I love anxiety. I know that sounds crazy. Maybe it is, but I don’t care. I love it. When there’s an opportunity to delve deeper into it, I delve. I love reading about it, researching it, teaching about it, and helping people who struggle with it. I’ve devoted my career to preaching the good news that you can actually do something about the stress and anxiety in your life. If it’s about anxiety, I’m in. But do I practice what I preach? Pretty much every day. I even put myself into anxiety provoking situations deliberately. It’s fun. Now you really think I’m crazy, right?
A few years ago I decided to try something completely new – learn to sing. Here’s the catch though – I can’t sing! Well, I can sing. I just limited my performances to when I was alone in the car with the windows rolled up. You see, in my inner world, I’ve unrealistically convinced myself that I’m socially anxious. So of course, when I start thinking that I look weird or stupid, my anxiety system automatically kicks into gear and tries to get me to avoid the situation. I enjoy speaking to both large and small audiences. But singing? In public? Where others might hear me? Horrors! I know that avoiding what makes me anxious only makes it worse. So what did I do? I signed up for voice lessons, where I had to sing in front of someone.
Fast forward 4 years. I’m not as embarrassed when someone hears me sing now. That’s largely due to the fact that my teacher, Joshua, is the most patient, most encouraging, and least judgmental person in the world. He is also incredibly skilled at what he does and has managed to cajole some decent sound out of me from time to time. Me! Now I belt out the national anthem at ballgames. I happily sing in a choir – in the front row! I even sang in a quartet in front of a live audience once. Most importantly, twice a year I get to stand smack in the middle of incredible sound that’s created when my choir joins an orchestra and professional soloists to perform major choral works. I’m telling you, the thrill of living out that fantasy is worth any anxiety.
Is my anxiety gone? Of course not. When Joshua instructs me to do something out of my comfort zone, I feel that old familiar stress response knocking at my door:
Joshua: Throw your voice way up there, beyond the note. Then settle down into the pitch.
My Anxiety: I sound ridiculous! (Breath freezes midstream. Heavy rock thumps against my sternum).
Joshua: Now take your arms and throw them down at the beginning of that note.
My Anxiety: Are you kidding? I can’t do that in front of you. I’ll look ridiculous! (Breath catches below my collar bone. Knees bounce slightly. Giggle).
Joshua: Can you stand still and try it again without wiggling so much?
My Anxiety: Hah! You’re asking me to anchor down when every anxious cell in my body is screaming, “Run, get out of here. You’ll look ridiculous.” (Silent groan rises from my chest and rolls up to my temples. Face contorts into a nonverbal “yeah, right”).
Joshua: That sounds really good, Katy. What would you think about singing out more in choir?
My Anxiety: Uh-oh. (Face flushes red. Heart rumbles. Tummy tumbles).
You probably have your own version of the above script that plays out in some part of your life. My anxiety centers around an irrational belief that I’m supposed to be good at everything. Anxiety doesn’t listen very well to rational thought though. It keeps trying to protect me from the big bad catastrophe of feeling embarrassed, and it wants me to escape that feeling. But I’m smarter than my anxiety. You see, it’s not really the singing that scares me. It’s the embarrassment that comes with it. So I get embarrassed. So what? Embarrassment doesn’t feel very good. But singing sure does.
No, I haven’t gotten rid of my anxiety about singing, nor do I need to. Now I’m willing to do the things I want to do, and if need be, bring every pounding heartbeat and fidget along with me for the ride. And guess what? It gets easier. And I get to sing. Maybe I’ll do a solo!