I think we all suffer from having secret fears about ourselves, that stunt our growth both personally and professionally. Since I graduated from college and became an “adult,” I’ve struggled with feeling like a fraud in my career.
I majored in acting in college, but before I studied it as a future profession, I did it. For almost my entire life. I put in hours of work in rehearsals, coaching sessions, classes and voice lessons. I performed in over 40 plays and musicals. I sang the National Anthem at local sporting events and did radio commercials. I screen-tested for movies and television shows. All before the age of 13.
When I started going on big-time auditions as a 21-year-old NYU acting school grad, I should have felt beyond prepared. But I didn’t. I feared that I was secretly untalented. I can’t tell you why exactly, but on every single audition, and there were tons, I felt like I was pretending to be an actress. I lived in persistent fear of the moment that a casting director, my agent or manager would sit me down and break it to me that I just didn’t have what it took to be an actress. The fear of this moment — which never happened, incidentally — made something I once loved into something that I found miserable. I decided to quit.
After that, I went back to grad school to become a therapist. I made it all the way through my course work, getting straight A’s, and when I arrived at the clinic on my first day of my traineeship, the fraud fear came back with a crippling vengeance. How could I possible sit in a room alone with a client and help them with their problems? What if they realized that I was a 24-year-old kid with my own problems, that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing? I dropped out of the program before I ever saw my first client.
Soon after, I got offered a job teaching drama and directing the plays at an inner city high school in Los Angeles. The fear of being a fraud never left me. Teenagers can be brutal if they think they’ve gotten the best of you and I was determined not to show them that there were countless moments when I was scared shitless. Especially in that first year, whenever my students asked me questions I didn’t know how to answer, I would get scared that in my moment of weakness, they would discover that I didn’t have a teaching degree and that I was a failure as an actress and therefore unqualified to teach them. But with hundreds of young people entrusted in my care every day, I needed them to take me seriously in order to function on a day-to-day basis. So I faked it until I made it. And sometimes wore dark sunglasses in class so they wouldn’t know I’d been crying. I told them I had allergies.
Every career move I made, the fear followed me — I wasn’t prepared enough, I didn’t know what I was doing, people would discover I was an imposter — I just got much, much better at covering it up. I built a shiny facade to conceal my “I’m a fraud” fears. No one, and I mean no one, could see through it. And because of that facade, I’ve been successful. I know how to pretend to think I’m great at what I do. That, and I work my ass off, strive to be the best at any task I undertake and (I think) my co-workers really like having me around most of the time. I’m a serious team player.
This leads me to the present. Outside of work here at The Frisky, I do a lot of other things. I am in two writing groups, working on a book, and a few months ago, I started teaching my first writing class for adults. But not without my secret fear that I wouldn’t be able to cut it coming along.
As fate would have it, there was a student in my class who absolutely hated me. Everything I said or did, every bit of advice or feedback I gave her, she shot down. I tried different tactics — praising her, ignoring her, letting her teach me — but she wasn’t having it. When the class was over, the students were asked to fill out evaluation forms. I knew hers would say awful things about me. But I didn’t know how awful.
There it was. For me to read on paper. The secret fears I harbored about myself.
“She was the worst teacher I’ve ever had. Under qualified. Unhelpful. Not good enough,” the form read.
My heart went into free-fall. So, it was true after all. The thing I had been fearing for more than a decade, the most awful thing that anyone could say about me. I was a failure at what I was supposed to be good at. I had been exposed.
For about 24 hours, I fought the urge to crawl under my dust ruffle and take up residence under my bed. I ate an entire bar of salted dark chocolate and felt sorry for myself.
But then something shifted. A new thought occurred to me.
Wait! That’s total BS!
Somehow, having someone say these awful things about me made me see how ridiculous they were. Her unkind words ignited some spark within me to stand up for myself in a way that I had never when I said them to myself. The moment that I had always feared happened and … IT WASN’T THAT BAD. Suddenly, I knew that the fears that had been haunting me were JUST NOT TRUE.
My other students’ evaluations came in. They were glowing. Some of them gave me constructive criticism, which I always find helpful.
“She can do a better job leading class discussions.”
Fine, I can absolutely work on that.
“She gave excellent feedback.”
That’s true. I do.
There’s something liberating about having your secret fears come true and finally seeing them for what they really are — a bunch of BS thoughts that keep you from succeeding.
The same way my student didn’t want to hear what I said to her, I’m choosing not to listen to what she said about me. Because, for the first time in my life, I know for sure that she’s wrong. Thanks to her, I can finally relax and feel deserving of all the success I have.