As early as I can remember, I suffered from a lack of self-confidence. At the same time, I had great expectations for myself, vivid fantasies about fulfilled potential and my fabulous life-to-come.
These conflicting feelings of ambition and low self-confidence were played out in my first year of school. One day, my kindergarten teacher was reading to the class from Peter Pan, and a girl in the class announced proudly, “I can read!” The teacher called her up to the front of the room, and she did read (sort of), telling the story in her own words while looking at the pictures. When she sat down again, I tentatively raised my hand, too. I was invited to the front of the class, and as my slightly startled teacher listened, I read the words to the class.
The next day I was brought to the school principal and asked to read a book for her called Laurie and the Yellow Curtains. My teacher had phoned my parents earlier and arranged this audition. I won the part, as it were, and was accelerated immediately into first grade.
I was proud of my promotion, but I was also somewhat traumatized. In those days public schools took a less holistic view of children, so no one thought to consider that I might not have been emotionally mature enough to move up to first grade. My first-grade class filled me with insecurity throughout the year. While I excelled in reading, arithmetic and the other standards, I fared poorly in the report card section called “Meets new situations with confidence.”
Since no one offered a class in self-confidence in grade school, this characteristic of my personality did not improve, it only intensified. Throughout grade school, I never once dared to set foot in the cafeteria. I was terrified to go there, because it was (and would continue to be) an unknown situation for me. I feared I might make a mistake with the mechanics of standing in line and choosing the right food to place on a tray. The very thought of the possible gaffes I might make filled me with paralyzing dread. Anyway, I was a picky eater and a creature of habit. It was safer to stick with a homemade peanut butter sandwich.
Although my mother had three other children to deal with, she lovingly made me a sack lunch every day for six years. She had a soft heart, adored me and would never dream of forcing me to face my insecurities by walking that gauntlet of fear or discomfort.
Much later, in my late twenties, I came to terms with the fact that I possessed an unfortunate combination of poor coping skills and over-the-top expectations for myself. Ironically, my life as an actress played havoc with those weaknesses: nerve-wracking auditions, rejections that made me want to hide for a year and then — all of a sudden — a job! Instantly, I was back on top of the world, my grand expectations for myself finally (albeit temporarily) met. In all my years of acting, I never believed in my own abilities, so when I wasn’t working, I was quite certain I would never be hired again. I lacked the conviction that successful actors possess to sustain them through the harsh realities of the entertainment business.
My husband’s Aunt Angela, an example of success as an actress at the highest level, knew since childhood that acting was her passion and would be her life’s work. Her extraordinary talent and her life-long belief in her own talent have carried her through the many highs and lows of a long career.
I was well aware that luck played an immense role in my career, and I often felt that I was squeezing into shoes that did not fit, both figuratively and literally. (I have huge, size-11 feet). When I didn’t get a job, I took it as a personal rejection. When I did land a job, I secretly felt that a mistake had been made, and I would eventually be found out. I compensated for that feeling that I didn’t really belong on the set by befriending every member of the crew, from the DP to the gofers. I needed everyone on my side before I could undertake my task. Many of the crew members were wonderful people with whom I would have enjoyed spending time in any situation, and we shared lots of laughs.
I will never forget the way my comrades on the camera crew reacted when we were filming a kissing scene in the movie King of New York. Charismatic, adorably eccentric actor Christopher Walken and I were supposed to be making out in a moving subway car. We shot the scene in the wee hours of the morning on the shuttle between 42nd Street and Grand Central Station. The city closed it for our use. We went back and forth on the subway shuttle, filming take after take. One of the shots was a close-up of my bare breast (which even in close-up failed to fill the screen.) When the director, Abel Ferrara, yelled “Cut!” my male crew buddies, with whom I’d been laughing only moments before, turned their heads to look away from me. They were all too embarrassed to catch my eye after focusing on my intimate body part. Truly, they had become friends and not just professional technicians. In that moment I realized, with amusement, my dependence on a warm circle of support on set.
By the 1990’s I had matured, gained some self-knowledge (usually the hard way) and a few practical tools to manage my self-doubts. By then I had dealt with a life crisis or two, and I had, after some struggles, made peace with my basic character defects. I tempered my self-judgment, easing up on what an insightful friend had once termed my “over-active superego.” I was still no model of self-confidence, but I was more self-accepting. Finding love and a loyal, supportive handsome husband certainly helped, too.
When I became a mother, finally fulfilling what was my abiding hope and dream during my darkest moments over the years, I soon found, to my sad surprise, that I was unprepared, overwhelmed and at my wits end. Insecurities and doubts flooded in from my past. My old friend Self-Loathing re-established itself in my life with a vengeance, determined to make up for lost time. It was frightening to feel so low again. No doubt I was also suffering from post-partum depression. I only wished to be a good, loving mother and raise a happy child, but the basics I thought would come naturally — even the simplest tasks, like unfolding a stroller while my baby cried in the car — felt frenetic, confusing and impossible.
The result of this debilitating re-emergence of insecurity was the beginning of my journey to a centeredness and self-confidence that I never expected to find.
(For more, please read the other posts in The Book Journey section of my blog.)