How Self-consciousness Misleads Us: The “Rock” Guitar Story

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Everyone will know. Everyone will know how you embarrassed yourself. Friends and strangers, both. They will see the perspiration and hear the stammering. Your face shall transform into a tomato-like ball of redness. It might as well get sold at a fruit market.

Yes, someone will make a video, too, making you an international laughing-stock. Forever.

We fear the worst and fear takes us over. We become hostage to worry. We crawl inside the fear and are devoured. Fear surrounds us, breathes into us, and binds us. We are trapped.

Only it’s not true. We’ve all lived moments like the one in the story I’m about relay. Not identical to this event, but just as excruciating and permanent, we thought. Not so bad after all, I hasten to say.

“Rock” was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. A remarkable scholar, a shining academic star. Black wavy hair already flecked with gray — he made an impression. He was gifted with words on paper and with words he spoke. “Rock,” a nickname belying a less than chiseled physique, would come to win two awards for teaching at another prestigious university. Rich Adelstein, his real name, remains one of the few people who is eloquent without a script.

Playing the guitar, however, is something else. Always was. And music is what his friends asked him to make at their wedding. “Just for a few minutes; anything you want. You’ll be a star!”

How could Rock say no? He chose a Bach transcription, not more than three minutes long.

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The day came. A torrid day in a sweltering summer. Rock knew the piece by heart, had played it many times in the privacy of his apartment. There, Bach was effortless, fluent. But at a wedding, in front of lots of people?

You sweat the anticipation. You count the time. The sands of the hourglass push down and the hands of the hooded hangman place the noose. Tightening, tightening. There is no escape. Your expected participation is public knowledge. You can’t claim illness without betraying cowardice, conscience, and comrades.

The moment arrived. Rock sat in the chair in front of perhaps 200 wedding-well-wishers. His fingers, unlike his voice, were not the part of himself he trusted.

The perspiration began even before the first note. More notes, more perspiration. Our boy’s arm pits oozed. His winter-weight, flannel suit – the only one he owned – was soaking through. The sweat came in waves, like the kind that sweep you off your feet and carry you out to sea. The guitarist’s mind was overwrought with the terror of public humiliation. His brain buzzed. The shining brilliance of Rock’s head, always full of ideas, was now brilliant and shining for an uncustomary reason. My friend was barely above water, caught in a whirlpool, capsizing in a feverish river of illuminated perspiration and panic.

Rock’s fingers moved on their own, to the good. They were, however, getting harder to motivate. “A little while longer. If I can go on for a little while longer,” he said to himself. His digits seemed to get larger, like plump sausages; unbendable, heavy. Stiffening. And then, the unimaginable: his fingers went on strike. The unreliable labor force stopped laboring.

True, a single moment of silence was not inappropriate. But a moment is not 15-seconds, or 30-seconds, or a minute. Time transformed, became timeless. Rock stared at the stationary digits.

No vibration. Eternity. Strain. Second upon second upon second. How many?

Finally, the music began to sound. By sheer force of will the piece was finished.

The audience applauded. No shouts or cheers. Surely everyone knew. How could they miss a suit doubling as swim wear? Surely they were talking about him, giggling about Rock, feeling sorry. Surely people would remember.

A reception followed. The man of words had no words to describe his mortification. Yet, no one looked at him more than anyone else. No comment on his dampness. A few even told him they enjoyed the performance. Not a soul asked “What happened?” or “Are you OK? We worried about you.”

A woman appeared. Middle-aged. A stranger, well-dressed, with a cultured, intellectual aura.

“Oh, God,” Rock thought.

“I really enjoyed your performance,” she said with enthusiasm. “The dramatic pause, in particular!”

She wasn’t kidding. The disqualifying paralysis – the moment of ruin – was to her the creative highlight.

Life went on: a life of accomplishment, good works, and recognition. An admirable life, untouched by momentary catastrophe. Indeed, a catastrophe in one place alone: the mind.

Most of us have had some version of this experience. And survived. People usually notice less than we think. Most disasters are temporary. Even when the audience does recognize a difficult situation, they tend to forget. The event is replaced by another, newer story. We are much more concerned with our own lives than the lives of others. Thus, our daily tasks, relationships, victories, failures, deadlines, and distractions allow little room for concentration on another’s momentary discomfort.

A few rules for the next time you have a “Rock” Guitar experience:

  1. Remember, “This too shall pass.”
  2. Your internal emotions and what others detect are not the same. You probably don’t look or sound as bad as you think.
  3. Don’t proclaim your inexperience, nervousness, or troubled state. Do not cue the audience to search for problems they would otherwise likely miss. Do not apologize afterward.
  4. However bad the day, you will soon be yesterday’s news, replaced by some other event. More probable still, the crowd’s preoccupation returns to what we all spend most of our time thinking about: ourselves.
  5. Remind yourself that you are not unique. Even professional athletes drop baseballs in front of 50,000 people in the stands and millions watching on TV.

Not convinced you will live to fight another day? That your bad moment will go unnoticed or be forgotten? Then I am forced to tell you about the most inappropriate, politically incorrect, embarrassing experience of my life. This is a story you can’t top. No one ever has: Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness.

The top image is called  Guitarist Little Girl (Dorothy Takacz) — Budapest, Hungary by Takkk. The second photo is entitled Drops of Sweat by Bibikoff. Next comes Finish Line by Thomas Sørenes. The final image is a photo of Musician Third Class Gabriel Brown, at the Jerudong International School, 2011. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This post is a revision of an earlier essay publish on this site.

14 thoughts on “How Self-consciousness Misleads Us: The “Rock” Guitar Story

  1. I love the vivid description in this story. “And then, the unimaginable: his fingers went on strike”. You had me right there with poor Rock. In your therapy practice, did you help anyone overcome stage fright–musicians, actors, speakers? I am curious as to what techniques you found effective for this common condition.

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    • Thank you, Evelyn. Yes, I did see people who had this sort of problem, one of the many forms of anxiety disorder. Techniques included visualization, relaxation training, meditation, exploring thinking-errors like catastrophization, looking at values (in terms of why it was thought “essential” by some to “succeed” at the activity in question and how “success” is defined), and (if possible) successive-approximations of the feared activity; that is, “baby steps.” Ultimately practice out in the world is essential, made possible by such organizations as Toastmasters, where one can get lots of practice speaking in front of a supportive and small group of people who are mostly there for the same or similar reasons.

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  2. As regards your most embarrassing moment, I think that in calling the new undergrad “slave”, you were being inclusive. You immediately made her part of your group with that one word. Slaves throughout history, as you know better than I, have been all races, religions, and colors, not just black. I do realize that the word has a much deeper meaning to African Americans and I understand the sensitivity you must have felt in the moment, but the fact remains that your use of the word was meant as a welcome not as anything hurtful or derogatory.

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    • Your thoughts are very kind to me and more generous than I deserve. It is true, my perspective changed from a greeting that was unthinking, but, as you say, inclusive; to one of OMG! I feared both that I’d injured the young woman and the retributive justice that might follow for myself. To put it differently, while intention counts for a lot, if one runs down another person by accident (for example), they are dead all the same. In any case, it worked out as well as I could have imagined for myself and, for what it is worth, I had a casual, but friendly relationship with the student in question thereafter. Again, thank you for thinking the best of me, Brewdun.

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  3. I continue to have my share of terrifying moments before an audience. As you suggest, I console myself with the knowledge that the witnesses to my disgrace will have better things to think about than about my bad presentation.

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    • They may not have better things to think about. For example, Kim Kardashian’s latest exploits might replace you! Or, DT! I’ll bet your presentations are better than you think, Rosaliene.

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  4. Wow! This is an amazing post! Probably my favourite that I’ve ever read from you. Strange enough, this is something that will really help me tonight with an event I’m attending. Perfect timing. 😀

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  5. good one . very helpfull

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  6. I experience many different versions of that, mostly caused by nervousness and anticipatory anxiety, bust some actually caused by stereotype threat. In many cases, you are correct. However, in some cases, people do recall your embarrassing moments – or worse: they let you know about something you did, said, or gestured that you were not aware of. In the worst case scenario, you lose jobs, relationships, opportunities, and much more. Even when lessons are learned, the traumatic ecological losses directly and repeatedly present ad hominem attacks in your mind. “Do not ever make the same mistake,” you tell yourself as life moves forward and presents you with similar scenarios. With every interpersonal encounter, your past embarassing moments keep you at the ready. When your past embarrassing moments stem from stereotype threat, however, you wonder if the stigmas are true concerning you and your identity. Stereotype threat is a perceived and/or actual stigma that is primed by those whom you are about to encounter. When you yourself believe that you will under-perform because you are female, or disabled, or short, or financially challenged, or older, or slandered and defamed by disgruntled exes of some kind, then you shake, fret, become discouraged, cower, freeze, become tongue-twisted, and even fail. You wonder how you can let stigmatizing stereotypes go when you are reminded again and again that there are bullies out there who are ready to smear your name lest you overcome by inflating yourself to the point of pseudo-narcissism, which happens to be explicitly uncharacteristic of who you truly are, even though implicitly, your past narcissistic wounds have shaped your current psychosocial ineptitude. The question I then have is this: What about those who have truly experienced ecologically crippling embarrassing moments that were recalled by others and were detrimental to your reputation, identity, and self-worth?

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    • drgeraldstein

      Tough question, GLB. The treatment would certainly be individualized, but probably address internal repetitive messages, catastrophization (including the need to admit that the past doesn’t always predict the future), careful attention to the choice of those who will be in positions of judgement and friendship, role playing difficult situations, and successive approximations “in vivo.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Dr. S. I was thinking of those in dysfunctional relationships, those involved in bad neighborhoods, and those involved in toxic groups. I was also considering the hardships minorities face when attempting to upwardly mobilize, and the naysayers in their lives – many who are also minorities. I also consider people who are prone to revictimization for one reason or another. I think that external factors are important when considering the validity of catastrophizing. What may seem like an irrational projection or perceived fear might actually be rational when the person is truly being embarrassed when performing, presenting, or just living. But maybe the aloof yet affluent nerds with poor social skills may have something that the others do not: fearless pride in their work; they do not care or are not aware about what others think of them. I consider fictional characters like Monk, Marshall on Alias, etc. People laugh and talk about them, but the socially aloof nerds seemingly are not embarrassed. They do not care or have a mask of not caring about what others think of them. Their work is their reward, and so is their paycheck or intellectual prestige. Unfortunately, not everyone is a nerd. Like nerds, some people lack social skills. Unlike nerds, non-nerds with low SQ have more to lose because of their low IQ. Low EQ is inevitable. I wonder if feeling embarrassed can be differentiated from actually being embarrassed. When the two are congruent, it reinforces catastrophizing. When the two are incongruent, you either have your aloof, prideful nerds or your depressed, self-conscious persons.

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      • Regarding self-consciousness, I think self-awareness about personal character flaws makes it all the more challenging to change when your focus centers on how others respond to your change more so than you actually changing. I catastrophize a lot because I have lost a lot when I was too trusting and likeable, so finding a balance is key for me. I still have not found that balance as I am always on guard, and if not my mind, my body tenses up without me knowing. IBS and other physical problems are often correlated with PTSD, and my docs and therapists tell me it is from stuffing emotions, as opposed to expressing them. But expressing emotion is stigmatized as a negative or pathologized as dysregulation, so go figure. To find a balance among confusing and contradictory suggestions makes this all the more challenging for us patients. Sometimes it is easier to say, “Forget what people think; I am just going to do what makes me happy and comfy.” But then that brings about another problem, and the cascade of issues build until there is a mountain suffocating the molehill.

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  7. drgeraldstein

    Your point is well taken. No easy answers. The only thing I can say is that for the sake of one’s equanimity, one must, at some point, realize 1) that “most” people are way more concerned about themselves than they are about anyone else 2) the usefulness of establishing an internal sense of propriety 3) take “most” of what others say or think about you as a matter of indifference. Clearly, if it is your boss or supervisor that can’t be done as easily as one might like. I was lucky to the extent that I became my own boss at age 37. That circumstance doubtless helped me accomplish #3 by reducing its cost.

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