Like many people I have long struggled with intense nervousness when singing by myself in front of others. My heart rate increases, a current of energy pulses through my chest, and my face quivers uncontrollably, all of which makes for an interesting singing experience. What I have learned through my informal study of interpersonal neurobiology has helped me have more compassion for myself and and for the nervousness and fear that I feel. It turns out that our biological hardwiring for connection and belonging is so strong that experiences of rejection or exclusion seem like threats to our survival-especially as children–and are felt in the same part of the brain that processes physical pain. In other words, it hurts to have a break in connection with those we love and depend on, and the more often and severe the breaks are, the more we will protect ourselves against getting hurt again. At different times and in different ways I experienced breaks in connection when singing or expressing my creativity as a child, just like so many of us have. The result was that I sang less and less and created a belief that I don’t have a good singing voice.
I reunited with my passion for singing and fell in love with song writing at age 20 while travelling through Australia. Since then I have written many songs and have done my best to make peace with my singing voice. This last weekend I received some very healing support from the participants of an NVC workshop I gave in Kelowna. I told a story about a time when I was 12 when I experienced a break in connection with a teacher I loved when singing solo in front of the class (the full story is copied below). I asked the workshop participants to practice empathizing with me, NVC empahty, while I told my story. My dear Mother was there and offered some very sweet empathy that nearly brought me to tears. Then I asked the group to think of a time when their creative expression had not been supported while I sang one of my songs to them.
After my song, the group shared needs that were met by hearing my song-NVC appreciation. Instead of criticism, praise, or compliments, I heard empathy and appreciation for my creative expression. Of course, if was interested in improving, then hearing judgement-free feedback or suggestions on how improvements might be made would have been important. I find feedback for improvement most helpful after empathy and appreciation, especially when in more vulnerable situations.
I’m often interested in improving, but this time I simply wanted to be heard and supported. Hearing empathy and then appreciation was a wonderful gift, especially during and after the vulnerability of singing a song to a group. Neuro pathways that affirm my acceptance and belonging while singing to others were surely strengthened in my brain.
When I was finished I asked if anyone else wanted to share a memory of not having creativity supported, and the only other man in our group volunteered. We offered empathy and appreciation for his sharing and he was able to get in touch with some of his pain and sadness. My Mom was deeply moved and, after giving the gentlemen a huge hug (That’s my Mom!) she opened up with her own pain around how her creativity was shut down. It was my turn to empathize as my Mom shared about how much anger she had felt from having her creativity shut down, and then how painful it was for her to later express her anger towards her children. The gift of connecting with my Mom in this way will take a while for me to fully appreciate. Seeing the Mother I had been at times so afraid of and at times so unable to reach or open up to, seeing her now openly expressing the fullness of her humanness and her huge heart was a gift I cherish and will never forget. (I checked with my Mom to make sure she was ok with my writing about her at my workshop. She gave me her blessing and added that, “… it was a great experience that filled my heart and mind and spirit in so many ways…”)
I’m guessing that some people have been concerned for me as I’ve been experimenting with moving towards my fears, worried perhaps that I will manifest that which I’m afraid of. I am happy to report that so far, many, many wonderful things have happened for me since choosing to experiment with moving towards fear, not the least of which have been finding more love for myself and for those in my life. Furthermore, I have been receiving all kinds of incredible support–Enormous gratitude to all of my family, friends, and extended community who have reached out to support me in so many ways. You are all making it more and more difficult to keep a belief that I have to do it all on my own.
Next week I’m off to North Carolina to live a dream of supporting youth to explore the wilderness while learning and practicing Nonviolent Communication. Other dreams are unfolding too, but I’ll save them for another time.
My Break-In-Connection Story.
Mrs Schaffner was my grade six teacher and I loved her. Several of her students loved her and would compete for her attention. She was an important attachment figure in my life during a time when I was adjusting the reality of my parents’ divorce.
During my grade six year with Mrs. Schaffner our elementary school was invited to be a part of a show at The Centre In The Square-the fancy new concert hall in my hometown of Kitchener Ontario. One student from each class was chosen to form a singing group to represent our school. Mrs Schaffner chose me. You can imagine how happy and proud I was.
I remember giving a rehearsal performance for my class in preparation for the show. I stood up before Mrs. Schaffner and all my classmates, sang my song, and blew it. Maybe it was too much pressure to sing alone in front of my class, maybe I was too aware of what was at stake, of the responsibility I had been given. Whatever it was, I couldn’t hold the tune. The look of concern on Mrs. Schaffner’s face is still etched in my mind as she said, “Maybe I chose the wrong person.”
I don’t blame Mrs. Schaffner at all. Her concern makes a lot of sense to me as I imagine her trying to come to terms with her decision to have me represent her class. In fact she believed in me enough to allow me to still be the one to sing in the show, in which I remember being quite frightened and only half in my body.
The point of my story is not to blame Mrs. Schaffner or anyone else but to give an example of the power of our need for connection and belonging, and to state my case for relationship repair with empathic support for the painful feelings of lost connection. I don’t expect anyone to be able to maintain connections with children or anyone else at all times, but I do hope for all of us to become more and more aware of the impact of breaks in connection and of the ways in which we can repair and restore it.
I remember my parents, Mrs. Schaffner, and other caregivers with deep gratitude for all their support, including support for my creativity, during my childhood, even though there were important times when I lost connection or support from them. I know we’re all doing our best and I know that I can continue to find all the support I need to keep opening no matter what happened in the past.