Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lessons from Whitney

Today was the day of the funeral for a super star, a woman who was known around the world for her singing talents.    Not too many of us will ever have our funeral streamed live on the internet but for Whitney Houston, this was one last hurrah as her life story goes into the archives of time.   And she received the big send off one would expect for someone of her fame and notoriety.   Speakers, mainly from the entertainment world, came to offer tribute to her life and the impact she made on their lives.   It was a moving service that I am pretty sure she would have loved but perhaps would have been surprised at the depth of feelings and out pouring of love for her.   

The Whitney Houston most of us know is the person who sang with a voice that many have called a gift.   Beginning at a very early age and with famous relatives to guide the way, she came naturally into the world of entertainment.   She had world wide fame, material wealth, body guards and an entourage of people surrounding her.   But she had her heartaches and trauma also played out on the world stage.   Privacy, even for the most terrible aspects of her life, was not to be hers.    Her life with all of its wonders and treasures, triumphs and failures was the subject of gossip and innuendo and even in death, she could not escape the whispers and hints of terrible secrets going on behind closed doors.   

For me, one of the most surprising revelations from today's funeral service for Whitney came from a friend and fellow actor, Kevin Costner.  Most of us probably think of all the people in the world who should have had self-confidence and assurance about her ability as a performer surely  Whitney Houston must have ranked high on the confidence scale.    After all, she had been performing since childhood, had trophies and awards to fill walls and whole rooms.    But what he revealed was that Whitney was a lot like many of the rest of us.    She wanted to be accepted and loved. She wanted our approval.   The problem was that she had self doubt, even with immense popularity and super stardom, that somehow she was not good enough to win approval.    

In the world of psychology, there is a concept called the Impostor Syndrome.    It is what happens when a perfectly talented, gifted person has sometimes crippling doubts and insecurity about their ability to perform.  It is that nagging feeling that somehow you have "gotten by"  with your act but this time, for this event, you will be found out.   The truth will be revealed that you've been a fake all along and do not really deserve all the accolades you have gotten to this point.    It is a painful thing to experience because no matter how much success you have, no matter how many awards hang on your wall or straight A's you have on your report card, the feeling persists that you are one test away from being found out as a fraud.    I know this is true because this is something I battle and have struggled to overcome since I was in graduate school.    

Today as I listened to Kevin Costner talk about his relationship with Whitney, I cried as he described her first screen test to be in the movie, "The Body Guard".     She was already a star, a well known singer but had not ever done a movie, other than videos for her music.    She had plenty of evidence that she was talented and recognized for her ability to sing, but that old fear, the shame of being found out was whispering in her ear.    And it nearly cost her the chance to be in the movie.    If not for Kevin Costner who already knew he wanted her as his co-star, she likely never would have been chosen to be in the movie and would have lost her chance to prove to the world that not only could she sing, but she could act as well.    He intervened in what could have been a meltdown of epic proportions to encourage her to regroup, take a few minutes to calm down and then do the screen test again.     She was able to overcome this and did go on to pass the screen test and was the co-star of the movie.    

Listening to him recount the story of her screen test and how close she came to blowing it all because she was afraid no one would like her and that she'd be found wanting when it came time to act really struck a note in me.    I realize that often times those of us with this problem deny ourselves the chance to prove our abilities mainly out of fear we won't be good enough.    We don't trust the empirical evidence that surrounds us and reassures us that yes, we can do this.    It's the voice in our head that urges us to not try because we'd probably fail anyhow.    Because this is the time the truth comes out and our weakness will be revealed.    Oh, for once if only the voice could be silenced!   

The title I decided to give this blog post is "Lessons from Whitney".       And yes, there is a lesson here.  The lesson for me is that even the greatest among us can have this issue and for Whitney, there is a good chance that this problem may have played a role in her death.    Seeking perfection when you already have it but do not recognize it or accept it is a sure path to unhappiness and even self destruction.   My heart breaks for Whitney Houston and her family as they struggle to come to terms with her death at age 48.     But I also know for me that the lesson is pretty plain:   Start working on yourself, kiddo.    Learn to love yourself for who you are and what you have to offer the world.    No, I am not talking about a self important, conceited kind of love.  We already have plenty of that in the world.    I am talking about acceptance of yourself without adding a footnote of "if only I was......"  Fill in the blank.   Prettier, funnier, smarter, thinner, wiser.    This is about accepting myself the way I am, looking at the gifts and talents, appreciating them and leaving the flaws for someone else to analyze.     

Being a self diagnosed "impostor" (I can check every box on an impostor syndrome scale!), I know what it's like to have the cold sweat of fear that creeps into my head when it's time to get graded on a performance.   I know only too well the irrational feeling that this time the truth will find me hiding behind my false bravado.  But Kevin Costner's words today about Whitney Houston spoke to me loudly and with authority.   It was easy to see how profoundly this problem affected her life.    I do not want to spend another day of my life feeling this way.     

When people have told me that they enjoy reading things I have written, I am grateful and do enjoy feedback.    The problem is that with each blog post, each story I write, I worry and fret that this is the one that will be my undoing.    My intention from this moment forward is to spend my energies writing (and doing art and other things I love to do) without listening to the voice in me that tells me what I have written is no good.   Or the art I create is somehow lacking....or lame, as my grandchildren say.      The lesson from Whitney is that all of us have gifts and talents to share with the world, even if we're not super stars.     The key to understanding that is to be your own best fan to start with.     Learn to love who you are, believe in yourself and you will have a much happier, peaceful life.  

I hope that now Whitney has found peace and understands what she gave the world.    And I hope I can hold on to the feeling I had listening to Kevin Costner telling the story of her struggle.  It made me cry, but it also gave me a wake up call.    I want to use those feelings to help me be happy with who I am, what I am and what I am becoming.   

Happy Trails and Cheers to you as you find your way in this world~~~



  1. I've written about the impostor syndrome and how it plays out in a school setting
    ( Impostor.html)
    and I've spoken about it in workshops for faculty and talks to students. Whenever I've done it, I've always seen a room full of nodding heads and people wiping their eyes and trying not to be conspicuous about it.

    The thing is, almost everyone feels like an impostor and thinks he or she is the only one who does. It's a lie that we all deceive ourselves with. Writing about it as Marcia has in the blog can be tremendously helpful to readers. If you feel like an impostor, remember what she wrote, and next time the voice in your head tries to tell you that you have no ability or there's nothing loveable about you or deep down you're a terrible person and at any moment you'll do something idiotic that will blow your cover, just remember that almost everyone around you is playing the same stupid tape, and treat it like the scam it is.

  2. Great post, Marcia! I, too, cried at the Kevin Costner stories and for much the same reason. I recognized myself in all the self-doubt and anxiety he described. I think I'm coming along with calming the impostor within, but each new thing I try is a fresh challenge. It seems to be a lifelong journey!

  3. Thanks for this post, Marcia. I, too, suffer from the Impostor Syndrome. I've worked very hard to overcome my self-doubt, but as Rebecca said, it really is a lifelong journey. Now I'm headed over to read Rich's article.

  4. While reading your post, esp. about the Imposter Syndrome, it occurred to me that this could well be the Original Sin most of us know has nothing to do with an apple. So, maybe it's not your "MOTHER'S" fault although she may have contributed to it by passing on her own issues with the I.S. (Imposter Syndrome).

    In my own studies and practice of psychology I've seen so many people who's belief that they aren't good enough live out decisions that prove to the world how unworthy they are and Whitney certainly did a lot of that. I saw a clip of Whitney at a party when she met Bobby Brown, and you could see the lighting attraction. I cannot imagine the anguish her family and friends went through watching that play out.

    One thing that does seem to help us all is acknowledgement of the I.S. and comfort in knowing that we all struggle more than we'd like to admit. As you are aware, I have been trying to understand the "why and how" of our behavior for quite a while--I call it the "Deal." Or, why is it so hard for us to live a joyful and productive life? Is I.S. something we're born with (part of the package)? Is it the monkey wrench put in an otherwise perfect world by a God who has a warped sense of humor?


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