The Out-of-Towner: Feeling Small and Being Present.
Something wonderful happens when a publisher says she likes your work. And then, when you go on-line to Google this publisher and you find out that she is Judith Regan, one of the most accomplished and renowned publishers of our time, it is exhilarating. It is this wonderful moment when all of your insecurities about yourself, about your thoughts and ideas of the world, are given a reprieve. When my soon-to-be agent told me that Judith Regan liked my book and wanted to talk about publishing it, it was one of the most validating moments in my life.
Late one Friday night in 2013, my agent (he became my agent by virtue of his connecting me with Judith) called me to tell me that he had passed on my manuscript to Ms. Regan who thought it was wonderful. She compared it to Victor Frankl’s Mans Search for Meaning. The compliment was that much more meaningful because of both who it came from and to whom she compared my work. When I hung up the call with my agent, I told my wife and our two friends about the call with tears in my eyes.
A year and a half later, the book was released and my friendship with Judith had begun. She talked with me about TV and radio work, had me as a guest on her radio show a few times to discuss psychological issues related to current events, and provided counsel and advice to me as a new author. When the first copy of my book was printed, she sent me a signed copy of my book, The Journey of the Heroic Parent, with the words, “Now comes the journey of the heroic author!” To most, this praise and story might seem enough to erase decades of insecurities stemming from an altogether average childhood where my unique opinions where seen by those in my context as ordinary, at best, to uninteresting or silly at worst. Well, unfortunately for me, the little child inside couldn’t fully absorb her recognition.
But my confidence did start to grow and her validation did make a difference. I started to consider the crazy idea that I had something unique to say. It was more than me needing to prove it or show it to others—I started to actually believe I had some gifts to share with the world.
That brings me to the object of this story. In 2014, after a couple of guest appearances on her show, Judith invited me to her annual Thanksgiving show to share thoughts about the holiday. I called in from my New York hotel room and shared a couple of thoughts about gratitude and mindfulness. I talked about how the children in our wilderness program developed a sense of gratitude as they learn to feel all of their feelings—how abundance was not necessarily the predecessor to gratitude. The call was short, but I was grateful to join and share some of my thoughts with Judith and her audience.
Then, she had the ridiculous idea to invite me back in 2015. This time, since I was in NYC during the show by chance, I accepted the invitation to come to the studio for the show. This time I would prepare more carefully by creating a mental outline to “wow” Judith and her listeners with my words of wisdom. Inescapably, my feelings of “not enough” came with me too. We, my wife and I, showed up in the Sirius radio studio, early, as my mother had trained me. We were introduced to some of the other guests arriving. I had some orange juice and managed my social anxiety as I visited with some of the others guests. A moment of ease came when after Judith’s young son tripped going up the stairs, my wife rushed to see if he was okay and helped him up. Most of the guests watched as my wife showed this boy nurturing and the kindness of a mother. She helped him up and gave him his toy Millennium Falcon and I couldn’t help but wonder if he had the feeling I had—the feeling that “this is not the place for me.”
A journalist, a producer, author, a restaurateur, and others gathered around the juice, coffee and pastry table. Managing my social unease, trying to remember the names of others longer than my handshake with them, I gravitated towards the one person I had met previously, a former employee of Judith’s and publicist. She was gracious and introduced me to a journalist, touting my book and encouraging him to do a piece on my book. I pretended confidence and played like I belonged. But looking back on the way the morning unfolded, I was haunted by the regressive experience of being a little boy in a room of giants. It was this regression that led me to a series of interactions that demonstrated my inability to be authentic.
First, the feeling of being an outsider led me to try to demonstrate to the others that I belonged. It couldn’t occur to me in this state that I did belong. I was Judith’s guest on the show she shared with some of her “favorite people.” I heard her say that throughout the show, but I wouldn’t allow it to sink in. I had several interactions with the other guests, interrupting them to tell something about me, trying to track what they were saying while obsessively monitoring myself.
After the first radio break, it was my turn to join the large circular table with a half dozen other guests. Each of us were given a headset and our own microphone and waited for our turn. My turn came and Judith started her question to me with, “What are some of your thoughts about Thanksgiving?” (a wonderful broad question where I could run out my well practiced outline on gratitude, wholeness, and mindfulness). Unfortunately for me, I was so busy readying myself to impress everyone—to prove that I belonged—that I missed the second part of her question, “I am sure you counsel a lot of people around the holidays and they struggle with family. What do you tell them?”
I was so consumed drowning in my own narcissistic regression—the feeling of smallness and not enough, the feeling of being an outsider with all these giant New Yorker’s—that I lost contact with all of them, most importantly Judith. I went on to talk about some principles of gratitude, and Judith being the master interviewer she is, noticed I missed the question. She followed it up with, “So when you’re sitting down at Thanksgiving dinner with your mother, and she says something that gets under your skin, what do you do?” (when your guest doesn’t answer your question you ask it again in another way). I was still on the agenda of showing how enlightened I was and how I could illustrate gratitude that I talked about how family gatherings can be a great teacher and how I would be grateful for my mother teaching me an important lesson. I had some helpful things to say about family, regression and the holidays, but I was too lost in my own childhood regression to access them. Judith went to the next guest and I couldn’t find another thing to say during the segment.
As the show ended and we all spent some time mingling, I exchanged cards with the journalist (I asked the publicist to give me a pep talk—she told me I was overthinking things and should just give him my card). Next, I interrupted another story to share what I thought was a funny line from the play that I am helping to produce. The others looked at me confused as my wife tried to give them context.
As we were getting ready to leave, I had a sense that I was off in some way. I knew that it was rooted in my insecurities, but I thought a lot of it might have to do with my voice. I was coming off a cold and my voice was very limited. I said my goodbyes to Judith, apologizing for my voice and she responded encouragingly, “You’re too self-critical.” She was right, but knowing that is not enough, I thought. My wife and I left the studio and the lobby felt like a breath of fresh air.
The worst of it had not yet come. I shared with my wife how disappointed I was with myself for my interview and my social interactions. My wife noticed and gently observed that I had interrupted others and seemed to miss the cues and conversation in several instances. The shame welled up as I heard this and reflected back. Later that evening I listened to the rebroadcast of the interview to rub salt in the wound as I heard myself miss Judith’s question with my attempts to try to impress everyone.
I spent the next several days trying to move past the whole experience. I had fantasies that Judith finally discovered that I was a fraud. She finally saw my true colors and she would be done with me now. I tried not to think of the whole experience and keep the cringe of shame at bay.
In Salt Lake City, I walked into my therapist’s office almost a week later and told her the story. I had a good sense by now that I felt small in that room full of accomplished and sophisticated New Yorkers. I was able to articulate my several missteps as I recounted my attempts to impress everyone, which did just the opposite. The sense I have now is that I just came off as uninteresting. I don’t think I am uninteresting, but I do think that there is almost nothing as boring as listening to someone trying to impress others.
But here is the gold. My therapist listened to my story and summed it up with this, “I heard your story about feeling like you were an outsider—you didn’t fit in. The most amazing thing,” she went on, “was that you can see that.” It was to me an unappealing, narcissistic wound manifesting itself in self-absorbed, self-aggrandizement and I wanted to distance myself from it. But now as I thought about it, I wanted to remember this story and keep it close. I wanted to remember that I came from a context that told me I was always an “out-of-towner” no matter where I was. I interpreted others’ inability to see me and hold me with compassion as something about me. I didn’t fit in, but that wasn’t about me. It was about the others. I want to remember and write this story down because others might relate to that feeling. Perhaps, some will say, “I have no idea what he is talking about—what a basket case!”
I say, “Congratulations to those people.” But others might resonate with this feeling and maybe understand that they are not alone.
I had some helpful things to say about Thanksgiving and family that day in the studio, but I didn’t have access to them because I was eight years-old. Ironically, this is the same experience many people have on Thanksgiving—the feeling that we are not seen or we're seen as small and insignificant. This explains the stories we tell our family members about our conquests and awards—if we are worthy enough, maybe this will redeem us. This is when spouses look across the dinner table and wonder why their partner sounds eight years old.
In the end, we all have experiences that cause us to feel like the out-of-towner. And this is what can connect us. For me, I hope by remembering these feelings and this experience, where my insecure little boy tried to prove to the others in that studio in NYC that he was worthy, that I will be more present. I wanted to write this down to hold it close to me rather than bury it. I will read it again before I have another such event so that I might be able to be in the present rather than in the past where the other kids, my parents, my cousins, unconsciously pointed to me and told me I was the outsider.