You’re Allowed to Exist, Onstage and Off

  • Barrie Kealoha

I have spent most of my life apologizing for existing.

What does that look like?

I never asked for new shoes when I started to outgrow my favorite pair as a child because I didn’t know I was allowed to ask for new ones, even though my feet hurt. I slept in a closet as a child on vacations because I was small enough to, and didn’t think I could ask for a bed. Therapists have told me that these are signs of having grown up with material scarcity, but my family was well-off. I simply have never believed that I was worth anything more than what someone felt like giving me. Asking for what I wanted was an absurd idea. Why ask for something when you’ll only be told no? Why not make do with what little space is left for you to occupy? Better yet, why not just stop wanting anything for yourself at all?

You can see where this might have detrimentally spilled over into a career in Entertainment, right?

I am the youngest of three, and according to my parents, I was a “pleasant surprise”, which many of you have experienced as code for “you weren’t supposed to exist...oops.” My brothers were hellions as kids, so my parents kept me under constant long-term and unnecessary grounding while I grew up. I stopped being grounded only when I did what I was told, and did it with a smile. Sound familiar?

Learning to pretend became a survival skill. Learning to enjoy my own company became a survival skill. Learning to blame myself for my parents’ disapproval also became a survival skill. How else was I supposed to justify my constant state of castigation? “I am being punished, therefore I must be a bad person.” It doesn’t take long to cement that mentality in a kid’s mind.

The one time I knew without a doubt that I wasn’t a bad person unworthy of occupying the space I took up was when I was on stage. Even being grounded was never grounds (heh.) for me missing rehearsal or performing. My participation in the performing arts was the only thing I knew my parents would support, show up for, and encourage me to pursue (probably more than a little problematic vicarious living wrapped up in that, but that’s neither here nor there). The point is, the only time I have ever felt truly free is when I am performing—I can be literally anyone other than myself. I have earned the right to take up space! Granted, that space is dictated by the directors and choreographers, but for the run of whatever show it is, that space is indisputably mine.

I am given permission to exist. I do not have to apologize for existing.

What an absolute bliss that is.

The flip side of this, of course, is when I have to go back to being my actual human self and not a character on stage. This constant hum of the self-loathing apologist in the back of my head manifests itself as crippling self-doubt in the audition stage and Imposter Syndrome when I actually do land a job. It never yells, but it stage-whispers and tells me that even if I fool enough casting directors to think I’m worthy of the ensemble, I’d better stay as far back in the Park-and-Bark Section so as to not get in the way of the real talents upfront. More horribly, it tells me that, unless I’m performing, I’m not worth occupying the space I take up.

That voice is—and I never use this term lightly—a total cunt.

Allow me to impart some wisdom my therapist told me recently: “It is OK to take up the space you require. The world needs you to take up the space you require.”

I’m not saying I’m healed. I’m not saying I have all the answers. But I am saying that I’m probably not alone in this struggle. And I want you—YES, YOU—to know that you deserve to take up the space you require, simply by existing. The world needs you to.