I stood at the head of the conference room, psyched, and ready to present. As requested, I had arrived early to set up for the talk. I wore my funky blue and gold sandals, a pink blazer, a pink and blue flowered blouse, and stylish blue pants. My hair was blown out; my nails manicured. The brand-new presentation was projected on the screen, and I was ready to go. The room was... empty.
It was 1:50, ten minutes before the scheduled talk, and two young women finally strolled in. I greeted them warmly, thinking they were conference attendees. “Actually, we are volunteers. We will help you with the audience and pass out the evaluation forms at the end.”
“Well, so far there is no audience to help with,” I grimaced.
“That is weird,” said one. “I know people were interested in your talk.”
I thanked my lucky stars for these two pleasant doctoral students from Marywood University. I asked them about their program, their upcoming comprehensive exams (the bane of all psychology students). We chatted about the area, the weather, the conference. I tried to distract myself from what was happening. No one was coming to my talk.
One of the students was about 25 years old, with long wavy hair, wearing a long, flowered skirt. She will make an excellent psychologist. She could smell my vulnerability and was already working to help me. She said, “You know, I think people didn’t get the message that your talk was rescheduled. I bet they all think it’s at 4:00. They sent out an email, but lots of people don’t read their emails.”
I gazed despondently at the vacant room, empty chairs next to the smooth tan desks. “Yes, that makes sense. Maybe I will just come back at 4:00. I’ll do that.”
“OK” said the woman, “We’ll see you then.”
Hurriedly, I packed up my computer, and the stack of books I had brought for sale. I fled to my hotel room.
You see, I have a great fear: no one will come. This fear snakes back to 7th grade, the worst time in the world, when girls turn on girls with a vengeance. On one jaw-dropping morning, I went from having a secure group of six awesome friends to having no friends at all. Ever since then, I have a profound fear of giving an event and no one showing, my social pariah status exposed for all to see. What if I give a party and no one comes? What if I speak and no one comes? What if I'm in the hospital and no one comes? (To be fair, this did actually happen to me, so maybe my fear goes far deeper than 7th grade). What if I die and no one comes?
I know I am not the only one with this kind of fear. I have been to authors' book signings and witnessed them bravely presenting to a group of three of their closest friends, smiling through gritted teeth, shaking their heads.
Once I joined a “live Facebook” event, given by my daughter’s friend who promised a big announcement. I wanted to support this 17 year old girl, who had hung around our house throughout high school. When I joined her “live event,” I could see there were just two other people watching, one of whom was her own mother. “Hi Mom,” she groaned, her despair evident to all. I flinched with sympathy.
Now I sat in my own moment of mortification. However, there was still a job to do. I had to manage this biggest fear, with all its accompanying emotional sequela, alone in a dreary hotel room in State College, PA. I called upon all my cognitive skills, all my self-management techniques, all the skills I teach my clients every week. I had to do it myself, and I had to do it fast.
I sat down on the bed, and talked to myself, as if I were my own patient. Here was our conversation:
No one likes me. Actually, Lise, no one knows you here. They have no opinion of you at all because they have never met you.
It’s just like middle school. No, it’s not. You are 50 years past middle school. You are not in 7th grade. You are a grown woman with a doctorate.
Well, it feels just like middle school. Yes, it does, but feelings don’t mean that is what is actually happening.
This is my worst fear. I tried to give a talk, and no one came. No one came because the talk was not well-scheduled, and no one even knew there was a time change. Also, you are addressing a niche area, and some people won’t be drawn to the topic. That is not something to take personally.
I just want to cry my eyes out and never leave this room. Crying would be a bad idea, because you are in fact presenting again in two hours. You don’t want to look like a wreck.
I feel so bad. I understand, but let’s get away from feeling and more into thinking. You are a great speaker. You have spoken all over the country, to thousands of people, with much success. This one event is due to a scheduling glitch. It's not about you.
At least this will make a good blog. True, if you are willing to write about it!
Two hours later, having successfully not cried, I returned to the conference room. I plugged in my computer, set myself up again and waited. At 3:50, an older man shuffled in and attempted to set up his laptop. He complained that he couldn’t find an outlet. He complained that his previous workshop was poorly done. He complained that the presentations have not been clinical engaging.
I could have kissed him.
A middle-aged woman with a lovely smile came in and sat to my left. Then the two graduate students returned, whom I greeted like they were my best friends. It was 4:00. The room was virtually empty, but perspective is everything. Four people came to hear my talk, and I was going to give them everything I had. I was ready to kick ass.
Disfigurement: A Call for Awareness.
My talk starts with my own story of being burned, then expands to a general discussion of disfigurement, what it is like, and how we are received by others. The talk addresses the way Hollywood uses disfigurement as a trope for villainy and/or being pathetic. We discuss how these depictions increases the stigma. People learn about the Face Equality Movement, ways to improve interactions with the visibly different, and ways psychologists can help.
When I discussed Hollywood representation of disfigured people as being villains, I asked the audience how many of them had ever noticed this. One woman raised her hand.
When I asked how many people had ever heard of the Face Equality Movement, no one raised their hand at all.
When the talk was over, I perched on the edge of a table, answering questions, grateful to be done. The extra-kind graduate student commented, “I’m so glad I came to this talk. I never thought about any of these issues, and I learned a lot from being here.”
I am both embarrassed by this experience and super proud of it, simultaneously. It is embarrassing to travel across the state and give a talk to an audience of four. It is embarrassing to tote a stack of books to sell, and to reload every single one of them back in the car trunk.
“How did the conference go?” texted my friend. “I bet you did great.”
And yet. I could award a medal to every therapist I ever worked with, because all that therapy was alive and kicking in my brain. It would have been easy to sink into old scripts of social rejection, assuming the worst in everyone, feeling alone and hopeless. Instead, I talked back to the fears, and wound up giving a great presentation. That talk may have only touched four people, but those four people really heard me.
A part of me shudders to share this story publicly. No one needs to know, right? But something hard happened, and I know that discussing the hard stuff is what truly helps people. Sometimes in life, we bump into our worst fears. “No one will come” is one of mine.
Perhaps you will encounter your worst fear someday too. If that happens, treat yourself kindly and talk to yourself with compassion. It's awful when your worst fear happens! Then, tap into your own wise inner voice, the adult part of you, who can solve problems. Have your own therapy session with your own little self. I bet the wisdom you need already lives in your brain, somewhere. Tap into it. Hold yourself up, talk to yourself with kindness and wisdom and keep on going.
I did it. You can do it.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.