Over the past few months, I have taken part in a therapy course, specialising in counselling and psychology, alongside my music degree. This has given me the mindset to combine both of my passions. Moving forward, I look to go into Music Therapy. This therapy course has been an amazing experience during the pandemic. It has guided me during such an uncertain time to tackle the chapters I did not particularly want too, while also teaching the skills to be an effective counsellor.
It is slightly unsettling, the parts where you have to be vulnerable, talk about the darker topics, and work towards a temporary or permanent resolution. Finding boundaries that don’t leave you too vulnerable has been challenging but also quite refreshing. The other participants are there to learn, listen and validate, which is such a drastic change from the fast pace of normal life. The performance is completely stripped back, and you don't need to plaster a smile if you do not wish to.
Recently, we were given an assignment to present a type of therapy that interests us. This gave me instant anxiety, as I knew that this part of the course meant that we would all be in a position of performing, being somewhat professional and articulate. I felt like I was back at school, where the personal things that I was dealing with had to be put to the back of my mind, to focus on my lessons. School was always a performance in that sense. There wasn't room to sit and think about personal problems but to consume the energy with social interaction, and class learning.
I found myself researching for this presentation, time ticking in my head. I was riddled with performance anxiety and felt so much pressure for the presentation to be successful. Those expectations that I formed in my head brought me straight back to a time where I worked long hours through a time of grief and where times were darker. I performed okay during that time. I don't think I convinced my colleagues that everything was “fine” back at home, but I tried to maintain the role.
Now, this current course opens up a gateway to be more vulnerable. Emotions are magnified due to the course content. Now a point has come around to suck it up, and perform as someone who is not vulnerable to articulating relevant research, scaring me enormously. Or at least that’s how I feel in my head. It has never been this way round for me, where you start vulnerable and then act professionally. I suppose where we have exposed more hidden parts of ourselves to each other during the pandemic, the performing aspect of a presentation, seemed a little inorganic.
My fear leaked in the worst way. My turn came around to do my short 10- minute presentation, and before I had even started, the shake in my breath as I exhaled led one of the participants to say, “you will do great.” I took a few more shaky breaths, but with every moment that fed into my 10-minute slot, I was acutely aware that I was showing signs of severe anxiety. I wasn't concentrating on the count of my presentation, just what everybody on Zoom was thinking of me. Questions like, Am I going to start crying?, entered my head, followed by an aggressive response of “Don’t cry! Don’t Cry!”.
I could feel my performance slipping, but the eyes of the audience were still watching. I had forgotten what it was like, to be assessed, the need to meet criteria and the fear of not living up to an expectation. I had to put myself in the speaker's view, as I could not bear to see them stare back at me, absorbing my words while I was presenting, words that I was not even confident in being correct. With this particular course, we all know parts about each other that may be more fragile. The idea of performing to people who know different segments meant that my “performance” carried that vulnerability too.
This train of thought carried on for the days after my presentation. I started to think about the performance that we must all put on as we come out of lockdown. As the pace starts to speed up again, are we putting on a front to the world again? Must we remain measured and professional? I am not even sure if we will go into deep conversations about how our mental health has been in lockdown because the choice of drinks on the menu will be a far more engaging conversation topic.
The more we collectively ignore how we have all been behind closed doors, the more we will progress to performing a bigger, more permanent facade that “everything is okay”. The presentation scenario truly concreted how important it is to find a balance between engaging with real emotions, allowing vulnerability, and branding yourself with a smile to the world as and when you feel ready. As we start going back to normal, the “performance” should be a far less pressurising role to play. We are all on the same page; we have all been through a dysfunctional year, and performing or fronting that we are okay should not be the norm anymore. When you ask friends or family if they're okay, consider their answer, but maybe ask it again.