I'm a full time music student at the moment, and I'm loving learning how to write songs, perform in front of people and express myself through music. Music is great because it deals with both the analytical and emotional side of our brain.
However, the irrational nature of emotions means that they don't always arise just when we want them to. Most of us are still carrying unhealed emotional baggage from our past which can get triggered in what might otherwise seem fairly innocuous situations. This can make dealing with unexpected upsets challenging both in ourselves and in other people.
In yesterday's guitar class, I got triggered by my teacher's response to what I though was a fairly intelligent question about whether the best way to improvise over a chord sequence in a major key would be by using the associated relative minor scale. My engineering brain thought that this would lead to less potential dissonance; but for any other budding musicians out there the answer turns out to be No: you use the minor pentatonic scale of the same key.
The thing that triggered me was the way the teacher, who I generally get on really well with and have a great deal of respect for, answered my question. "Why would you want to go to all that trouble?", he replied at some length.
As his response denouncing my suggestion went on and on, I started to feel humiliated. It didn't seem like a stupid question to me, but it was clear that I was overthinking the problem. The more we interacted about it, the more upset I got.
It was pretty clear to me why I was upset, and it wasn't really anything to do with the minor pentatonic scale. The situation was reminding me of several painful experiences from the past that were being triggered:
- Teachers and students who ridiculed students who asked "foolish", novel or free-thinking questions at school.
- My mother ridiculing my father for anything he said that she considered "stupid" during their many heated arguments.
- Any time I've had a valid point to make that's been misunderstood or unappreciated by someone who didn't get where I was coming from.
I learned that being right was very important from the arguments between my parents that I found so frightening as a child, where my narcissistic mother would humiliate and defeat my father with her fast-thinking aggressive logic and emotionally abusive put-downs. The lack of proper resolution to these conflicts left me walking on eggshells as a kid. As a result my nervous system still equates being wrong with danger, punishment and defeat.
Add to that all the times at school or church where I got punished or ridiculed for saying or doing anything the teachers thought was "wrong"; even when they were the one that was mistaken.
Hence, I get emotionally triggered when being ridiculed or humiliated for saying or doing anything "wrong", especially in public.
Then on top of feeling upset, I found myself feeling ashamed for being upset in front of the rest of the class. While it's difficult to always know where our unconscious programming comes from, I'm pretty sure this one was a very strong lesson I got initially from my narcissistic mother who always hid her feelings, which was then heavily reinforced by Australian society where most men are ashamed of feelings like hurt and sadness.
A short while later the teacher told the class "I'm worried I've upset Graham", which didn't help any with my feelings of shame. At that point I just wanted to be left alone to hide under a rock somewhere. My inner critic was already doing a number on me with thoughts like: "I'm never going to make it as a musician if I can't even control my feelings in class, let alone on stage", "This isn't going to work", "I'm too sensitive" etc etc.
Any further comment the teacher made to the class about upsetting me just made me feel even worse. He was probably making light of it in an attempt to cheer me up and restore the usually positive rapport between us, but it wasn't working for me.
Later on I was still in a foul mood and the teacher asked me directly if he had upset me, so I told him the truth: "Yes, you did"
In hindsight that's actually only half true. What really happened was I got upset in reaction to his response to my question, which is a more empowering way of looking at the situation than to say that he "upset me".
He responded with some lengthy rationalization that I didn't find helpful and hence don't remember.
When the guy next to me later asked if I was OK and I said I was upset, he laughed heartily; which didn't feel good for me either. I guess he was uncomfortable with the idea of me being upset too.
By the end of the theory section of the class my hurt feelings had calmed down a little, and I just wanted to get on with playing some music. I went to the teacher to ask for an electric guitar lead, and he asked "What was it that upset you in class?"
"I don't want to talk about it", I replied; which was only partly true.
I'm still learning to be comfortable with conversations where people apologize to each other when feelings are hurt. This wasn't something I experienced growing up in my family of origin, and that caused me to internalize a great deal of pain and shame that otherwise could have been healed with a simple apology.
While part of me wanted the opportunity to talk the experience through and get it resolved, I was afraid of having my feelings invalidated yet again. "My feelings don't matter" is my old story.
My reticence to discuss it was compounded by the feeling of shame I was experiencing about getting upset over my teacher's over-zealous rejection of the idea behind my question. My emotional reaction was so strong because of all the painful past experiences that the scenario triggered, and a busy classroom isn't the time or place to process all that emotional baggage. That's what therapy is for.
Nevertheless, my teacher replied: "Well I do (want to talk about it)".
"I just got triggered by the way you answered my question", I said.
My teacher was clearly feeling uncomfortable at having "upset me", and replied with some more rationalizations. I just let him talk, thinking: "Is this about me, or is this about you?"
It turned out that he'd had a stressful morning before class himself which probably contributed to him responding more aggressively than he normally would have. If it hadn't been for my emotional baggage being triggered, I probably would have laughed it off too.
Eventually he concluded with: "I'm really sorry. It wasn't my intention to upset you." Or something along those lines; it's hard to remember accurately what people say when we're upset. We hugged it out, and I got my guitar lead. I don't hold it against him. Well, not much anyway.
I spent the afternoon jamming with other students, which was fun. I still felt pretty flat though. When I got home to the privacy and safety of my apartment, I felt a rush of emotion and started to cry as the trauma of all the old emotional baggage came out. It felt rough at the time, but was ultimately a relief. As one of my mentors says, "The healing is in the expression of the feeling."
Having discharged more of the emotional charge attached to my old memories of being humiliated for "getting things wrong", next time around I won't be so triggered and will probably be able to just think "wow, the teacher is in a bad mood today".