A couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying a beautiful Italian dinner with a friend. A Saturday night off for a working musician is a rare treat so I was thrilled to relax into a delicious meal and wonderful conversation in one of the most beautiful spots on earth, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. My friend and I quickly established a fun relationship with our server and he would frequent our table using the task of pouring wine and water glasses to start conversation with us. He asked us for a story and when we couldn’t come up with anything clever on the fly, he requested my “most embarrassing moment.”
When he returned I shared this story.
I was a very awkward kid. Creative, weird, always visibly and sometimes embarrassingly excited about everything, hyperbolic, socially awkward, lanky, spastic and incredibly emotionally vulnerable (not much has changed, except that I’ve made peace with it. Never underestimate the power of well placed apathy. And wine). I wanted connection with my peers more than anything in the world, but that was not in the cards for me for many years. My parents scratched together tuition to send me to attended a quality, wealthy Episcopal elementary school where most of the other students were obviously much more well-off than we, what with their name brand penny loafers, fur coats (really? fur coats in LOUISIANA?) and cafeteria purchased frozen pizzas (to this day the smell of heat-lamp-baked frozen pizzas invokes in me an insatiable hunger for inclusion and acceptance, which is- albeit marginally – healthier than a desire for the frozen pizza).
My peers were gossipy, conservative rich girls and I was a weird, constantly-breaking-out-into-song daughter of a couple of liberals – an environmental activist and a teacher. I was an easy and frequent target for cruelty. Boys thought girls were icky and the girls found pleasure in excluding me from their games, girl scout troop playdates etc. I was lonely and miserable. By the fifth grade, I was suicidal over it – fortunately there was no known lethal dose of Double-Stuff-Oreos or Melanie albums at the time. But it got worse – I remember pulling my hair out screaming that I just couldn’t take it anymore and that dying was a better alternative than the constant and cruel rejection at school. SO. . . my parents found a new school and I transferred mid-year.
I was thrilled and terrified at the prospect of possibly making friends. I tried to rein in my overly enthusiastic nature and play it cool. . . And I was slowly sort-of making friends. But it was tough. I was in the depths of puberty, super-self conscious and myopically focused on forcing myself not to desperately glom onto anyone who said “hi” to me or invited me somewhere. I spent my time reading, learning, gradually connecting with my new cohort and trying to disguise the massive crushes on the older boys in 6th and 7th grades.
And then the Motivational speaker came to our school.
Yay! No Class! An assembly is always a wonderful way to break up the hum-drum of routine math, science, social studies, lunch bla bla. One would think. I don’t remember his name and probably have actually spent the greater part of my life trying to forget this entire story. . . But I digress.
One may think that a motivational speaker could empower, inspire and build up the weakest peons into mighty warriors, but for this particular insecure introvert, a Motivational Speaker is like a cheerleader for your very own personal apocalypse.
I mean, I honestly believe there may be a special place in hell for motivational speakers – they’re probably relegated to the same floor as folks who intuitively know to pinch your love handles when you’re feeling fat and the others who are overly pedantic about the word “irregardless.”
He was trying to be funny, warm us up, teach us things about compassion and getting along – to me it sounded as absurd as trying to convince lions and tigers to enjoy a nice tofurky.
Then he selected someone from the audience. I can’t remember if it was just me or if there were other victims. . . But I was an ill-fated student standing in front of the entire fifth through eighth grade classes at my BRAND NEW school where I was desperate to fit in somewhere. In my most creative nightmares, I could not have dreamed a worst scenario than the one that transpired (and trust me, my nightmares have tried).
So there I was with sweaty palms and a terrible partly curly, relatively short somewhat mullet shaped haircut and pimply face standing before the entire middle school next to this “motivational speaker” man. The odds were decidedly stacked against me. He was determined to make an example of me. I was determined to stay cool. I could lose EVERYTHING here if i screwed up and made a fool of myself in front of this new school. It could be WORSE than the other school if I said or did anything that was not “cool.” You know…because we’ve already established my long experience with being cool, so why would I possibly doubt my abilities at this point. And then he put me to my task.
He commanded me to say “I Love Me” with confidence and-self-assurance in front of EVERYBODY. What a ridiculous concept – according to all available evidence I was fully unlovable. I mean, yeah, of course, my parents loved me, but that mostly had the effect of questioning their sanity and doubting their tastes. I mean, how could they be right when EVERYONE else but them felt otherwise. Although self-compassion would eventually be one of my most cherished precepts, 5th grade me had no idea that that was even an option – I was like a fish trying to imagine fire.
The pressure was on, everyone was watching, and there was no way to escape my imminent demise. But I was brave in the face of my executioner and determined to not aid in his grim task. So, I mumbled “I love me” under my breath. Bad move – giving a Motivational Speaker an obstacle to overcome is like telling an alcoholic to dance for some whiskey. He became animated and coach-y and exclaimed that I needed to proclaim my undying self-love with more passion, conviction and believability. So, angrily I stated “I Love Me” audibly and matter-of-factly, praying that would appease him. No such luck. He became more wild with conviction and with near yelling exclamations encouraged me to be louder and more believable and then I snapped. I can’t remember exactly what happened but I’m pretty sure my body jolted into a weird jump, and like a deranged, disproportioned monkey, my arms spazzed out by my sides and my voice cracked as awkwardly as a pubescent boy as I yelled “I LOVE ME!!!!!!!”
I don’t remember the rest. My life was over, I just knew it.
Thankfully, it wasn’t. I miraculously made friends despite the “I love me” incident.
The funny thing is that after that, I can’t recall ever being very nervous in front of a crowd. As far as I’m concerned, the worst possible thing that could ever happen didn’t kill me. Sometimes when I’m feeling nervous or vulnerable, I just think back to that incident and realize that I will survive and people might even still like/love me on the other side of whatever may happen. I’m pretty sure that it gave me the courage to start performing and ultimately, was the first step toward actually loving myself, as weird and awkward and messed up as I felt I was.
I firmly believe that a person’s character is not made from how they look/act/choose in easy, feel in situations that are touchy-feely-honeymoon-dreamscapes. It’s the horrifying motivational speakers, terrifying illnesses, scrapes, bruises, betrayals, battles for our dignity that really give us the opportunity to spaz, duck, cover, heal, face the demons, climb mountains and get up in front of audiences.
But don’t worry. No matter how much I believe that this was a big game-changer and in all this character and self-compassion stuff, I’ll NEVER invite you on stage to proclaim your self-love in front of your middle-school peers. Never.