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