Defeating Automatic Negativity

After a month at my family’s home in a suburb of Chicago and a weeklong trip to Los Angeles, I have finally returned to New York City. After a whirlwind few days of moving in, seeing friends perform, and getting reacquainted with people, beginning classes and restarting my job, the “massive” snowstorm halted everything and gave me a chance to sleep it all off.

When the wheels of the plane touched the runway at LaGuardia, the monsters lurking in the back of my brain were smoked out and forced into the open.

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Coming back to my “real life” was something that scared me before I even left it. I remember sitting in my bed in New York City, months before I would go to Paris, wondering how I would ever be able to leave behind Paris, France. My time in Paris was rich in art, love, and intellectual and geographical exploration. It was all but devoid of judgment, at least within the intimate relationships I had there.

Leaving New York meant leaving nearly all my problems behind. After I left them, I found out I could love a city other than New York and love living a life without musical theatre in it. I also loved people who were unlike people I had ever loved before. Was that a betrayal?

Most of these problems had grown inflated in my head when I was away. However, I did spend four months on my own, challenging myself, pushing boundaries, and loving it. So I knew that nothing–nothing– could break me.

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Yet when it came to singing, I felt differently.

I have not sung in front of an audience for months. For about two years now, singing had gradually sunk from an activity I loved to one I was afraid of. When in Paris, I sang for myself only a few times, and was happier for it. Other than those two or three times, my singing was a chore or even an emotional upheaval.

There was a great deal of negativity attached to it. Somewhere along the line, many contributing factors blended together to make anxiety a winning emotion regarding my singing. These factors were judgments of my talents or deficits, casting and the worst offender, gossip. Or more accurately, comparisons.

As part of a very competitive program in a competitive city and an even more competitive field, comparisons are one of the most prevalent and harmful staples. Comparisons, whether my own or the ones I heard others make about themselves, only led to resentment and self-doubt.

I was listening to NPR’s new podcast Invisibilia when I was unpacking my clothes. The first episode, “The Secret History of Thoughts” discussed many schools of thought and how they are applied to therapy. Freud’s method focused on following your thoughts and understanding where certain negative thoughts come from. Thoughts such as “I will always be alone,” or “I am unlikable” or, more along the lines of my thinking, “I am not good enough.”

They were discussing a second, more recent way of thinking about these “automatic negative thoughts.” It involves dismissing them entirely and not believing them. These thoughts are lies that bear no importance whatsoever.

For some reason we tend to believe negative things said about ourselves much more than the positive things. You probably receive a handful of compliments regularly. Some are simple, “I like your shirt,” and some are more personal (see the compliments suggested in the 36 Questions article in The New York Times). But do you remember them? I’m sure you remember something a bully said to you in middle school.

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Most of the time, the things you are afraid of are groundless. When you worry that you are unlikeable, is that a true fear? Most likely not; there are probably several people in your life you could use as an example to disprove the thought.

Yesterday I had to sing in front of people for the first time in months. I was terrified. In fact, when I stood up to sing and cried for a full minute. I was in no physical danger. There were only nine people in the class, including myself and two of my best friends, and a professor I know, respect and genuinely like.

I was afraid of something deeper. Singing had been tied in my brain with anxiety, fear, and even failure. I was not afraid of failing at singing; I’ve never been afraid of that happening. However, I was afraid of being less than my best. Though I knew I could count on myself to sing well– out of everything I’ve worried over, singing a Rogers and Hammerstein song is something I know I can do– fear of failure was so present in my singing that it became tightly linked to singing itself. Fear of failing myself, disappointing myself, showing the audience less than my true abilities.

Fuck my true abilities, it was a workshop class in a church basement!

This is my confident face.
This is my confident face.

In France, I did not worry about what people thought of my singing. I was removed from the gossip of the program. I had no chance to envy another person’s success, and I became extremely appreciative of friendships I made where I felt mutual respect and admiration.

I also realized that I did not accept I was back in New York until I sung in that class. The truth is I did not want to come back– why would I? I found an incredible city I loved where I could write, study, be with someone I had fallen in love with, and go to an art museum a day. Coming back felt like I had just ended the best relationship of my life. And singing was the transition point– I did not sing in Paris, I sing in New York. Face it Emily, it’s over!

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In the end, I sang far better than I believe I ever had done in a class, at least during a first performance of a song. When I was done, I was shaking and there were adrenaline-related tears of my face.

I felt like I had climbed a mountain.

One of my friends asked me, “What the fuck were you scared of? What happened? You were so good. How did you get so much more at ease?”

I told her the truth. “I spent six months where my self-worth was based entirely on how I treated the people I dealt with, and how well I lived up to my own expectations for myself. Nothing more.”

I said earlier that there were many things I wanted to take away from my time in Paris. But if I have to pick just one development, it’s that.

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