Rumbling with vulnerability (part 1)

This may be the most vulnerable post I have written. I can stand proud that I am living Brene Brown’s message, “vulnerability is not the willingness to risk getting knocked down, it is knowing that you will inevitably get knocked down and still being all in.”

Being a musician knocks me down. Being a musician breaks open my heart. I fail over and over again, not failing in the “I’ll get better over time” sort of way, but in the “will I ever get out of my own way?” sort of way.

It’s not for lack of talent, but for the big hole in my heart that I try to use “being a musician” to fill. It’s not for lack of courage or confidence, but for a deep feeling that who I am and what I do is not enough.

I started taking piano lessons when I was under five years old. Gradually playing piano became a core part of my identity. Through elementary and middle school, my relationships with friends were difficult, and I found it harder and harder to believe that anyone liked me. As I grew more insecure, I relied more on my talent for people to like me. I began to twist a sacred relationship with music into something that would defend me from my shame of feeling bullied, minimized and inadequate.

I remember in seventh grade being part of a four person band in our small school, with some popular kids. After we performed our big show I figured I would feel different, maybe like the rock stars in the videos. Maybe people would notice me. But I still felt invisible. I felt helpless to do anything that would get me noticed. If not even playing Beethoven sonatas or Beatles songs could help me, then what could?

Fast forward to present day. Recently I ventured to a new (to me) popular open mic in San Francisco. Earlier in the day a friend had randomly sent me a photo meme with the advice: “Be cool. And don’t be an asshole.” I had wondered how that could apply to me.

Partway through the open mic, a great opportunity to jump in and contribute unexpectedly popped up. I joined a group onstage and played keyboard, and everybody loved it. I was feeling connected to the people there and confident in my skin. Or so I thought.

A young guy came up to play. I had just over heard that the event was almost an hour behind and they might have to shut it down early, so I think I was subconsciously worried that my performance slot would be cut. As this young guy kept talking on and on about the mall where he wrote the song, I spoke out “Play us your song!”

Now I don’t consider myself a heckler. I have never used that word to describe myself before, I am very sensitive myself, and maybe overly sensitive to how others feel. Yet, I did it. I don’t know how it happened, but in that moment I became just some guy with hidden feelings of shame and inadequacy making other people feel bad.

If I was actually confident about my performance, comfortable with my relationship with the people in the room, I would have been able to recognize and manage my hidden feelings. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. They controlled me. After the song, the room host turned around and asked me not to do that again. I was mortified.

I thought I knew how to connect, I thought I knew how to perform, yet here I was, a seasoned performer feeling totally unnoticed. When it came time for me to perform my one song, my insecurity made me second-guess my song choice, get stuck on an instrument that wasn’t working properly, and basically feel like a fish out of water.

As I walked home that night, I asked myself what it was that undermined my experience, what it was that sabotaged my behavior? I may be a man who has cultivated strength of will and some accolades and respect, but when faced with a situation where I am afraid I will be unnoticed, I become an insecure little boy.

Tonight I lashed out in a way that’s “not me.” Many people in my life know me as a kind-hearted, gentle person. Yet in order to defend against the parts of me that feel insecure and invisible, I have learned to compensate. I become bigger than life, feel I have to do or say or be much more than I really am. In my own mind, I am not enough, because the people in the audience—or those kids in middle school—will never like me just as I am.  

The kid may have been going on a long time in his introduction, but what I didn’t realize was that even though the audience agreed, they still liked him and were connected to him. When I broke in rudely, I realized how little I really understood about, well, just making friends. My desire to be liked has driven my ambition which has driven me to be aggressive in ways that do not make people like me more.

I did apologize to the kid.

If I don’t want to keep recreating this drama, I have to relax the ambition and start connecting with people instead of trying to impress them.

Sky Nelson-IsaacsComment