By Meredith Farkas | May 17, 2006
We all have a story of our life in our heads that informs who we think we are and what we think we are capable of. This story is based on experiences in our lives — successes, failures, traumas, and other people’s expectations. Often we will construct our story based only on certain experiences in our lives — those that provide confirmation of what we believe ourselves to be. There may be other experiences that contradict this view of ourselves, but we choose to focus on the ones that confirm our view. Someone who doesn’t have a high opinion of themselves may ignore all of the achievements they have attained and positive experiences they have had. Instead, a man may focus on when he was bullied in middle school or the emotional abuse he suffered from a parent or the fact that he got fired from a job.
We all have a picture in our head of who we are and what we are capable of. What if that picture is wrong? What if your story of yourself is missing key facts and evidence? What if you looked for times when you did things (or things happened or people said things to you) that run contrary to your story? What about that person with low self-esteem? What about when he got first place in the science fair in fifth grade or when his high school English teacher told him that she expected great things from him? What about all of the good grades he got in college or the fact that his wife loves him and thinks the world of him? Our true life stories are usually much less black and white and show us as people who do good and bad and are capable of much. But more times than not, people do not allow their stories to reflect the rich, complicated, and sometimes contradictory reality.
From the time I was 13, I lived a certain story. Meredith wasn’t a very good person. She often made her parents miserable. She was argumentative and always dissatisfied with her life. Meredith wasn’t particularly good at anything. She did well in school, but it was because she worked hard, not because she was smart. She could write pretty well, but not well enough to really do anything with it. Since she didn’t think much of her own thoughts and ideas, Meredith never trusted herself. She was afraid to speak up in class (even when she knew the answer to a question) and, in college, she actively avoided small seminar classes where she knew she would have to talk. When she had to defend her thesis in college, she nearly had a panic attack in front of her professors and instead of talking about her thesis, she had to prepare a script to read. She never believed that any of her ideas or insights were worth much. Meredith never felt like she fit anywhere. She had friends, but, because she didn’t think she had much to offer, she was uncomfortable among crowds and was scared of meeting new people. As a result, she avoided parties and didn’t join any groups in college.
And this was the story I told of my life for a long time. When something happened that contradicted the story, I would just think it was a fluke or that I had an easy professor or that the person who thought I was great was totally screwed up. The story poisoned every aspect of my life. I spent a great deal of college (and a few years afterwards) clinically depressed and self-destructive. I missed out on so many great experiences and classes in college because of fear. It was so stupid.
I had loved writing when I was younger, but by high school, I had pretty much given up any hope of becoming a professional writer. Throughout college, I wrote for myself, but was terrified to submit anything for the newspapers or literary magazines on-campus. When I was very young, I’d loved performing. I was in every play in elementary school — sometimes in the starring role. I don’t know what happened, but by middle school, I was pathologically afraid not only of performing, but of even talking in class. When I’d have to give a presentation in college, I would sweat, shake and turn red. I would obsess over it for weeks prior to the class and would then beat myself up about it for weeks afterwards. Even when I had to do presentations for my job search last year, I’d read scripts rather than give “real talks.” If I didn’t have a script in front of me, I thought I would become so panic striken that I’d forget everything I was going to say.
All of this began changing for me when I started my blog. Well, maybe it was when I met my husband and he convinced me that I wasn’t as horrible as I thought I was. He wasn’t tied to me by blood or obligation and yet he stayed with me. Why? It was his unconditional love and encouragement that gave me the courage to start my blog. Blogging seemed safe since the worst that could happen was that no one would read it. As my audience grew, I started to wonder why people bothered to read me. And when Rachel Singer Gordon contacted me and asked me if I’d like to write a book for Information Today, I started to think that maybe I was a good writer afterall. But the whole speaking thing scared me for a long time. Really, it scared me until yesterday. Even when I gave that 15 minute CyberTour at Computers in Libraries, I was shaky and sweaty and terrified. And the night before I gave my talk at the Vermont Library Association Conference, I couldn’t sleep and kept obsessing over the talk. But when it came time to give the talk yesterday, I didn’t choke. I didn’t even feel nervous. It was kind of surreal how the words and ideas just flowed out of me like they never had before. And when I couldn’t think of a word, I laughed about it and the audience laughed with me. It was such a terrific experience. People came up to me afterwards with ideas for using social software in their library; ideas that came from my talk. I finally realized that I can do this. And I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not going to let fear run my life and keep me from good things. It feels like a giant weight has been lifted off me.
This coming Tuesday I turn 29. Gosh, five years ago, that would have freaked me out. One year until you’re 30! Look at all you haven’t accomplished! Maybe it’s just a girl thing, but I wanted to be at a certain place in my life by the time I was 30. I even made a list when I was a kid of things I wanted to have done by the time I’d turned 30 (and yes, publishing a book was one of them!). I think back to my life just five years ago and how at loose ends I felt. I assumed that, because I wasn’t happy with my boyfriend or my job, I was the sort of person who was always going to be dissatisfied with her life. It never even occurred to me that I might feel the way I did because I had a bad boyfriend and a bad job. And now I have a great job, a great husband and am in a profession that I feel so passionately about. I’m writing, which I love, and speaking, which I’m completely shocked that I enjoy. It’s a bizarre feeling to be happy with my life and comfortable in my own skin, but it’s definitely something I can get used to. 29? 30? 40? Bring it on!
I know a lot of people who are crippled by fear and self-doubt like I was. And this is why I am writing such a personal post. I want to tell those people to consider that the stories that constrain their lives may just not be true. They may be capable of so much more than they let themselves believe. They may have talents that they never share with the world because they think they’re not talented. They may have good ideas or insights that they never share because they don’t have any confidence in themselves. People allow themselves to stay in jobs they hate or in relationships that suck beacuse they don’t think they deserve better or because they don’t think there’s anything better out there. Or maybe it’s because the unfamiliar is scary. I quit social work and went to library school without every having worked in a library, but with a gut feeling that this was the right thing for me. And that was terrifying. If I was a permanently dissatisfied person, like I thought I was, I wouldn’t like librarianship anymore than I liked social work. But I took that risk and it paid off. What are you afraid of?
Consider that the negative stories you tell about yourself are wrong. Maybe you can do the things you don’t think you can do. Maybe you have talents and abilities beyond your imagination. Just consider it and consider how often the benefits of taking a risk and trying something new and scary outweigh any negative consequences. Just a year ago, the idea of public speaking made me physically ill; now I’ve got at least five talks scheduled for next Fall and I’m actually looking forward to them. Insane!
So just for a minute, consider the idea that you can do all those things you’re afraid of doing. Consider that you may not be the person you think you are.
By the way, you can see my presentation slides from VLA here.