A Simple Strategy for Dealing with Junk Thoughts that Ruin Your Performances

May 27, 2021, 1:37 PM · As musicians, we regularly contend with the voices in our heads. At times they inspire us, activate our imaginations, or challenge us to try something new. At other times the voices are less, shall we say, aspirational. They try to keep us "safe."

Performing on stage can indeed be scary, but we don't actually need protection from it. We are called to do it - called to connect, called to share, called to create beauty and meaning. As performers, we need tools to support us when the less helpful voices in our heads rise up, so that we can acknowledge those voices, release them, and go about the brave work of sharing our musical voices with others.

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I’d like to offer you one such tool today: "Big Me, Little Me." It is simple, easily applicable, and it can pull you out of a junk-thought storm quickly.

The "Big Me, Little Me" tool helps you discern the motivation of a thought and decide whether that thought is serving you or hindering you. Your thoughts are not always truth-tellers. It is vital that you learn to identify the thoughts that are speaking truth while releasing the ones that are trying to keep you small.

Little Me

"Little Me" is your nervous, stressed-out ego who compares you to everyone else in the room. It is in a perpetual state of exhaustion and anxiety because it believes something terrible is about to happen. Little me is loud. It thinks the worst in you and is convinced that everyone else thinks that, too. Little me believes that you are never enough. There is no grace, no allowance for humanity, no space for anything other than perfection with "Little Me."

The most dangerous thing about "Little Me" is that it believes that the whole world judges you by the same standard that it does. Your teacher, your colleague, your conductor - they each believe that you will not ever be good enough. "Little Me" becomes the enemy within, and it convinces you that everyone outside of you feels the same way, too.

"Little Me" sounds like this: "You are never going to get this passage perfect. Why did you ever think you could play this piece? That was out of tune. Your stand partner heard it, too. Now they know that you don’t belong here and that you’re the weakest player in the section. You’d better not screw up in this concert or they’ll never call you to sub again. Of course you didn’t advance to the next round. Did you hear everyone else? You are never going to win a job."

"Little Me" is mean. It drills down to your deepest insecurity and uses it to sabotage your efforts.

Big Me

There is hope, my friend. There is "Big Me."

"Big Me" believes that you possess an inner state of wholeness, connectedness, and enough-ness. "Big Me" believes that you can do anything. It makes your life bigger, richer, fuller, and more beautiful. "Big Me" calls out your creativity, your dreams, your passions, and says, "Yes, the world needs this!" "Big Me" is your source of authentic power, your highest self, your biggest cheerleader.

So when "Big Me" tells you to write the book, create the chamber series, email the orchestra director for students, take the audition, talk to that human over there, study this area of interest, you can trust it. "Big Me" is the fullest, strongest, truest piece of you. It is pure and good.

"Big Me" is motivated by love. It wants to make a difference. "Big Me" wants to make the world better and wants to bring beauty and truth forth. Connection and vulnerability and the language of "Big Me." "Big Me" is expansive. It believes in others and it believes in you.

But "Big Me" can be quiet. Especially at first, when you’ve been living deep in "Little Me." "Big Me" is intuition. And it can feel terrifying to trust it. While we have learned to cope through control and perfection, "Big Me" asks you to open your heart big and wide and believe the best in yourself. With each step you take forward in "Big Me," its voice gets stronger, louder, bolder.

Eventually, you realize that "Big Me" is you. And "Little Me" is just that - little. It’s there. It needs to be managed. But, it’s not allowed to run the show anymore.

Learning to identify the origin of your inner thoughts helps you decide whether or not you need to heed those thoughts. Is it "Little Me" trying to keep you safe and small, or is "Big Me" encouraging you to step out into the fullest version of yourself? Do you want to make choices from the part of you that believes anything is possible? Can you embrace and learn from failure, or is failure so catastrophic that you won’t recover?

You get to decide. You have the agency to believe or disbelieve any thought in your head. I encourage you to choose the thoughts that help you bring your art into this world. We need your music now more than ever.

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May 27, 2021 at 09:08 PM · Katie: Excellent thought.

If I may add an observation as a clinical psychologist, there was a very famous French psychologist over a hundred years ago - Emile Coue. His famous autosuggestion was: "Every day in every way, I am getting better and better."

If I may bring this up-to-date, we all engage in what can be called "self talk." It is part of ordinary human nature.

Most of the time, however, our self-talk is self-negative. This is the "little me" you have so eloquently presented. In ordinary everyday self-talk, how many times do we say to ourselves, "Why did I do that?"...or, "I shouldn't have said that,"...or a thousand other Little Me statements we say to ourselves.

And we usually dismiss any attempts to say something positive to ourselves as just being untrue things we wish were true but that we think are not.

I would just like to support your suggestions with the observation that we all have complete 100% control over what we say to ourselves. Each of us can consciously choose the exact words we say, even if we don't immediately believe it, or if we try to minimize it. So, then, why not say the things to ourselves that will help us the most?

In that context, your suggestions make perfect psychological sense. Or, to put it in terms of musical jargon - bravo.

PS. This reminds me of the quip by Charles M. Schulz: "I never made a mistake in my life. I thought I did once, but I was wrong."

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