SPAM In The Vocalist’s Brain

Barbara relentlessly criticizes herself for her lack of musical success, for the quality of her singing voice…for her very existence.

An admitted perfectionist, Barbara never feels fully satisfied with her performance. Before the gig she anticipates all the things that could go wrong—or that went wrong once at a previous show. She filters out all of the positive feedback and magnifies the negative. After the gig, she does the same.

How could this be?  She’s an attractive American jazz singer who has solid experience of singing in clubs. For the last ten years she has been accompanied by her second husband Gene, a gifted pianist who has worked consistently to make a living as a musician doing both solo and ensemble jobs. Together, they’ve been able to work regularly, achieving modest success with CD sales and tours.

When all is said and done, the most pernicious issue Barbara actually faces is her habit of relentlessly criticizing herself.

If Barbara could hear anyone talking to other people the way she talks to herself she would be mortified! She used to think it was legitimately caused by her lack of success early on in her career and the corresponding financial stress. Barbara didn’t own her part in feeling miserable. Eventually, however, she started to understand that she was the problem with her self-esteem.

Barbara’s self-criticism is at its worst either when she is anticipating a performance or in the moments after a performance. For example, after a successful club show, three people stayed on afterwards to praise her performance. She paid superficial lip service to thanking them and then said to herself: “Why did that young couple leave after the first four songs? They must have thought I was terrible”. She completely forgot about the sincere, unsolicited praise she’d received.

Gene has started commenting on how pervasive and distorted Barbara’s negative self-talk has become. Actually, he’s never even heard the worst of it! Barbara has just started to listen to Gene and to listen-in on herself. She’s become increasingly aware of how she unwittingly hurts herself; in fact, with this awareness, she has just started to change the pattern. How has she done this? By changing one distorted self-criticism at a time.

Self-Talk and Self-Care

Barbara’s story illustrates the relationship between how you talk to yourself and how you feel.

I’m a psychologist from California, and not only that, but the touchy-feely San Francisco Bay Area. You may be thinking about our reputation for wacky or dangerous indulgences or political controversy. Admittedly, we’re still trying to live down certain aspects of the Summer of Love, the peacock feather therapy in the 70’s, naked “streakers”, etc.

Let me reassure you, however, that as psychologists and researchers all over the world benefit from new findings about the brain and the relational context within which it develops, from infancy into adulthood, the topic of self-talk and its counterparts, self-care and self-regulation, have been increasingly recognized as intimate parts of health and well-being. Did I mention that they are also integral parts of your becoming authentically and fully creative?

On a more mundane level, American Superstar, Oprah Winfrey, recently told America how important self-care is after she regained forty unwanted pounds and hit her dreaded 200 pound mark. She wrote: “What I’ve learned this year is that my weight issue isn’t about eating less or working out harder, or even about a malfunctioning thyroid. It’s about my life being out of balance, with too much work and not enough play and not enough time to calm down. I let the well run dry.  I don’t have a weight problem. I have a self-care problem that manifests through weight” (The Oprah Magazine, January 2009).  I doubt you want to argue with scientists, psychologists and Oprah about the centrality of self-care in your life.

One important aspect of self-care is the way in which you talk to yourself, day in and day out. Some of this is so deeply ingrained that we don’t even hear what we’re saying or realize the impact it’s having upon how we feel. We just keep it keeping on.

We absorb much of this invalidating self-talk from our culture as well as from our families. For example, how often have you heard a TV commercial reminding you to worry about your breath, weight, body hair, bodily odors, the status of the car you drive or some such thing? Critical and fear-inducing attitudes fuel distorted self-talk: all-or-nothing thinking; filtering out the positive and magnifying the negative; “catastrophizing” about your fears for the future; and paying little attention to the present moment.

Pushing the DELETE Button

A friend described her conversation with a Buddhist monk as follows:

So, sir, you’ve been meditating for over thirty years. Does that mean that you are no longer judgmental?

The monk laughed and said: Oh, hell no. I’m just as judgmental as ever. I just don’t believe the judgments any more.

As part of improving your self-talk, you will benefit from becoming aware of the judgments you are making and the impact they are having on your life. Getting into the habit of not buying into the pervasive judgments when they arise and just letting them go instead is a good habit to practice. I visualize it as the equivalent of not opening the obvious SPAM in your e-mail—just push the DELETE button when you see it.

Some of you may already be really great at practicing good self-talk, but others can undoubtedly use some help. For the record, good self-care includes owning up to your legitimate shortcomings, so we are not talking here about just sugar-coating or ignoring the things for which you need to take responsibility. Getting grandiose is just as bad as invalidating yourself; in fact, they tend to go together, fuelling each other.

Many of the creative people I have worked with as a psychologist over the last twenty years didn’t have the luxury of learning appropriate self-talk or effective self-care habits in their original families and have had to catch up as adults. In fact, some of my creative clients were taught habitually and unconsciously that their feelings were unimportant and that they were therefore not worthy of loving care.

Until they see the light, people from this kind of background generally keep the invalidation going, except that now they are doing it to themselves. They often feel that they are doing something wrong if and when they try to take care of themselves in a healthy fashion. They feel that they are being downright selfish, guilty, or self-indulgent. They experience loving self-talk and positive self-care as selfish. Consequently, they may judge and resent other people who treat themselves in a more loving way since they don’t give themselves such permission. What a limiting and tragic way to approach oneself or others.

Is it any wonder that from that backdrop, so many people struggle with harsh self-judgments, or perfectionist or grandiose expectations that seriously interfere with their ability to create? This is a pit of invalidating neglect and nonsense.

I now want to teach you some psychological warm-ups to get your inner voice working for you.

Inner Voice Warm-ups.

If you are at all like me, you will initially HATE the idea of having to do any kind of exercise, but think of this as you would a vocal warm-up. This time it’s an inner-vocal warm-up.  It will only take about five minutes.

The first step in improving your self-talk and your self-care is to increase your awareness. I’ve designed this exercise to help you to quiet down and focus upon your immediate experience. This is a way to practice noticing that you are in the present moment.

Before you begin, I’ll give you a little background on this kind of meditation. Mindfulness refers to the process of observing, without judgment, in the present moment. It has a long, deep history in eastern spiritual practices but has been widely adopted more recently in mind-body approaches to health and healing, both secular and spiritual. Developing a regular practice of mindfulness can help you to increase your awareness of your emotions, thoughts, sensations and needs which, in turn, help to guide your actions. Increasing your self-awareness allows you to improve your self-care in all areas.

OK.  Let’s begin.  Just follow these  steps:

Returning To Your Day

When you are ready, gently shift your attention.

Start bringing yourself back into your room and this VoiceCouncil article.

What was your experience of this exercise?

For example, what did you notice about your judgments?

Were you able to label them and let them go?

You have now started to improve your self-care by increasing your awareness of your self-talk.  I invite you to continue to practice a mindfulness exercise daily, this one or one that you have created for yourself or have found elsewhere in the world. In the next article, we will look at self-care in relationships.

Useful Links

Creative Recovery


What Not To Do!

About Susan Raeburn…

Susan Raeburn, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist. She is the co-author of Creative Recovery. Susan maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Berkeley, California, and is a staff psychologist in the Chemical Dependency Services Program at Kaiser Permanente.

© Susan Raeburn and Gregory A. Barker August 2009.

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  • johnkovic

    Doing vocal warmups before singing has helped me calm myself down so many a times before I launch into the actual singing itself. Also, maintaining good posture – keeping my body in the centre and taking deep breaths while singing each phrase will help keep me relaxed throughout the course of singing. Smiling too, helps :)

  • garymckinney

    Once upon a time I dated a girl from Australia. She had this funny little saying that always unnerved me — “Get over yourself!” I'd pick her up for a date or ask her to dance and no matter what I said to her, first thing she'd look over at me and say “Get over yourself!” Everytime I asked her what she meant she only laughed which only added to the mystery. Though I only dated her a few weeks (I think “get over yourself” also indicated that she wasn't excactly keen on me either) it permanently changed me. Here I was this uptight angst-ridden little yuppie full of pretention and self-doubt, but after about a dozen of these “Get Over Yourselfs” I was somehow transformed. It's hard to describe it exactly, but it had the peculiar effect of transforming me into a much more mellower person. The point is that anything — like the article's suggested meditation exercise or breathing exercise or even an unnerving statement which causes you to focus away from your anxiety, away from YOURSELF, can transform you into a more mellow person which the article's Barbara seems to be in such desperate need of.

  • Celeste Simpson

    It sounds like Barbara is more worried about how she feels than what her audience is feeling. To perform is like giving the audience a gift, and she should be striving to make the audience happy instead of herself. I don't have too much sympathy for her. If she keeps it up she'll lose that second husband, too.