I am sitting on the subway, slowly slipping lower and lower in the cold, hard, plastic seat, the skin of my thighs stretching, pinching. I’m trying to make myself small. I’m trying to escape.
From every angle my own face is staring back at me, upside-down, from folded-over pages of The New York Times. I’m on the same page as the crossword, above the fold. As each passenger gets on, they unfold, re-fold, re-adjust their paper, and another me stares back.
In this one week my picture has appeared in almost every newspaper and magazine across the country, from People Magazine to The New York Times. I am on the brink of the kind of success most actors dream about.
I am 23, and I am scared shitless.
Not in a conscious, “Gosh, this is scary, I wonder how I’ll handle it” kind of way.
But rather the way that eats you alive from the inside. The kind that breeds panic, like a caged animal, desperately seeking the escape hatch.
It makes no sense; it’s everything I’ve wanted since as long as I can remember. But I am wholly unprepared.
There was no conversation about how to handle success. No one who’d walked this path before me called to say, “Hey, so you’re about to kind of blow up. Are you ready? How do you really feel about this? What do you need to do to prepare yourself for this? You might have some pretty big feelings about this you don’t understand, let’s work through them before they bite you in the ass.”
Because really, who does that?
Instead, my deeply rooted self-sabotage mechanism had me by the balls, and I went down hard.
There were people rallying around me who believed in me. Important people. Connected people. Influential people. I was handpicked by at least three of the top Network casting directors to be “the next (fill in the blank).” But with every opportunity came a deeper panic; with each breath of success would come another layer of sabotage.
I have a good friend who watched me go through that process. She’s now a coach, and was one of my first mentors, so we’ve dug into this a few times. At the time, she was the Emmy-winning Executive Producer of a major soap opera that I screen-tested for, and was one of those who believed in me. She describes in detail watching the veil come over me. She describes how, as I’d inch closer to the goal, I would subtly shift in almost imperceptible, yet overpowering ways—ways that shut the whole thing down. (Acting is subtle, and the tiniest shift can destroy a performance.)
One of the last things I remember from that period of my life is walking into the office of an extremely prominent casting director who had me on his short-list. As one of his favorite actors, I got to bypass the screening process and go straight in for meetings with top TV producers. But on my way up in the elevator of a huge, important office-building on 5th Avenue, I had what I now realize was a full-blown panic-attack. I went unconscious. I couldn’t breathe. I had to get out. But I went in anyway, and gave what was most likely the worst audition of all time.
I never heard from that casting director ever again, and that was my last audition for about 5 years.
After some time, I moved to LA and re-entered the business. I did what many would consider very well, but I was never in the same position again. The opportunities were lost, the backing gone.
The gig was definitely up.
Much has been written about our collective fear of success, what we are really afraid of (failure), and how to overcome it.
As I look back on what happened in my career 20 years ago, with the perspective now of a trained and certified life coach, I have a lot more clarity about that period of my life.
I now understand that we all have self-sabotage mechanisms at play within us. (Some call this our “inner critic,” "nner demons," "devil on your shoulder," but in my training we called them “saboteurs,” and that’s what I stick with today.)
My saboteurs knew that on many levels I wasn’t emotionally prepared to handle the success I seemed so destined for, so they got really loud. They chattered away in my ear, quietly running a tape in the background I had no conscious awareness of, but that was nonetheless powerful and all-consuming. I had no skills to handle this and I went down with the ship.
When working with saboteurs, we look for the 2% truth—what is the saboteur trying to protect you from? What about their negative, nasty-talk might actually be true? What are they pointing us to look at that might actually be useful?
I often think that had I gone a few more steps I would have landed in Los Angeles and been eaten alive in a more public, and perhaps permanent, way. I could easily have become a member of “The 27 Club.”
But had I been skilled, or had a coach, or been in therapy, or had a mentor, a manager, anyone to guide me through this time, I might have been able to acknowledge my very real fears, lean all the way into them, hear them, feel them—and not be consumed by them. I might have been able to overcome them.
Because the truth is that it is only what we are unable to face that can truly take us down. When we turn towards our fears—when we can compassionately listen to them, be with them—we can effectively manage them.
Now I’m a mom and I’m a coach and educator for other moms who don’t want to fuck up their kids. As I reflect on this massive life lesson it took me all too long to learn, I know what I want for my son, and for all our kids. I want them to know that we all struggle with our inner demons; that we’ll never be rid of them. I want them to know that despite that, there are ways of effectively managing these saboteurs so they don’t take us all the way down and kill our dreams, as they killed mine.
Our kids are sponges and mirrors. They absorb everything we do and reflect it back to us. So do the work on yourself first, so that what your kids reflect back to you is a strong, confident person, able to beat back their own demons, and achieve their dreams.