Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Psychosomatic is problematic

A lot of things terrify me. Meeting new people, talking with people I'm uncomfortable with, going in front of crowds, answering a question in class, singing in public, auditioning for anything, going to a social event or even a meeting by myself, talking with a clerk at a retail sales counter.

Some are logical. Some are illogical. All are avoidable. But I can't.

In elementary school it wasn't so much a problem. I could get up in front of my class or even audition to perform in a school musical with minimal inhibitions. When I got to middle school, however, somehow everything turned around and my mind got the better of me.

It got the better of me and it brought out the worst in me.

When I was in choir in middle school, I was one of the "star" sopranos. I barely needed to audition, but I would be rewarded with a solo performance anyway. Practicing the solo, I always felt prepared to make a stellar performance in concerts. Then when the pressure was on for the debut performance, my vocal cords would turn to jelly and my notes would become wobbly instead of crisp and strong.

After middle school, I lost all sense of the confident girl I was before. Even in casual class settings, my voice would turn into that of an untrained vocalist warbling on a bumpy car ride. One day in high school choir, we were required to perform in a private room in front of the instructor, singing a song we'd memorized from another language. I picked "Mon Histoire" from Les Misérables, the French version of "On My Own."

With only a couple of classmates in the room, one of whom was my best friend, I still couldn't help but let my nervousness get the better of me. I got an A on the assignment, but only because the song was at such a low octave that my wobbling couldn't be heard very well.

I let the problem slide because it only really affected me when I was in front of a crowd singing. That wasn't going to be a regular occurrence, so I needn't work on it.

Then I became a journalist.

High school was child's play for a budding young writer. I reported only a hand-full of times for my school newspaper, starting with opinion and entertainment stories soon after I joined the paper, keeping me forever guarded from having to talk to anyone new.

In college, I was thrust into the real world where interviews were hard to come by, but still had to be done. I did my first man on the street interview not knowing how to conduct myself. I ended up exchanging an interview with an activist for a "few minutes of my time." She talked to me about hunger in Africa. I asked her about The Daily Show. The symbiosis of the relationship wasted a good 15 minutes of my time when it should have taken five. Social conduct was difficult for me to understand, especially in this unusually structured form.

Over the years I've constantly stuck myself into new and strange situations that take me out of my comfort zone. It started with the singing, continued with the reporting and onward. At every step along the way, I learned more about myself - but I could never seem to conquer the psychosomatic symptoms that accompanied all of my ventures.

The worst kind of situation is that in which you are made vulnerable as a result. Being a student singer or a writer, you're still guarded by the fact that you're learning. Everything is new to you, but you're under the veil of being in high school or college. And people judge you accordingly.

When I had my first boyfriend I was put in a similar situation of being completely out of my league - not because he fell under the cliche "out of my league," but because I wasn't prepared for a relationship or aware of how much of myself I was making vulnerable. Every time we'd meet I would spend an hour prior feeling nervous and nauseous. I'd sit with a friend in person or on the phone trying to distract myself to keep away the stomach discomfort.

Then I learned the key to destroying my own psychosomatic symptoms - especially the nausea. The fact that I had been meditating on prospects for an hour was what made me nervous, not the event itself. This was true of singing, of interviewing, of talking to new people, of even asking a question in class. It was when I wasn't spontaneous - when I spent too much time thinking about expectations - that I let my unconscious mind get the better of me.

Five minutes into any nerve-wracking experience, I've always found myself the victor over my own psychosomatic symptoms.

When I auditioned for a cappella groups in freshman year, my goal was to hit at least four groups in one afternoon. By the time I arrived at my fourth audition, I had gotten past the nervous wobbly warbling and I was singing as well as I do into my hair brush in the privacy of my own bedroom.

So I found the key. But the lock was still evasive.

Even though I'd figured out that after a few minutes in an awkward situation I start to feel at ease and even, dare I say it, confident, I still had no control over that hour-long period (or sometimes slightly shorter if it was a spur of the moment nervousness) of feeling overwhelmed.

I still don't know how to go about fixing this.

I could spend hours trying to psychoanalyze myself. It would even be appropriate perhaps since I am taking a class that directly addresses the theories of Freud and psychoanalysis. But I wouldn't know where to begin.

Though I have the clarity of knowing how my mind manipulates my body, I've never had manipulative control over my own mind or body. A lot of people manage to bridge the gap, keeping themselves from feeling nervous in uncomfortable situations, or avoiding people or things that would put them in a state of unease.

Yet I have this problem of doing the exact opposite - of testing my boundaries by constantly giving myself new problems to tackle. If I hate interviewing, then I still assign myself stories that require a lot of it. If I feel nervous singing, then I try auditioning for musicals and singing groups anyway. If I know I'll feel uncomfortable meeting up with an ex, then I make plans with them against my better judgment.

It's weird, but I have this masochistic proclivity toward putting myself in what are, by my estimation, the worst situations. The problem is that, despite my own distaste for certain experiences, I can't stop making myself do the things I know are difficult for me.

Maybe this is a learning exercise - I'd guess psychologists and psychoanalysts would say it's my own personal way of working through my nervous neuroses - but it's also one of the most destructive ways of doing so.

Lately I've been working through my own desires to branch out. I have tried to lessen the burden of nervous experience on myself by reminding my unconscious mind that I can be more confident with practice. And it works to some extent.

So I'll go on being awkward and forcing myself into awkward situations. It's a weird fate, but I'm going to need to talk to that store clerk somehow.

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