The other day, my five year old walked into the room and announced,

Mommy, I would like to sing for you.

This wasn’t terribly surprising by itself. Audience or not, London makes a performance of most anything she does without giving it so much as a cognitive glance. Infusing drama and feeling into even mundane tasks comes to her as naturally as a fly makes its way to honey.  

Brushing her teeth, for example, usually involves a certain level of pomp and circumstance. She perches on the step stool in front of the bathroom mirror, fresh from her bath, baby-fine hair slicked back and still dripping, her stance straight and tall like that of a miniature conductor preparing to lead her orchestra. From the gusto she puts into globbing the toothpaste over the matted toothbrush bristles to the sheer volume of foam she generates during her brushing performance to the final bow she takes at the end to spit it all out, it’s a production, if only for the benefit of her own reflection. 

That my daughter wanted to perform for me was par for the course. What made this instance unique were her instructions to me that followed:

“Okay, but we have to go in my brother’s room and shut the door because I get nervous out in big spaces like here. Because people might hear me, and that’s embarrassing.”

“Okay,” I said with a question in my voice as I followed her into the room. It was clear to me that she didn’t realize I’d just spent the last twenty minutes listening across the house to her very audible trilling.

“And I want you to sit in the corner over there. By the hamper. And look at the floor, not me. Because I like to look around when I sing, and I don’t want to see you looking at me,” she said.

And there it was, the seedling of self doubt sprouting in the rich and unexplored garden of gifts she has to offer. 

I was witnessing the start of the universal internal struggle that, for most of us, never comes to a definitive end—the one between the part of us that wants very much to be seen and the part of us that’s afraid what people will see won’t be enough. What ensues as we carry out our lives is a strained dance between the two, and it can make everything from our relationships to our own fulfillment incredibly difficult. 

See me, but please don’t watch.

Even as adults, we quietly ask this of the people around us all the time. In making this request, our accomplishment is threefold: 

  1. We indulge the part of ourselves that knows we have something to offer.
  2. We don’t suffer the risk that comes with offering it. 
  3. If push comes to shove, we feel more justified getting angry with the people who can’t meet our request than at ourselves for making it an utterly impossible one to meet.

Here’s the Rub

I wouldn’t spend weeks planning an incredible party, send out invitations, then lock my front door in fear the event wouldn’t live up to everyone’s expectations. Naturally, the result would be that no one would be able to get inside, and the only person I would have to thank for the empty room would be myself. What’s more is that the next time I invite someone, they may decide not to bother showing up at all.

On the same token, I can’t hold anyone responsible for failing to see me if I’m not putting myself out there to be seen. The “If you build it, they will come” mantra doesn’t hold much credence.  We have to invite the people and open the door to them if we want them there.

Who Would You Rather Disappoint?

Yes, it’s scary, and yes, it’s risky, and yes, we will get hurt. The hard truth is that not everyone who sees us will like what they see. The alternative to disappointing other people, though, is disappointing the part of ourselves that’s desperate to launch us all the way into our own greatness. More simply? The alternative is letting fear keep us small and lonely.  

I listened to my daughter sing for an entire two minute make believe song filled with random out of tune lyrics about her brother’s toys. Despite the amusement I felt as an adult peeking into a child’s imagination, I didn’t laugh. I heeded her request at first, keeping my eyes on the floor the way she’d asked of me. Before long, though, I had to look at her. Her eyes caught mine as she twirled around the room lost in her song, and once she understood that I wasn’t going to embarrass her with laughter, her words grew louder and more certain. 

She filled up that room…

Not just with her song. It wasn’t that she sounded anything like a child virtuoso, which for the record, she did not. She filled up that room with what she knew I’d seen in her just then—with courage and confidence.

At the close of her song, she proudly took a curtsey, and as her witness, I felt honored that she’d trusted me enough to let me see her after all. I can’t wait to see her fill up even more vast spaces in the future.