Dear reader, I’ll give you the formal bio first, so we can get the third-person writing out of the way:

Caroline Garnet McGraw is an author, speaker, and coach for those who are ready to stop doing what they’re “supposed” to do and to start doing what they’re meant to do.

She’s the author of You Don’t Owe Anyone: Free Yourself from the Weight of Expectations (Broadleaf Books 2021). Inspired by her viral essay on The Huffington Post, You Don’t Owe Anyone has sold over 5000 copies; it has been translated into three languages and was recommended in Publishers Weekly.

Caroline’s writing has been featured on many major websites including Glennon Doyle’s and Gretchen Rubin’s. Caroline has given two popular TEDx talks (one of which was quoted in a Harvard Business Review cover story), and keynote presentations across the country. Caroline is an honors graduate of Vassar College.

OK, now that that’s done, here’s the behind-the-scenes version … because to quote my favorite novel Jane Eyre, “I would always rather be happy than dignified.”

I had my first anxiety attack in the first grade, when the teacher returned my paper with See Me written in red ink instead of the usual Excellent. I felt such paralyzing fear that I almost couldn’t breathe.

In my first grade class, See Me meant lining up beside the teacher’s desk and waiting to talk to her privately … in front of everyone. For a shy girl like me, this was not a good system.

Already I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I got good marks on my worksheets, but as hard as I tried, I never felt like I fit in with the other kids. Belonging was a code I couldn’t fully crack, a secret I never worked out.

(Do you know what that’s like? To work so hard to fit in, yet never quite get it right?)

It seemed that the other kids in the See Me line were not fighting back tears. They were jostling each other, whispering and chattering. It seemed that no one else was having the same reaction as me, and that made it all feel worse.

When it was my turn, the teacher took one look at me and said, “Caroline, dear, what’s wrong?”

I handed her the paper and waited for the death blow. But then my teacher said something unexpected.

“Sweetie, listen. Do you know why I wrote See Me on your paper?”

I shook my head woefully. “No!” I croaked. Tears ran down the sides of my face. I’d gone over and over it, and still I couldn’t find the mistake.

“It’s because you did a great job, and I just wanted to tell you that in person. That’s all! Do you understand?”

I nodded, and she put her arm around my fragile, shaking shoulders.

It wasn’t until years later that I wondered …

Why, at six years old, was I so terrified of failure?
How did I acquire this near-primal need to be perfect?
Why did I already feel like I had so much to prove?

Some of it goes back to my younger brother Willie’s autism diagnosis, back when he was three and I was five. From there, I took on the role of the Good Girl Golden Child in our family system and didn’t look back for decades.

Some of it goes back to the doomsday cult known as The Worldwide Church of God, where my mother sought solace and I worked hard to earn God’s favor. (Yup, I was in a cult as a child, and I was good at it. I interpreted the rules very literally and followed them to the letter.)

And some of it was probably with me from the get-go.

As you might imagine, the twin forces of trauma and socialization made life pretty stressful for me as a little kid. Fortunately, I had a great escape hatch. Every day after school, I’d sprint to an overstuffed armchair, pull out a book I’d hidden beneath the top cushion, and dive in.

This habit (and hyperlexia) eventually led to a perfect score on my verbal SATs, early admission to Vassar, and the publication of my book, You Don’t Owe Anyone. But back then, reading was just something I loved that also solved some tricky problems.

Namely: How was an extremely introverted child to comply with a parent who wanted constant togetherness? How was an empathic kid to cope with a high-demand cult? How could I be both physically present and mentally distant? Reading was my answer. (Perhaps it was yours, too?)

Books gave me a lifeline, a connection with both kindred characters and real-life kindred spirits. (When I met my best friend Tam, she told me about how she loved Anne Shirley; when I met my husband Jonathan, we swapped books before we started dating.)

As a child I read Madeleine L’Engle’s books to get through interminable sermons; I tuned out the judgment of an angry god, and the pastors who spoke for him.

I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books while my mother argued on the phone; I muted her voice rising.

I read Little Women while my brother replayed the same Disney movies; I pushed down the grief of knowing that he probably wouldn’t ever grow out of them.

I read to avoid fear, anger, and sadness. Or rather, I read to feel these feelings at selected times, in make-believe worlds.

I even read while walking.

When I saw Belle doing that in the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast, I did not think: Maybe she should put down the book and be less obvious about being different.

Instead, I thought: Wow, I’ve got to learn how to do that! Thus inspired, I gained a valuable life skill that I employ to this day.

Being able to walk and read at the same time only made me seem more out of step with my peers, though. I was lucky to find a few close friends at church and a couple of kindred spirits at school, but whenever I wasn’t with them I felt like an outsider.

I remember studying my features in the mirror, actively searching for a major flaw, something to explain that experience. When I couldn’t find the answer on my face, I concluded that there must be something wrong with me on the inside.

This was at once depressing and freeing. Since I didn’t know what was wrong or how to fix it, I stopped trying so hard. I set aside the calendar where I’d logged my outfits every day (in an effort not to repeat them and incur mockery), and I started writing in notebooks instead.

Writing was like reading: it was a way to be there, and not there, at the same time. On the page, I could show up and be seen with more confidence than I could in “real” life. When I wrote, I sank beneath the usual stress and into a deeper flow.

Martha Beck tells us that curiosity is the opposite of anxiety, and I’ve found that to be true. The more curious I am as a writer, the less anxious I am as a person.

Instead of feeling scared or self-conscious, I’m wondering: How do I tell this particular story with integrity? How do I make this sentence sing? How do I tell a story that helps you see beauty in the midst of suffering, and light in the midst of darkness?

How do I help you, dear reader, to pursue your own path?

Which brings us back to the beginning, to standing in the See Me line.

When I was young, I was scared of the See Me line because I thought it meant harsh judgment. Back then, I thought that being seen was a recipe for disaster. But now I understand that See Me isn’t condemnation; See Me is an invitation.

And invitations are what I do for a living, through writing, speaking, and coaching.

Nowadays I write books and stand on stages and lead Zoom calls, inviting you to stop doing what you’re “supposed to” do and start doing what you’re meant to do. So that you can be who you are. (And walk around while reading books, if that’s your thing.)

Dear reader: I see you. I see how hard you’ve been trying to be good. But here’s the thing: who you truly are is ALREADY good. You don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not.

Everything changes once you realize: you don’t owe anyone, and there’s nothing left to prove.

In that spirit, I invite you to start reading my book, You Don’t Owe Anyone: Free Yourself from the Weight of Expectations (Broadleaf Books, 2021). You Don’t Owe Anyone has sold over 5000 copies, been translated into three languages, and was recommended in Publishers Weekly.

Read the first two chapters of You Don’t Owe Anyone!

Learn how to free yourself from the weight of expectations and move forward without apology. (You’ll also receive new stories via email.)

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