eliminated my position in a legitimate reduction in force, not only did Gallaudet hire me back to adjunct teach at the university, but agencies around the country have contracted with me to provide the kind of workshops like the one I have coming up next weekend. But I can’t make a living at it because it’s way to infrequent and these agencies cannot afford to pay a fee high enough to make it sustainable income for my family. After a year of not being able to find permanent work I decided to go back for my PhD and was accepted in a Pastoral Counseling program. My natural perfectionism has made me the perfect student and the Department has recently offered me a free ride this coming year. Woo hoo! All indications suggest that I have some kind of future with them after I graduate in another 3-5 years. But if I have learned anything it’s that I cannot depend upon an organization to retain me. So after discussing things over with my partner, I’ve decided to open my own private practice as a clinical counselor. I’ve been taking the necessary steps to do this and within a month or so I can officially hang my shingle up. The issue is whether to play it safe and get listed as a provider for insurance in which I’ll get clients referred from the insurance companies, or to only accept self-pay clients. Self-pay clients will pay my full fee while insurance companies will only pay about 1/3 of that; moreoever, they require a ton of paperwork and often refuse to pay at all. It seems like a no brainer. But the average fee for an hour of clinical therapy is $145. Personally, I don’t know too many people who could afford that, let alone sustain it for a course of weeks while they work out their issues. Here is where my confidence waivers. I’m a damned good clinician. I know it. I hear it all the time. But I grew up in a small town and have never circulated in A-list groups. I can count on one hand the number of well-off people I know. So I need to find the confidence to sell myself to the pool of clients out there that can afford my services. My inner voice is telling me that I would be perpetuating a fraud because I am not rich and never have been. Additionally,studies show that rich people like to see other rich people for counseling. The stakes are high. We’ve gone through all of our savings and our credit cards are all but maxed out. If ever there was a make it or break it time, this is it. Reading your post today has inspired me to silence the voices that whisper doubt in my head, or at the very least find a way to push forward anyway. I’m guessing i’ll find a way to elevate my worth to where it needs to be in order to be congruent enough to attract the clients I need to build my business. Rich in experience, maybe? Hmm, I need to give this more though. Regardless, until having read your post today, I hadn’t even articulated these doubts enough to address them. Thank you for sharing your story with me. If, like me, you feel good about making a difference in your words, you can pat yourself on the back today because you have succeeded with me. Thanks so much! -Matt Rider

  12. Diana says:

    OMG, you just described ME! I am struggling with all the issues you are. Everything always came so easy to me. Now, not so much and it seems like the world will end if I make a mistake. (The turning point was when I was promoted to Engineering Manager)

    My husband bought the book Failing Forward, by John C. Maxwell. I am hoping this helps me learn that failing isn’t a bad thing, it is actually a GOOD thing.

    Thanks for posting. Very helpful!

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