Recently I was asked to speak, via Zoom, to a group of undergraduate music majors.
My main theme: my career started to change once I became conscious of my “self-talk.” I told them I never even realized I was sabotaging my own career and ultimate happiness by telling myself negative things. It wasn’t until I got control of my thoughts that I took control of my career and life.
In the Q&A section of the talk, a singer asked me a brave and important question that I haven’t stopped thinking about: “What was the negative thing that you always said to yourself?”
I hesitated a moment before answering. Not because I didn’t know the answer, but because I wasn’t sure how vulnerable I wanted to be. The truth is, I told myself many, many negative things:
- You’re too old.
- There’s not enough work.
- It will always be hard for you.
- You should’ve studied with a different teacher.
- You will always struggle.
But the one thought, the thought that was fundamentally at the root of my suffering and one I most hesitated to share: I am not good enough.
That’s it. The grand poobah of negative self-talk. The root of it all.
- I am not good enough.
Not only did I repeat this to myself over and over; I truly believed it was true.
This brave young singer then asked a follow-up question that betrayed a self-awareness I didn’t have until I was nearly twice her age: “Did you put that idea there? Or did someone else put it there?”
I couldn’t believe a woman half my age had the presence of mind to ask such an incisive and crucial question.
I hesitated again, but this time for barely a second, because the pandemic has forced us all to be brave (if for no other reason than that we feel there’s nothing left to lose).
“Both!” I answered emphatically.
Professors and teachers I trusted and admired told me I wasn’t good enough. Perhaps not in so many words, but it was clearly how they felt.
Some professors tried to change, or mold, me into something else, something I didn’t even want to be. Professors wrote negative comments on my jury reports, some of them deeply personal and not even related to singing.
They thought I didn’t have what it takes as a person or a performer. Often, I was told I was too ambitious, too assertive.
My personality wasn’t the only problem, though. My resistance to choir, along with my desire to sing pop songs (which I did, in the practice rooms, along with arias) did not win me points. I auditioned for jazz solos as a classical performance major. Today, versatility is a virtue. Then, it was seen as defiant, an unwillingness to “play the game” and do things “their” way (which of course was the only way).
Coupled with my natural insecurity (that annoying little voice that preys on most of us), these negative judgments about my talent shook me to my core.
I’ve carried the “not good enough” belief for years. I began college over two decades ago, yet those negative assessments remained fresh in my mind until several years ago, when I began to work actively on letting them go, and thereby freeing myself from their terrible, destructive impact on my psyche and work product.
It’s not easy to share this so publicly, but I think many of you will relate.
The good news: I got over it, mostly, and so can you. But it isn’t a one-time fix. After so many years of negative self-talk, I have to practice the opposite on a daily basis. As with any bad habit, the first step is recognizing when you engage in it. How often do you tell yourself that you’re not good enough? Daily? Weekly? Hourly?
When you slip into the old habit, forgive yourself.
I say: “Self, thank you for keeping me safe. You were only doing what you thought best. It’s not your fault. I’m sorry.”
Then I tell myself that I am enough.
I said it before I believed it. I found people who supported and believed in me, kicking naysayers to the curb. And little by little, I started to believe I was enough.
*Note to add: Please think about getting professional help if this is a great challenge in your life. There is a difference between negative self talk and potentially dangerous self talk that can lead to self harm.*