I’m an introvert. It’s a challenge for me to overcome feeling isolated and unloved – to basically get myself out there, even for necessary obligations. I’d much rather hole up and write, practice, or hang out with my family.
This is big a contrast to who I am on stage when I appear to audiences to be outgoing, engaged, charming, and extroverted…sometimes even humorous. If you’ll hang with me through this article, I’ll try to explain how I’ve been able to accomplish the shift between introvert and extrovert in a way that might be helpful to you.
It starts with a story about who I am…well, the story is about how I began to learn who I really am. I’m still learning. Here’s the story….
Who Am I?
This question still frightens me. I was picked last for any sports team. I was the one who asked too many questions in class. The Geek. The Nerd. Flooded pants in the 60s and platform shoes in the 70s, when I tried hard to find a clique that fit me and failed. It just seemed like no one was as depressed and isolated as I felt. But I discovered something during that uncomfortable, middle-school period of my life: I had a superpower.
I didn’t really think of being able to the play the piano as a superpower. It took me forever to learn music, and performing at piano recitals with all the other introverted kids was mostly a drag. It was hard for me to play piano, but it was a habit that I’d maintained since my Mother started me on lessons at age three, and I was fairly good at it. Even then, though, I realized I didn’t have any kind of professional future playing Classical piano.
Fortunately, In Mom’s stacks of music, I found a piece of ragtime called “The 12th Street Rag” and I learned to play it. That benign rebellion against my Classical piano lesson track – or perhaps in addition to it – was my first step toward really owning the superpower I didn’t yet know I had.
The Big Risk
The school I attended back then had regular assemblies, and sometimes the more talented students would play the piano, or dance, or recite poetry. To this day, I can’t say for certain why I volunteered to play at one of these assemblies, but I did. Maybe it was my rebellious streak making its first public outing (I was also a handful as a kid). What I know for sure is that my life changed forever at that assembly. It would be the first time I really took my superpower into public, but I didn’t know that…yet…because as confident as I was about the music I wanted to play, I was also terrified.
On the big day, I was invited to the piano – one of those sawed-off uprights that we politely call a “spinet” – there’s a pic nearby. The school principal, Mrs Williams, could really make that spinet sing, and she did so regularly for music classes and assemblies.
As I made my way up to the piano, which was in the corner of a big assembly hall, I saw Mrs Williams watching, and the lump in my throat got bigger.
“The 12th Street Rag” is actually supposed to be performed fairly fast. It’s a sort of ragtime two-step, and dances normally don’t drag on and on and on, especially ragtime two-steps, but I was a fifth-grader with limited pianistic abilities and no grasp of turn-of-the-century American piano music, so my performance was going to be as fast as I could play the piece, which meant SLOW.
I didn’t know any other way.
I sat down at the piano and started to play. It was deathly silent in the assembly hall; I don’t think anyone I knew expected me to be able to play the piano, let alone that I’d play such a bizarre piece of music. The two friends I had at that school were into Elton John, whom I secretly admired, but I had no clue how to play his music and, because of how much time I spent practicing, I didn’t have time to listen to AM radio, either. In truth, I probably would have gotten into trouble for listening to rock and roll!
I finished the introduction and came to a brief stop before beginning the first strain. Everyone in the room started to applaud.
The Big Oops
I knew from going to symphony concerts that this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. One waits until the conductor puts down the baton before applauding. People who clapped at the wrong place in concerts got snooty looks. But there I was, at the piano, facing the wall, with my back to the audience, and plenty of 12th Street Rag left to perform. I had two choices:
- Pretend it was over, stand up, bow, and take my seat;
- Keep playing.
I decided to keep playing, and hunkered down on the first strain. After a while, that came to an end with a big cadence. I paused as I had at the end of the introduction. Everyone started to applaud again, and with enthusiasm, as if they wished I’d finish, bow, and sit down.
Just to remind you, I was playing really, really slowly, so at this point, I may have been three or four minutes into the performance. That was about as long as anyone I’d heard at a piano recital or one of our school assemblies had ever played, but I was only about a third done with the piece, and I realized, to my chagrin, that people would probably clap two more times, provided I made it all the way through without being cut off or losing my nerve.
I’d seen plenty of kids try to play a piece and forget the notes, or make a mistake and get too scared to go on, and then just shuffle off the stage, embarrassed. That was a real possibility for me, too, that day.
Looking sideways, I could almost see Mrs Williams. She looked hopeful and a little amused. She must have known that there were two more strains in The 12th Street Rag and was simply waiting for me to begin playing the next one. At least, she didn’t look like she’d be giving me the hook.
So, I turned back to the keyboard and began to play the second strain.
Fooled by My Own Brain
Musicians’ minds wander, too, sometimes in the middle of a performance. Part of the practice is to make our muscle memory robust enough to carry things when our minds check out, and I’m glad to say that my hands kept going even as my mind began to grind away on a predicament that was facing me. In fact, the closer I got to the end of the second strain, the more anxious that predicament made me. You see, my wandering mind knew everyone was going to clap again – in the wrong place between the second and final strains – and I had no idea what to do about it.
My brain just wanted to get through the thing so I could escape the spotlight and go sit down. Trouble was, I was stuck there at the piano, moments away from being interrupted for the third time by this very unsympathetic, unschooled audience, who only wanted me to be finished already, and I was getting jittery.
Sure enough, the second strain ended with its big cadence, and everyone started clapping again. It bothered me so much that I quickly turned sideways a little bit to try to signal that there was more to come. I saw the last thing my introverted brain expected.
Instead of polite, “thank you very much now go sit down” applause, everyone was smiling, applauding enthusiastically, and actually seemed to be enjoying the moment! My brain short-circuited; it hadn’t been able to forecast THIS!
I doggedly turned back to the keyboard, knocked out the third strain, stood up (quite relieved), and bowed. As you can probably guess, the applause was overwhelming.
But there’s more…
Within the year, a movie came out that changed everything for me. The Sting re-introduced America to ragtime music, and I was hooked, along with a significant chunk of my ever-growing circle of friends. I was able to rapidly learn a bunch of Scott Joplin’s music from the movie and began to jump at opportunities to perform it casually for groups of friends after school.
Oddly, no one complained when I’d throw in Rachmaninoff or Beethoven along with the great ragtime composers. People enjoyed the music; I felt validated and appreciated, even though I was still the odd, quirky, introverted – and yes, still quite depressed – adolescent boy who was usually picked near the last for any softball, soccer, or flag football team.
But I didn’t mind being all that quite mind so much anymore. I’d started to use my superpower.
The Lesson of Feeling Isolated and Unloved
I’ve come to view the risk I took at that assembly as a transformative moment. It didn’t fix everything, of course, but it was a step in the right direction. After that performance of The 12th Street Rag, lots of people I hadn’t known before took an interest in me. At first, being so introverted, that felt very strange and I was uncertain how to respond. Even though I couldn’t play soccer well, guys started inviting me to join their pick-up teams during recess. I still wasn’t a very social person, but the close friendships I made that year lasted until we all graduated – in one case, all the way to today.
Of course, I didn’t magically stop feeling isolated and unloved back then, but those feelings were kicked down a notch. That means, because I took a crazy risk, I felt a bit more connected and appreciated.
You can, too. Take the crazy social risk (it really isn’t all that crazy)! Understand: I’m not encouraging you to do anything actually dangerous, please! It will seem like an impossible thing for you to do, but in the grand scope of all possible social risks, playing a novel piece of music for an audience of school kids really wasn’t threatening or dangerous, even though it felt that way to me at the time! You probably have some ideas of similar social risks you could take.
The Reward for Taking the Risk
The reward for putting it out there like that isn’t something anyone can predict. People have told me that it was all in my head in the first place, and maybe that’s true, but discovering my superpower was the reward for the risk I took that day. I haven’t stopped practicing ever since, and it gets better and better, bit by bit. Superpowers are like that; they improve with practice.
The other thing about superpowers is that you don’t really know if you have them until you take that risk. Lots of movies get this right. From Superman to The Matrix to Star Wars, the reluctant hero must get into trouble before his or her superpower emerges. Only then – not before – it can help save the universe.
My Latest Big Risk
Look: I know feeling isolated and unloved sucks. That was how I spent a lot of my life growing up, and there are times I still feel like that today. It may be a universal thing everyone feels from time to time. Some of us feel it more strongly than others. OK. Now what?
A lifelong friend took his own life in the early 2000’s. No one knew what he was going through. I’ve felt suicidal like that, too. It’s the loneliest feeling I’ve ever had, this knowing that there’s no one to talk to who would understand. People want – nobly – to “prevent” me from killing myself. They want to talk me out of it. They don’t want listen to me process that feeling. I still feel that way from time to time, and it’ still lonely. So I started a Meetup for people who are suicidally ideated or have lost someone that way or feel lonely and isolated because of such things. Now, when those feelings grip me, I’m no longer lonely or isolated.
The Bottom Line
Isolation, loneliness, feeling unworthy, whatever the downer is that takes you…those are opportunities to unlock your superpower(s). Yes, you can have more than one!. Here’s how I practice when that kind of opportunity confronts me in just two simple steps:
- Take the risk to fully embody the feeling you don’t want. Let it completely consume you (yes: that’s a big risk). I did in that moment of anxiety where I felt like walking away from the piano, and you can, too. You’ve got this.
- Stay aware of how deep you can dive into a feeling that way. Pay attention to what’s happening around you as you do. Hold on for as long as you can. Don’t let go until your superpower emerges, even just a little bit.
I promise you that all the wisdom literature you can find on this process – from the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel to poet David Whyte’s “Well of Grief” to all those movies I mentioned earlier – all of this supports your potential for finding and embodying your superpower.
Stuck? Learn More About How To Overcome Feeling Isolated and Unloved
We all could use a little help now and then! Getting the ball rolling out of isolation and unloved-ness is the hardest part. Practice and accountability help. You can do this. And you’re not alone. You can work alongside us to help supercharge your process. Contact us here.
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How To Overcome Feeling Isolated And Unloved
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