Several years ago I was confiding in a friend, an accomplished cellist, my persistent feelings of self-doubt as a violist. This friend attended one of the top conservatories in the world on full scholarship, went to the best summer festivals, had been a member of an acclaimed chamber ensemble, and was touring and recording with a high-profile artist. Naturally, I felt envious.
I told him that I thought that my late start and undistinguished early training had shut me out of the storied institutions where the “real” art must be happening. If only I had gone to a top-notch school, or a major festival, then surely I would feel like an artist, that I had a place in our majestic tradition. “Of course, I’m sure you wouldn’t understand,” I said, “since you’ve been so successful.” I expected him to offer me some cheerful platitudes about my playing and my prospects.
Instead, he shook his head, pointed at his heart and said, “But Nora, I don’t feel like I belong either. I feel like an outsider, too.”
The Myth of Earning Self-Worth
It took me quite a while to find the wisdom in my colleague’s remark. At first, it was too much to fathom, so I disregarded it as his isolated experience. After all, how could my gifted peers suffer from insecurity or dissatisfaction? Didn’t their achievements fill them with enormous self-assurance and joy? I figured once I racked up some more accomplishments I would feel worthy and happy, too. I would know for sure that I had found my rightful place in the world. Why else could I be working so hard?
But it wasn’t so. In the ensuing years I made considerable progress in my playing and my career. But the more I accomplished, and the more real connections I made in the music scene, the more excluded I felt from it. And all the time, I felt envious of my talented colleagues because I imagined their success erased all of their self-doubt and fulfilled their need to belong.
For many of us, it isn’t obvious how to nourish a feeling of belonging, especially if such nourishment hasn’t been modeled for us by our families or teachers. Moreover, the conventional view of being a musician is often framed in terms of zero-sum competition for inclusion, particularly with the emphasis on winning auditions and competitions. The current state of the arts in our economy makes matters even worse—we feel like we need to edge out someone else just to have a space for ourselves. I felt envious of my accomplished colleague because I thought that his success left less room for mine.
The truth is, we are all born with an equal and inalienable right to belong, and if we tune into our most heartfelt desires, we will end up in the right place.
But first we need to let go of some of our habitual ideas about where our worthiness comes from.
Belonging as Your True Self
In the midst of writing this article, I had a painful and revelatory experience. I was passed over for a lucrative and career-boosting gig, and it felt personal. I felt lost for a couple of weeks, and even wondered how I could write something insightful about belonging when I felt so much on the outside. But even amid all of the difficult feelings, I knew there was a powerful lesson for me, and for anyone who struggles with feelings of jealousy and unworthiness.
First of all, I knew I needed help. I sought out friends, family, and colleagues I could trust, explained the situation and how it made me feel. I got a lot of advice, some helpful and some not, but it all gave me a bigger perspective. I saw that my lack of confidence in myself had influenced the situation—people could sense it in me, and they were less drawn to me than to players with more confidence. That realization hurt, but it made me feel like less of a victim.
Next, I spent a long time thinking about the gig itself. What were my motivations for having it? If I really wanted to pursue something similar, how could I do it? I took some long walks and did a lot of sitting meditation, and just let the sadness, anger, and longing flow through me. In the end, I saw that this job I missed out on wouldn’t bring me any closer to my deepest ambitions as a musician. Most of all, I saw that the affirmation of being chosen for the job wouldn’t give me the fulfillment I sought if my heart wasn’t in it.
The Power of Letting Go
I mentally congratulated the colleague who got the job, and, instead of feeling diminished, I felt empowered. I saw how writing this article could help me move past feelings that had kept me stuck for a long time. Once I began to let go of my sadness, new ideas started to flood my system. Projects that had seemed like distant possibilities came to the foreground of my mind, and I took steps toward making them happen. My previously sparse social schedule became filled with coffee dates with artists who I thought could give me advice on how to make my own path. Most of all, I began to see that my vulnerability and self-doubt, which I always thought separated me from other people, were actually powerful forces that connected me to other people who feel the same way.
I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly where I’d like to end up as an artist, or how I will get there. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is that when we embrace who we are at heart, we belong exactly where we are in that moment, and that’s a great place to start.
Steps to Cultivating a Sense of Belonging
If you seek a greater sense of belonging in the musical world, here are a few practical suggestions:
1. When a situation arises that brings up feelings of jealousy, disappointment, or longing for fulfillment, allow yourself to feel them instead of pushing them aside or covering them over. Acknowledging your feelings is the first step to understanding them and changing your outlook.
2. Explore the origins of your feelings in a gentle and probing way. See if you can own them fully, even though they are painful, and take healthy responsibility for your own reaction to the situation.
3. Know that at the root of your feelings is your natural human vulnerability, which you can celebrate as a way to connect with other people.
4. Seek out the company of people you trust. Just hearing how much they value you as a musician and person can make a big difference. They may also have fresh ideas on your situation that can awaken your own insight about what to do.
5. Take some time to remember why you became a musician, and ask yourself how you can bring your musical activities into alignment with your most genuine aspirations
In just a few days I will be returning to Madeline Bruser’s transformational summer program, “Mindfulness, Confidence, and Performance.” I am looking forward to a week of contemplation, community, and keen, heartfelt musicianship. I’d like to leave you with a story from last year’s program.
In one of our amazing group discussions, I described how I saw the tradition of classical music as a vast, ornate building that I longed to enter but could not. I was drawn to its regal facade but felt that the luminous interior had no room for me. A wise friend in the group then turned to me and said, “What you don’t realize is that you’re already inside—you’re just in a different wing. You’re building your space around you.”
His comment helped me realize that in each performance, each lesson, and each moment, we are all adding our own bricks to that sublime architecture, simply by being alive and making music.
Let’s celebrate its grandeur.
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