Social media is a major anxiety trigger for me. I am a chronic worrier. Anxiety is part of my daily life. This March as the Coronavirus Pandemic spread, my time online became paralyzing. As singers tried to stay connected, finding creative ways to process their grief, I only felt more alone and afraid.
The paralysis fed into other areas of my life, leaving me unable to focus on everything from practicing to putting away groceries. I signed off for a couple of months to focus on my mental health, and to reconsider my professional relationship with social media. During that time, I questioned some of the advice I’ve been given—by teachers and mentors in graduate school, professional singers I admire, administrators at training programs I’ve attended, and even colleagues and friends—about how to use it.
Throughout my education, social media has been a common topic. In graduate school, visiting artists and administrators gave opinions on it in masterclasses. Many of my teachers discussed it during class. My peers and I traded strategies. Social media conduct also appeared in talks about the singing business at my summer training programs.
Invariably, these conversations concerned the boundary between professional and personal content. The most common (and, quite frankly, most confounding) advice was that professional social media should contain my essence—my brand—without being too personal. “People will Google you,” one artist’s representative warned. Though the line between the broad categories of professional and personal was always stressed, I fail to recall anyone explaining how to draw it.
As an anxious person, I tend to view my anxiety as a bad thing. I fixate on how it gets in my way. My therapist approaches it from a different perspective. Her first step is always validation. When I feel foolish for being anxious, she might say, "of course you feel that way" or "that feeling is very common." Of all she’s shown me, this strategy helped the most.
Validation tells us we aren't alone, even when we feel isolated. It demonstrates patience and kindness. The more my therapist models it, the more I do it on my own. The more I do it, the more I respect my feelings as they come. The more I respect my feelings, the more willing I am to choose effective forms of coping over self-sabotaging habits. Validation has helped me show my compassion. Validation isn’t the end of the process, but you can’t skip it.
Most of us are quick to invalidate ourselves. Over time, we've learned to think some feelings (happiness or gratitude, for example) are good for us, while others (sadness, anger, jealousy) are bad. Good feelings will make people like us. Good feelings will get us what we want. Good feelings are personal, but not too personal. When we feel bad feelings, we push them away or try to dress them up as good ones.
But bad feelings don't go away when we avoid them. They bite harder.
Lately, I’ve thought more about what "too personal" means in the context of something so personal as singing. Singing is a deeply individualized, vulnerable skill. In learning to do it, we receive criticism and rejection with astounding frequency. Processing those two things is hard enough when they're directed at our voices, let alone our identities.
Much of the feedback we receive as young singers targets our identities, bodies, and choices. I know many queer singers, myself included, who’ve received advice (usually unsolicited) from teachers, conductors, and/or administrators to “tone it down” and choose a more traditional gender presentation. I know of multiple competition feedback sessions (and one major YAP interview) where the topic du jour was what all the singers are doing to lose weight. I know women of all ages who have felt shamed by teachers, mentors, and colleagues for wanting to have children, the choice viewed as little more than an obstacle to their singing.
Our industry gets personal with us constantly, and increasingly so as we pass through graduate school. We make sweeping personal adjustments in pursuit of professional success, a truth our social media reflects. So many of us have logged hours tailoring our professional image, curating what we post to make ourselves seem bigger, stronger, and more attractive than we feel.
And we don't always feel good. We can feel jealous, comparing ourselves to our peers. We feel angry, at how complicated the career can be, at ourselves for putting up with it for so long. We feel disappointed, by money spent and opportunities lost, by apprenticeship programs that won't hear us no matter how often we apply, or by our work. These feelings are scary, and if there’s anything that feels too personal, it’s fear.
In her writing on coping with COVID-19 as a musician, psychologist Julie Jaffee Nagel gives us a helpful reminder. "There is no right or wrong feeling," she writes, "There is no rational or irrational thought. Feelings are feelings—period." This is a powerful statement of validation. When we recognize that the things we feel are neither right nor wrong, they are merely feelings in need of our attention, we open ourselves to what they can teach us. I wish the advice I heard about social media lent itself more to this empowering understanding.
I do not mean to suggest that every feeling I have deserves airtime on my website or my Facebook artist page. I am also not suggesting that everyone who has told me to avoid being too personal has meant to stifle my self-expression and that they are all, consequently, responsible for my emotional challenges. I do think, though, that the broad categories of personal vs. professional are insufficient as a basis for talking about social media use.
I prefer to consider the boundary between what is personal and what is private.
The language of too personal is dangerous precisely because it is vague. It doesn’t account for the constancy with which our personal and professional lives influence one another, and it can lead us to push away some of our most instructive feelings. Reframing the dialogue around the concept of privacy can be empowering. When something is private, I am in control. I get to decide how and when I want to share it. This new boundary encourages us to think critically and decide on our own terms what aspects of our feelings and experiences we want to share.
Having grown up gay in the South, I am well-acquainted with messages about how I should present myself. I made daily adjustments to my behavior, manipulating how I spoke, walked, and dressed well into college. I grew up suppressing who I was to make myself safer, keeping in line with the values others seemed to admire.
Somewhere along the way, I chose what I value. I decided to move through my life from a place of integrity, contrary to what I had been told and shown. I could not have given myself a greater gift at the time, and I am still uncovering its power.
As I return to social media, I have similarly begun to consider my values. My anxiety is a critical part of my professional skillset. It gives me strategies to deal with challenging feedback, to process rejection, to communicate well, and to motivate myself. It is a matter of personal integrity for me to make this aspect of my life more visible, deciding for myself what I want to keep private. I have always had the power to do this, but that power can be difficult to claim when clouded by vague, invalidating messages about professional conduct.
But this decision isn’t only for my sake. It is true, the more we align with our values, the more there may be people who don’t share them. But far more compelling to me is the prospect that my openness might make someone else feel less alone. I might never have come out of the closet if it weren’t for role models.
Social media isn’t only a tool of advancement, it is a space for fostering community and finding strength through connection. During this time at home and online, I encourage you to consider how you represent yourself through social media. What do you conceal, and why? What are you afraid of? How do you handle your fear, and what can it teach you? The answers won’t be the same for everyone. Affirm your feelings and empower yourself to make choices from what you find.
Validation isn’t the end of the process, but you can’t skip it.
Bryce McClendon, a countertenor from Greenville, South Carolina, received his M.M. from the University of Michigan and currently resides in the DMV Metropolitan area, where he enjoys cooking elaborate meals and reading too many books at once.