Worry – what’s the worst thing you can imagine?

The year I turned eleven, I joined all-girl choir that my music teacher ran. It was called The Julia Singers. We met once a week for rehearsals and, each term, put on a show. There’d be a tea party beforehand – every member of the choir was responsible for contributing to the spread. We gathered in the school gym, with our mothers, and stuffed our faces – at least, this is what I did. Then the girls assembled on stage and the concert began.

I was in the back row, right at the end. This was probably because I was one of the weakest singers: placing me on the periphery meant I could do the least harm to the overall quality of the group. I’ve always wanted to be a better singer, but I have to be grateful, now, that I wasn’t at the front.

 Gabriela Blandy

For a lot of people, the thought of delivering a speech before an audience brings feelings of deep apprehension, which is one of the things I am always trying to address in my workshops. This apprehension often acquires a supernatural element: the mind is no longer preparing for logical occurrences, but extreme situations that aren’t likely to happen. Fear multiplies for the very fact that the future promises to be beyond our capability.

I wasn’t nervous about singing that day – I was too busy gorging on cakes and biscuits. Standing up in front of an audience was familiar territory for me; my mind had no need to work through possible threats, trying to resolve them before they happened. This is the adaptive function of worry, allowing us to go over something, so we can avoid calamity. Our imagination enables us to time travel: we contemplate the past so errors aren’t repeated; visualize the future to ensure we’re primed. The mind’s eye is the greatest tool we have – everything that exists on earth that wasn’t created by God or nature first began in someone’s imagination. But if we don’t know how to use this tool it can make our lives miserable, always seeing the worst, preventing us from ever living in the moment.

Gabriela Blandy

As I help myself to another slice of Victoria sponge, slowly licking at the sugar crystals on the cake’s golden top, I am entirely immersed in the present.

Now, we gather to mount the steps onto the stage, moving in a neat line – song sheets held at our sides. The back row stands on two long benches. The girls in front are on the worn, wooden boards of the stage. Gradually, the chatter in the audience drops away. Mothers find a comfortable position in their seats. Someone clears their throat and the piano starts. One bar of music, two bars, three – and on one triumphant note the choir begins.

Halfway through the second song, I feel a sharp ache low down in my stomach. I shift my feet on the bench, take a deep breath in, waiting for the pain to diminish, but it doesn’t. My skin becomes damp. I swallow and shift again, using one hand to press at my tummy, but the pain is growing – beyond something temporary into something urgent. Suddenly weak, I begin to mouth the words. Now we are starting the second piece of the recital. There are four more to go. I feel agitated, pulled apart by a profound sense of boredom and distraction.

I need to fart, to drive out whatever pressure is building up inside me. With the music no one will hear. I’m not worried about the smell – my desire to end the pain in my belly is my only point of focus. I let go and push. For a moment, the ache is diminishing in the wind, but then I feel something warm, gooey. I cannot stop, only stand there with the music going on around me as my pants slowly fill.

I close my eyes. I’m still mouthing the words, but thoughts are pouring into my head, escalating between sensible ideas and the instinct to scream.

 Gabriela Blandy

What I find intriguing with my students is that most of them experience a fear of laying themselves bare when they think of standing in front of a crowd, reading their work out loud. But this very dread, when understood, can guide us. An awareness of exposure kept cavemen alive, stopping them from wandering outside when there were wolves or bears nearby. It prevented me from bursting into tears and wailing that I’d crapped my pants as the rest of the choir launched into the third song.

Instead, I looked right, into the wings, stepped off the bench and crept into the shadows. I made straight for the stage door, into the corridor. Despite my rampant thoughts, I was being held together by something more robust – instinct – which was leading me to a place of refuge.

I continued past the notice boards, through the recreation room with its pool table and comfy chairs. The girls’ toilets were at the other end of the school. I still had to navigate the distance of the dining room. At every moment the worry function of my imagination was conjuring the worst: my pants giving way, a hot leaking down my legs; a brown stain at the back of my summer uniform. Like a computer program running through eventualities, the images came steadily.

I made my way down the steps into the dining room where a dozen members of staff were sitting at the central table, having their own tea. At no point did I make eye contact. I walked with short, fast paces with my legs as close together as possible. The worst part was climbing the stairs at the other end, having to lift my feet up and imagine what might happen as my thighs separated. In my mind, the entire table of staff were staring at me as diarrhoea rained from the sky.

I made it to the door at the top of the stairs and hurried through. I was in the boot room now, which led into the girls’ changing room, so I could hurry unrestrained. No one was about. As I passed the washbasins, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror – overjoyed to see that my summer dress was clean. But what struck me more, was how normal I appeared. Despite everything that had happened, I looked exactly the same as I always did.

If, before the concert, my mind – through worry – had conjured an image of myself crapping my pants on stage, I would have been a wreck before the show even started. There’s no way I could deal with such a situation, I might have told myself.

But I did deal with it.

And – even more than that – no one noticed. Not even my mother. This isn’t because she’s neglectful – my mother was there for every concert and play, every squash and tennis and rounders match I ever had at that school. It’s just that in her world, there was nothing to notice.

The way our mind focuses, in extreme situations, gives a sense that the whole world is watching, knowing. Whilst this is deeply uncomfortable, it also enables us to act beyond ourselves due to this magnified threat.

Gabriela Blandy

When my students talk of how crippled they get with nerves, it reminds me how in fraught moments we are so acutely self-aware that we feel unbearably exposed, but I also know it was those very feelings that held me together. When those sensations come in our imagination – lying on our bed say, trying not to think about the presentation we have to give at work – we are consumed by how awful they make us feel. This is stress – our physical response to a threat. Out of context, it’s an overwhelming experience. That’s because these bodily sensations are designed to enable us to fight or fly. They are not premonitions, which is often the way they leave us feeling.

In the second I realised my attempt at a fart had gone horribly wrong, I never thought I’d be grateful for the experience – I certainly never thought that the invention of something called the internet would allow me to tell this story to people I’d never met. This is the difference between the worst as we imagine it, and genuine reality, which is never really as bad.

Gabriela Blandy

Useful links and shout outs

For those of you who found the ideas on worry, stress and imagination interesting, I suggest taking a look at this lecture by Martin L. Rossman on ‘worrying well‘.

A big thank you to the honest and poetic Phillip for nominating me for an award: ‘always there if you need me’, and for other bloggers who have been checking up on me, during my hiatus.

About gabrielablandy

Some history, a bit of fiction, with me in there somewhere.
This entry was posted in Essay, Memoir and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to Worry – what’s the worst thing you can imagine?

  1. I love your candor! It’s amazing. 🙂 It makes me think I just might be courageously candid in my writing, one of these days…maybe. 😉 Great blog as always. Glad you’re back. Hope all was well.

    • I’m glad that you are praising me for my candor, rather than saying: woah, too much information! There’s a line, I’m sure, and it’s always hard to know which side you’re on. But I’ve learnt (in the 2 months I’ve taken off) that what’s the point in deciding to be a writer if I’m not going to write what my heart tells me to. Thanks for visiting – I was afraid as the weeks went by and I hadn’t posted that no one would come back to me when I finally did 😉

      • I know! I’m just recently back, myself. 🙂 I think a few of us (the bloggers I read and who read me, anyway!) took a break, for various reasons, from what I have been able to tell…

  2. pretzellogic says:

    nice to see you blogging again, gabriela 🙂

  3. Oh how lovely to see a post from you pop up in my email! And I see you have just left a comment on my latest blog post too. I feel bad now though that I wasn’t one of the bloggers who checked up on you during your hiatus, but if it’s any consolation, I did think about you several times and miss you! I just figured you were very busy with your workshops etc. The first part of your post here triggered a memory for me – I used to go to dance classes, and one Christmas our dance teacher invited a load of us round to her house for a Christmas party, and on the invitation it said “Please bring a contribution to the food”. I guess I was about 12 at the time, and I misunderstood and brought £2 instead of a dish (an easy mistake right?). At the door, my teacher laughed a bit and told me what she had meant by ‘a contribution’. Then at one point when we were all in the living room, people were talking about who had brought what, and my teacher said “Vanessa brought £2!” And everyone laughed at me, and I felt so completely humiliated I wanted to cry! It seems so silly now that I would be so bothered by such a trivial thing rather than laughing it off, I’m sure my teacher didn’t mean to be unkind by telling everyone my mistake! Anyway, I realise now how that was NOTHING compared to pooing your pants! OMG you poor thing, and yet you handled it so well!

  4. The terrible thing is something very similar happened to me. I too survived but I feared it would be the end of my life and my reputation which lasted for a few more weeks

  5. Awesome post! Strangely after all those years of performing dance, I totally get stage fright when it comes to speaking in front of people. Teaching is also fine, but speaking in a work environment, or back in my school days…completely different because the fight or flight kicks into overdrive.

    You are spot on with your closing: “This is the difference between the worst as we imagine it, and genuine reality, which is never really as bad.” Embellishing a situation before it has begun is the ultimate doom for many of us.

  6. Letizia says:

    Oh, Gabriela, you really had me laughing today! I was with you at each word, hoping you would make it to the toilets in time! And you found a way to make this story into a wonderful metaphor about our life’s attitudes; just wonderful!

    Great to have you back on the blogosphere! (and I just followed you on twitter to get a double dose!)

    • Wow, a double dose – are you sure you can handle that?!
      Glad to have made you laugh – it makes me realise how cathartic it is not only to share this story, but to be able to really smile about it. Thanks x

  7. Brave post Gabriela, I admire your resolution to be true to what you want to write. I have to do a particular presentation in my job every few months that really scares me and in the past have even considered resigning to avoid it! Yet, when I do it, it always goes well and the buzz of adrenaline I get afterwards is always great – it’s really never as bad as we think it will be.

    • I hear you when you say that you’ve contemplated resigning rather than give the presentation. It is amazing how levels of dread are so abhorrent to us that we will do practically anything to avoid them. But as you say, getting through it leaves a far richer sense – so it’s always worth pushing on, rather than turning back.

  8. Brave story but great lesson at the end.

  9. diannegray says:

    As far as ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen’ goes – this is close to it, Gabriela! I was laughing, but feeling your stress at the same time. The point you make when you said you looked in the mirror to see how normal you appeared is really interesting. I think when things happen to us like this we think everyone can see, but that’s not always the case. This is a wonderful post – it made my day and I’m so glad you’re back 😀

    • Dianne – your enthusiasm makes my day!
      Yeah, this is pretty much a worst case scenario, isn’t it? I’ve got a couple more – would you believe! I’m glad that moment in the mirror resonated for you. I do think for me that it is the moment the whole experience hinges on – that instant I felt like I learned something really profound.

  10. killkaties says:

    It’s good to be able read your blog once more, Gabriela. Welcome back.

  11. Eve Vamvas says:

    Glad to have you back, Gabriela, even with a crapping story!
    I spend a lot of my time as a parent preparing children for eventualities, practically and psychologically, and often end up saying “so what’s the worst thing that could happen?” to put the brakes on their fears. I also say it to myself, setting out on a long run (answer: decide to hail a cab), and starting a new piece of writing (answer: it’s rubbish and I’ll have to make it better). Never is the worst thing that could possibly happen, rationally thought through, insurmountable.

    • At least it’s not a crap story 😉
      I like that insight into your own process – especially the running one. I’ve actually never thought about hailing a cab as my worst, but I do dread having to stop and then walk home – and then every time I pass someone, feeling a magnified sense of their thoughts about me being a failure, which I guess are my own thoughts…

  12. annewoodman says:

    Gabriela, How nice to see a post from you! I agree: the imaginary scenarios are almost always 100 times worse than the actual worst thing that can happen. This past week, our Miss USA gave an embarrassing answer to a question in front of millions of people. It really was horrible. But I think everyone could relate to that sense of distress… of your mind going completely blank… of your worst fears coming true. I’m glad you lived to tell about your experience… and that no one ever had to know, except us bloggers, years later!

    • Hey Anne, great to hear from you!
      Oh, that’s a sad story about Miss USA. It made me realise that crapping yourself in front of a roomful of mothers (who have seen it before a million times) and actually doing something on national TV are in different leagues. This is one reason to be thankful that I haven’t realised my lifelong ambition to be massively famous!!

  13. Funny and horrifying at the same time! But I love what you say about how normal you looked, even to yourself, and often that’s the way it is when the most embarrassing things happen–because being embarrassed occasionally is a normal part of life. Your workshops like that they must be great fun with all the interesting stories you have to tell.

    • Thankfully, the horror has disappeared for me and I can now just giggle about the whole thing – but it took a little while to fade!
      As for my workshops, I certainly enjoy teaching them, and there’s usually a bit of laughing that goes on 😉

  14. Chris Edgar says:

    I love the rawness of this. I’ve always thought that the neurotic social norm that everyone must conceal their excretory functions at any cost, to the point of hurting themselves if necessary, is destructive. This norm seems to stem from the need to convince each other that we’re so pristine and beautiful that we don’t even shit. Perhaps we could feel more connected to each other if we watched each other excrete once in a while. 🙂

    • Chris, I love your comment! I think you have a great point there. In the pub the other night I was actually asking my friends why I had crapped myself so much more than anyone else I knew. After we talked about it for a while, it became clear that perhaps I was the only one who shared my experiences, and everyone else was maintaining the pristine image, as you call it.

  15. laurasmess says:

    Gabriela, this is such a refreshingly honest post! Argh, thanks for sharing your difficult experience with us… I definitely feel that it’s helped me to put embarrassing moments into perspective. So glad that you’re back. I was thinking of you frequently also. Glad that you’re feeling somewhat refreshed now. I wish I could attend one of your workshops! x

    • Thanks for your lovely words, Laura. As I read through each thoughtful comments, I keep asking myself – how did I cope without all this wonderful validation?!? It’s certainly good to be back. I too wish you could come to a workshop. Perhaps one day I’ll be doing them all around the world…just think of all the different countries I could crap my pants in 😉

      • laurasmess says:

        Haha, yes it’d be wonderful if you were able to share your skills worldwide (the… uh, workshop part, not the ‘crapping your pants’ skills!). I’d definitely promote you over here! And I’m glad that you’re loving being back on the blogging scene. Just know that we genuinely appreciate and respect all you do. You’re inspiring. Sending you a hug! xx

  16. Gabs!! I was so happy to see this post in my inbox but so sad that it took me a couple of days to get to it. Let me get the “thank you for the shout out” out of the way, because the best part of this post was your story. 🙂

    Your honesty demonstrates why you are such an amazing writer. I felt for little Gabriela as I remembered all of those truly insignificant end-of-the-world events that I’ve faced in my life. I wish I could say they ended when I “grew up” but I think I’m still waiting for that to happen. The only thing that’s changed is the subject matter.

    But thank you for the reminder that reality is tame compared to the imagination. I think the minds of creative types are a mixed blessing; we can dream up the most exhilarating things yet conjure up frights beyond compare.

    • Phillip – you rock!
      You are so right about the imagination – I spend a lot of time with my writing students, teaching them how to harness their minds so that their imagination doesn’t turn into their enemy. As for you saying that you still face end-of-the-world events, I know what you mean. I’ve come to realise that physically I can’t change the way I feel in any situation – that’s just biology – but what I can do is change the way I ‘think’ about that. I’ve gotten pretty good at it so that at times I can walk down the street and say: wow, you are really feeling like complete dog shit, aren’t you? and somehow, acknowledging it like that, my mind turns into my best friend and it’s all okay.

  17. Life isn’t all clean undies after a worst-case scenario, but sometimes it helps to look back on that awful time, knowing you got through it.

    Good to have you back, Gabriela. 🙂

    • Tim, I appreciate you welcoming me back. I hope you’ve been well.
      I have to say – looking back on that moment, and writing about it, makes me realise that wonderful things can come out of the worst situations!

  18. Lovely story Gabriela, I was on tenterhooks until you got safely to the loos… The whole thing sounded like a dress rehearsal for the nightmare of worrying about one’s period… !
    And yes, yes, yes, worrying and crossing bridges before we have to is a waste of good life!!!

    • Ha – worrying about periods! Now there’s some subject matter…
      Your last point is very spot on – how many hours does the world waste? I find that in summer, because my garden makes me so happy, I spend most of my free time in the moment, looking at my plants and it’s heaven!

  19. gotasté says:

    So glad to see your post my friend. “The way our mind focuses, in extreme situations, gives a sense that the whole world is watching, knowing. Whilst this is deeply uncomfortable, it also enables us to act beyond ourselves due to this magnified threat.” This is so true and I have experienced it so many times. It is comforting to know that I will get to read your beautiful writings again. And feel that you are close by. Welcome back. 🙂

    • Danny what a lovely welcome back for me. I thank you!
      I’m glad you found something in here for you. The best part of writing about terrible moments is the thought that someone will read and find it useful.

  20. Firstly I apologise for commenting so late, time is an issue with all of us and I finally grabbed some to properly read yours instead of rushing my way through it. May I firstly say Welcome Back Gabs!! As you can see there are many who enjoy you and have missed you. Your post of bravery is no exception! I felt for you and sadly laughed, I can imagine how you must have felt, but you do raise the interesting point of how our external persona can be so very different to our internal. Stress, anxiety brought upon by merely contemplating a moment in our lives that we aren’t comfortable with, can lead to hibernation, tears, depression. Learning how to handle our moments without calling for the white jacket with buckles, is sometimes easier for some more than others. I can stand up in front of people and speak, read, yet if I experienced what you did, I would be a blithering mess! You did well my lovely and I am so pleased to read your posts once again. xxxx

    • Jen, you little superstar!
      About you being a blithering mess – you wouldn’t! If someone had told me this story, before it had happened to me, I too would have thought that I would never be able to handle it if it was me. But, when it’s you, something extra kicks in – survival! I’m not suggesting you try it, but I am saying that the human being is really an incredible invention 😉

  21. Mayumi-H says:

    It’s actually quite comforting that so horrifying a story – I cringed when I read what happened on that stage! – comes with such insight attached.

    You’re right, Gabriela: fear (and mortification) often gives way to that most basic response of fight or flee – thankfully so! I had a similar experience as a young girl, getting my period in the middle of a live performance, with nowhere to get away. I fought my way through, though, constantly tugging at the back of my costume. Standing up in front of an audience these days is cake, compared to that moment! 🙂

    Welcome back from your hiatus. What a way to come back, too!

  22. I admire your honesty and respect you for having the guts to share a private and embarrassing incident. I always remember that F.E.A.R. stands for Fear Exceeds Actual Reality and that helps me get through any worrying situations. 🙂

  23. It may seem cruel to say it but I really “enjoyed” your post and the insights you drew from the incident. Apart from writing my day job is 1:1 coaching and when helping a client to find a way forward I often use the question “well what’s the worst that could happen?” and when they really start to imagine the worst, the fear diminishes and sometimes just goes “pouf” and vanishes. Thank you for the post…I felt for little G, I truly did. 🙂

  24. Thanks for sharing such a personal story. It is good to “see” you back. 🙂 I missed your insightful posts.

  25. Great post!! How much energy we waste worrying about things that don’t happen!

  26. dayya says:

    Enjoyed this post! Thank you for visiting pendrifter! d:)

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