It was my oldest child’s first piano recital and I had front row seats next to my mom. I didn’t invite my father or sister or sister-in-law or anybody. He just started playing five months ago– how could this turn out? Maybe for the next recital. Or the one after. You know, the one where he’d be really good.
Why was I nervous?
My 9-year-old certainly wasn’t. I kept checking to see if he was okay, and each time he politely stifled the rolling of his eyes.
I’m still fine.
Mom, I’m fine.
No trepidation in his brows. No butterflies in his belly. He is just like his late father in that way– sometimes awkward in small groups, but confident and articulate in front of the masses. Self-assured. Fearless.
Nothing like me.
Not having ever been a music person, recitals were new terrain for me. This one seemed well-produced to my amateur eyes: lighting, sound, transitions, professional dress and reminders about theater etiquette (don’t leave early!). An authentic experience to display one’s musical skills.
My son was number 14 in the line-up, and I think I ran out of tears feeling emotional for everyone else’s kid before mine even got to perform. There is something about standing in front of the firing squad of scrutiny– in this case in a theater full of strangers. It’s brave!
As a parent, it is a helpless feeling having to experience that kind of vulnerability through your child. Since it’s not socially acceptable to jump onto the stage with your child, you are relegated to the audience, immobilized by the reality that your child has to take their own chance and you simply have to be a witness to whatever happens.
I kept wondering if my son knew his piece. Whenever I reminded him to practice, he told me he already knew his song. Practice anyway, I’d say. But he ignored my anxiousness, much like his dad would also ignore my fretting. They knew what they were doing. I was overreacting. Of course I was!
That’s who I am. An overreactor. Hypersensitive. Professional fretter. I was the kid who would do her homework, put it carefully in my binder, double-check that everything was there before I went to sleep at night, and then once again before I left for school in the morning. That’s just what I do.
And sometimes I fret for other people too, like the kids on the stage at the recital.
The little musicians came with a range of skills. Some played entire Debussy songs. There were four-year-olds with drumsticks who only knew one repetitive move to play along with a pre-recorded song. There were the kids with violins that made scratchy sounds, and others who struggled to blow into their flutes. There was the kid who could play the guitar, accordion, and saxophone– and he played them all well.
But there was one particular little girl who stood out to me. She was maybe 7 or 8-years old. I noticed her lingering by the curtain. She wore a poofy white dress and matching shoes as if she were the flower girl in a wedding. I kept thinking it would be her turn next, but no. It would be someone else. And then another person. And another. It became clear that she was just scoping out her battlefield, and by the look on her face she was also trying to convince herself to go through with it instead of running into the opposite direction.
When it was finally her turn, the girl tiptoed onto the stage like a skittish animal checking for predators. I thought she might dive right back into the safety of the curtains but there was something resolute in her determination and she kept walking. She gave a quick, almost apologetic bow before taking her seat at the piano.
One might deduce from her trepidation that the little girl would surely mess up, but no. You could tell she was the type of child who practiced and practiced, doing what she was supposed to do and performing well. Probably a model student, the kind who didn’t need her mother to remind her to practice.
When she was done, the girl stood abruptly and glanced anxiously at the audience. She gave another quick bow and then scuttled off the stage in that pretty white cupcake of a dress.
Then there was my son. He strode onto the stage– forgot to bow. Why bow? Those are other people’s details. He played his piece well and appeared to enjoy himself. He could have been playing in our living room, that’s how calm he was. Strode off stage, again forgetting to bow. Who invented bowing anyway? Nah. Done is done. He disappeared behind the curtains, not an ounce of anxiousness in his expression even though he certainly must have remembered that he forgot to bow– twice. After the show, it was like he just did another usual thing instead of completing his first recital.
It’s so interesting, I thought.
Places of vulnerability.
How we respond.
For me, I’ve spent a lifetime trying not to be the little girl in the cupcake dress. But I am that girl: self-doubting, hard-working, always worried about failure. I’ve spent most of my life fretting about details, worrying about not being good enough, reading too much between the lines. Like the little girl, I’ve forced myself out of my comfort zone many times, but it has been a lifetime process of learning how to be okay with being a work-in-progress. I get back up and try again. Again and again and again. But I’m also often beating myself up behind the scenes.
It has taken a lot of time to learn how to manage my fretting, worrying, and second-guessing.
I read the book The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron, and when I took the quiz it confirmed that yes, I am a highly sensitive person. You might not know that about me in real life unless you were in my inner circle. That’s because some of us learn ways to hide it. We don’t like to mess up and become more overwhelmed. We don’t want to disturb people. We don’t want to fall short and appear careless or not good enough. We don’t want to be a disappointment. So we fret and fret and fret, and sometimes that nervousness can undermine us.
I think after my husband died, I found myself in a situation where it was increasingly difficult to pretend that everything was okay. My vulnerability was on display for everyone to observe. In many ways I pushed through my unfortunate circumstances and did what a lot of us highly sensitive people do, which is to continue doing what we are supposed to do out of fear of messing up. I’ve always been competent in my career, reliable, punctual, and self-reliant. I’m like that in my personal life too.
But there was no hiding it– I was raw with grief and dripping with pain. I’ve never had to struggle with myself so much. I’ve never had something so horrific happen to me before.
Something inside of me didn’t want to hide what I was going through. I don’t know why, because I have historically been more reserved and shy, but something about waking up one morning to a dead husband strips away your inhibitions and takes your give-a-damn. That’s when I decided to share my experience, even if it meant admitting to others that I wasn’t always doing okay.
We are so conditioned to pretend that our lives are going great. We aren’t supposed to show our “dirty laundry.” Other people don’t want to be around our unhappiness– it’s like a contagious rash to avoid. But the reality is when we pretend life isn’t hard, and when we hide our struggles, we contribute to the socially constructed world of unrealistic expectations about how life is supposed to be. That only leads to more disappointment and pain and increased suffering.
In a world where we are bombarded with curated photos that we run through filters on social media, we rarely get to see what life really looks like for other people, and that can lead us to believe that there is something wrong with us when our own lives do not measure up to the mirage.
I found that the more I was transparent about my own suffering, the less shame I felt. Being vulnerable and revealing my weaknesses wasn’t as scary as it had once felt. The simple act of being vulnerable in front of others– over and over again– was actually helping me to become more resilient. An added bonus was when people started to share with me their experiences. I think one of the biggest breakthroughs when dealing with your own pain is the realization that you aren’t the only one experiencing suffering. Suffering is part of the human experience– it just looks different for everyone and doesn’t happen on the same timeline.
My son can stride onto a stage, but sometimes he can’t introduce himself to the new neighbor across the street.
That’s the thing.
While we are busy comparing and beating ourselves up over our self-perceived inadequacies, we forget that our vulnerabilities and shame and pain come in different forms. But we all have them. There are no exceptions.
Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean other people aren’t shoving their darkness into the drawers and closets when guests come over.
Being vulnerable is scary. Many of us have built our lives upon a reputation that we stitched together out of the pieces of what we think looks best in front of others. After years and years of doing this, and when other people do it too, we shudder at the thought of jeopardizing the safety of this image.
We don’t want to risk this version of ourselves by letting others see the truth beneath the facade.
And the more we hold our breath–the more we choose not to be honest with ourselves and others–the more we suffer. From the inside-out, like a slow leak that doesn’t present itself until the damage is irreparable.
But humans aren’t irreparable.
The recital was a safe place where we all came together to support the fruit of weekly music lessons. We cheered on our children and other people’s children and gave the kids a place to showcase their learning, even when the music wasn’t always perfect.
Brene Brown said, “That’s what life is about: about daring greatly, about being in the arena.”
It’s not about being fearless.
It’s about having fear and showing up anyway– getting into that scary-as-hell arena and trying. Trying even if you mess up. Trying. Always trying.
Getting better each time.
The little girl in the white dress was scared to play the piano in front of an audience, but she did anyway. She put herself in the arena.
The recital made me think about this world that we live in where vulnerability is not socially acceptable. We are afraid of revealing any weaknesses in the workplace out of fear of survival and competition. We hide our true selves from family and friends out of fear of judgement and abandonment.
The truth is we are all still learning. It doesn’t end, no matter how old we are. The messing up doesn’t cease. We are eternal learners until we take our last breath. That doesn’t make us inadequate. That makes us human.
What if we stopped hiding this about ourselves?
If we could take the risk at work to share a personal struggle without fear of reprisal. If we could tell a loved one the truth about ourselves without risking a relationship. If we could stumble and fall and have the space to get back up with loving witnesses to support us on our individual journeys.
If someone is willing to put themselves out there, it seems like the rest of us ought to recognize the bravery in that simple act of showing up, and to do so with less judgement.
What a nicer world it would be if we were a kinder audience to each other’s vulnerabilities.
I know you are probably thinking about that person you know who makes a zillion stupid decisions and brings problems on themselves. I know, I know. I do the same thing.
But what if we observed that person as someone who is still learning? Maybe at a slower rate than you are, but they are still learning. We don’t have to get tangled up in their stupid decisions, but we could also be a kinder witness to their journey. Something closer to the love of a mother watching her child play a screechy violin in a recital.
That’s what I want to get better at sharing with others.
That’s the kind of world I want to live in.