Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
In my twenties I had a very entertaining driving instructor. A big fan – like me – of personal development, he used to transcribe tapes by some American guru between lessons, and quote them to me. I’d been reading personal development books since my teens but at that age, hadn’t quite internalised it all yet, and this driving instructor – I’ll call him John – gave me a practical lesson that’s stuck with me ever since.
He had me drive into a side street in east Belfast, and told me to stop the car diagonally across it. “But why?” I asked, instantly uncomfortable. “You’ll see,” he said, and made me wait until a car turned in to the street I was blocking. Immediately I went to move the car, but he told me to wait. “But I’m blocking them!” I yelped, feeling stressed, but John replied, “That’s okay, he can wait a minute”. He wound down his window and stuck his head out, pointing out the L sign on the roof of his car to the bemused, waiting driver. He turned to fix an intense look on me, saying “You have to learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable!” Uncomfortable I certainly was; in my mind I was worrying about the driver being annoyed at me, how stupid I must appear to him, and generally being extremely conscious of how uncomfortable the situation was. A couple of times I said “I get it, I should move now”, but he made me wait for what was probably only a minute or two (but felt much longer), before letting me move on. And no doubt the other driver forgot about me straight away.
Well, it took quite some time for the lesson to sink in, but it stayed with me. A few years later I was diagnosed with depression, and began a deep, focused study of personal development and psychology, determined to fix my unhealthy ways of thinking.
I’d grown up with great anxiety about what other people thought of me, preventing me from saying yes to opportunities where I’d have been in the spotlight by myself. Choirs and orchestras were grand because you were ‘hidden’ in the masses; and if I had a close friend or two beside me I was very much the extrovert. But I tended to lean on my friends to get me started in new social groups and situations.
Like the time my friend Aisling asked me to do a jazz course with her at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. We had a final concert for parents where I had a sax solo in Summertime. This was fine; I loved the piece, played the solo well in practice, and was in my comfort zone surrounded by many other musicians. But on the big day, the leader said “you know what, I think the soloists should stand up to play, so your parents can see you properly”. Wha’..? I was quaking in my chair – all of a sudden I was going to be heard and seen, with all eyes on me for those 16 bars. In my mind this was a huge deal and I’ll never forgot the shakes I had when it was my turn to get up; it was like playing a pneumatic drill, my teeth were rattling off the mouthpiece so hard.
Walking the talk
Fast forward to my “recovery period” after depression, when I finally decided to stop making decisions from fear of what other people thought. Long years had passed since I’d played in orchestra, but I’d been encouraged by some great friends to “do something” with my amateur guitar-playing and singing. I went down to the John Hewitt in Belfast for its open mic, with a dozen mates for moral support. I put my name on the list, and when it was my turn, walked up to the stage with my stomach fluttering. I had – still have – a beautiful Takamine semi-acoustic, which I’d bought in a half-price sale on a whim. I got onto my seat and pressed my ear to the guitar to try and tune it, which was of course no use in a noisy pub. Compere Dom O’Neill asked why I was doing it that way, and plugged it into the amp for me to tune up – but no sound came out. He futtered with the cables and then said, “how’s your battery?” Now I’d never plugged the guitar in, I only played it in the house, so the battery in it was long dead. D’oh. The musician who’d played before me, David McCann, kindly offered me his battery – he had to half-unstring his guitar to get at it.
By this time, drinkers at the front tables were getting restless, and I distinctly heard a mutter of “women”. Behind them tho’, were my friends, laughing with me. We finally got everything working and I joked into the mic about needing to be good after making everyone wait so long, and launched into my first song. (Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah, which I didn’t know at the time was the biggest cliché of open mics. Remember that scene in Wayne’s World where there’s a sign in the guitar shop saying “No Stairway?”)
Two verses in I started thinking about how relieved I was to be settling into it. That train of thought, of course, derailed me – my mind went blank, and I stopped completely and said “I have totally forgotten the next line!” My friend Noleen shouted it out, and I made some quip about audience interaction and carried on. I played my set as well as I could, got some lovely feedback, and sat down and ordered a large drink, relieved I was finished and proud of myself for having done it.
Now, younger me would’ve fallen apart when things started going wrong. I’d have been freaked out by the mutterers and wouldn’t have been capable of joking about my mistakes. I’d have been too busy beating myself up for them. Forgetting the lyrics would have felt like the end of the world, not just a minor embarrassment at an open mic night. I’d have been thinking over and over of critics mocking me for not knowing how to handle my guitar, not looking comfortable on stage, forgetting my words and not being a good enough player or singer.
But older me had decided never again to waste my time and energy worrying about other people’s opinions, and that has changed everything. On top of that, I’d brought a great support group of wonderful friends, I’d pushed myself out of my comfort zone and taken a step forward, and I’d learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Since then I’ve played in various gigs and festivals around the UK, Ireland and Europe, by myself, with BEATnDRUM Samba Band and with a new band You, Me & the Sea. I created the Sofa Sessions, where I host and perform with a range of musicians and other artists. I’ve been a guest on multiple TV and radio shows, given talks to large audiences and even compered an NI music showcase in French and English at MIDEM in Cannes.
Whilst the speaking and media work is now well within my comfort zone, I still feel the nerves when I perform as a musician – I don’t do it anywhere near often enough to feel fully at ease. But I remind myself to be okay with that. I now coach people in public speaking and job interview preparation, where I tell them if you re-label your nerves as excitement, it changes your energy for performance; those sensations can give you an edge.
The more you practice or do something, the more capable you feel – whether that’s practice at home (such as mock interviews with friends/family/a coach) or with real examples (going for actual interviews).
Capability is one half of confidence – the other is self-worth. We’re all human, and can only do our best according to the values we decide are important in life, learning from mistakes as we go. Healthy self-worth comes from recognising this, keeping our values front and centre, forgiving ourselves our mistakes and not worrying about what other people think of us.
Get comfortable about being uncomfortable, and the world opens up to you.
If you’d like coaching or training in confidence and assertiveness, get in touch.
[This post first appeared in the Irish Sunday Mirror on Sun 28 June, 2015]