A Subway Ride to Remember: How my Humiliation is Your Therapy for the Day

When you ride the subway in New York City alone, you have a small number of options to pass the time: read a book or newspaper, study the advertisements along the top of the car, ponder society’s ills, pretend to be important and play with your Blackberry, listen to music or even make conversation with the stranger sitting/standing next to you. Due to the very close proximity of a crowded subway car and because native New Yorkers have a tendency to be cranky, this last option will likely get your groin kicked or your throat slit.

I used to read a lot on the subway but I’ve recently caught up with technological advances and started downloading some music onto my iPhone. I only have about nine songs on there so far, my musical Brady Bunch if you will. Even more pathetic is that I generally listen to only two of the songs over and over, Creep by Radiohead and Say it Ain’t So by Weezer. This is because they are not only great works of music, but because each has a personal significance. Creep was one of the first (and only) songs that I learned to play on the guitar, and my teacher was dumbfounded that I could accomplish it. Not because it’s a particularly difficult song but because I’m simply not very talented. Say it Ain’t So and I were introduced right after college ended, during a time when I was doing a lot of soul-searching about my future and what I wanted for my life. Every time I hear it I get nostalgic and wonder what the future would have held if I had just married that Swedish model who was so tragically in love with me. But I digress.

On a recent subway ride downtown I was in a car that, although not completely full (perhaps 30 people), had enough passengers that I couldn’t get a seat. Rather than holding onto one of those filthy poles that run from the roof to the floor I leaned against the back of the car and put my headphones on. For this ride it was again going to be me, Radiohead and Weezer. While having your wallet stolen is always a slight risk on the subway, I closed my eyes to listen to the first few guitar notes of Creep. I quickly felt myself fading away in the tune, remembering the moment that I could move my fingers around the fret board and produce the same sounds.


But I’m a creep…I’m a weirdo…what the hell am I doin’ here…I don’t belong here…I don’t belong here.

By the time Say it Ain’t So started I was really feeling it, taking in that emotion that only comes from music, that feeling of being immersed in the beats and pitches. All the sounds around me were blocked out: the train on the rails, the muffled conversation about our shitty economy, the crackle of the New York Post with A-Rod on the back. And as the bridge to the song began it was as if the sound had completely enveloped me.

Dear Daddy, I write you, in spite of years of silence.

Foot tapping…

You’ve cleaned up, found Jesus, things are good or so I hear.

Head bobbing.

This bottle, of Stevens, awakens ancient feelings…

White Man’s Overbite as the guitar solo approaches.

Like father! Stepfather! The son is drowning in the floooooooddddd! Yeah, yeah yeah, yeah yeah!!!!

As the dystonic solo began I could feel my fingers strumming on my air guitar. I opened my eyes in a moment of self-consciousness and realized it was awfully quiet for a subway. A teenage girl a few feet in front of me giggled and two guys in suits were stifling their laughter. And most of the other people were simply staring at me.

As the crimson overtook my face I realized I had been singing. Loudly, in retrospect. And since we had apparently just left the previous subway stop, there was no darting out of the train to avoid the inevitable. I was going to be the subject of ridicule, at least for a few minutes.

“Um…sorry,” I said, as if that would solve everything.

We’ve discussed how I encourage clients to psychologically handle embarrassment here. Years ago I, like many people currently in therapy, would have wanted to crawl into the closest hole and die and quick and painless death. This is because the moment would have confirmed deep-seated thoughts that many of us have which come out during times of social clumsiness : I’m such an idiot, people will now see I’m weak/flawed/defective, I’m inferior, etc. But that is neither true nor adaptive. So I posed to myself the same questions I tell clients to ask themselves:

1) Is it factually accurate that people are focused on me? Yes, of course they were.

2) If so, do they truly care all that much about what I’m saying or doing? Maybe. They seemed intent on watching what I would do next.

3) If they do care, for how long? In other words, will they remember something I’ve said or done, something foolish perhaps, in a few hours? How about a few days or weeks? They might remember. Hell, they may even share this story at a party with friends one day: “I saw this big-headed guy bust out in song on the subway!” But is this going to be the focus of their day? Doubtful. The world doesn’t revolve around me or my actions and everyone else ultimately has more important things to do.

4) If these people who I’m not even all that close with do ultimately care so much about what I say or do, who the hell cares? At this exact second, I care. Will I care in five minutes? Probably. I might care even a day or two from now. But after that? Fuck no. That’s a waste of my time. Time that could be spent listening to my other seven songs!

At that point my mortification changed to a more manageable embarrassment, at least to the point where I didn’t consider throwing myself under the car on the parallel track. And a few hours, it was mostly forgotten. Of course I made the mistake of telling Dr. John what happened to me, to which he replied, “You’re such a fuck-up. The best part of you ran down your mother’s leg.” Not cool.

I share this story of raging idiocy specifically for those people who are caught up in others’ perceptions of them, who are consistently worried about saying or doing the “wrong thing.” It’s not to impress you with how I handled myself after the fact; rather to impress upon you the cognitive mechanisms we can all use to decrease that odious anxiety and self-consciousness we want to purge.

Clients often say that they will ask the questions above but don’t get immediate results. Neither did I. Change is a process, not an event. It something that needs to be practiced and incorporated into who you are. If we don’t consistently challenge the thoughts that generate the humiliation and notion that other people are and will remain focused on us, we will be at the mercy of always trying to behave flawlessly.

If any of you have other tunes with which you’d like me to regale my fellow New Yorkers with on the subway, just use the Contact tab and let me know.

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29 Responses to “A Subway Ride to Remember: How my Humiliation is Your Therapy for the Day”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’d like to know what the other 7 songs are…

  2. Tracie says:

    If it makes you feel any better, Rob, I think we’ve all been caught rocking out at some point in time. I got busted belting out Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Cities in Dust” in my car 3 or 4 summers ago. Yeah, I got publicly mocked (and clearly still remember the incident) but hot damn that song is so good.
    If you really have only 7 other songs, please let me gift you with at least enough iTunes credits to get the rest of Weezer’s blue album. You just can’t miss out on “In the Garage”.

  3. jake says:

    you couldn’t have picked a better song. I compulsively listen to it on repeat.

  4. Amber says:

    Okay I’m sorry but I would have giggled…hysterically. I once saw a guy, and I probably had the worst hangover known to man at the time, that was on the street corner with his headphones on and dancing like he was hopped up on some fancy raver drug and in the middle of a club, legs and arms flying every which way. I laughed my ass off, and it completely made my day. In high school my sister and I would drive through Wausau with Bon Jovi blaring and we’d be playing air drums on the steering wheel/dash. Not exactly the coolest thing for teen girls to do but fuck did we have fun doing it! No one’s immune to the effects of good tunage.
    Sadly I don’t agree with the others, I’m not a big Weezer fan, and although I totally dig Creep I never really did get into Radiohead. Let me know, though, if you really want to know what kind of music you should jam out to on the subway, I’ll e-mail you a long long list.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I don’t understand – do you actually care THAT much about what people think (although you’ve spent enough time thinking about it that you wrote a POST about it, so I’m assuming so)? I was on the subway car over the weekend and there was a guy (maybe it was you – I doubt it though) who was singing louder than anyone I’ve ever heard, earphones in, eyes shut, and he was enjoying his music and himself so much; he didn’t care who was watching/listening. I was so impressed that he was enjoying that part of his life, albeit a short subway ride – even though the rest of us were laughing, watching and listening. I wish I had the cajones to do that. Enjoy your life and don’t spend so much/any time worrying about what other people think. You’re a psychologist for chrissake – you should know this.

  6. Nadia says:

    That was a great image. Whenever I embarrass myself, I think, “Would I be upset if I was drunk?”
    The answer is no; I’d probably make a face, laugh and forget about it. I don’t think people should be drunk all the time, but it does put things in a funny perspective.

  7. Cathy says:

    Funniest. Post. Ever.

  8. Dr. Rob!
    “Nutshell” by Alice in Chains is an excellent song. I can send it to you on mp3. I figure I’ve purchased the “Jar of Flies” EP about 4 times, so I can give away one copy of one song.
    I prefer “Holiday” from the blue album over “Say It Ain’t So” though.

  9. IRISHNBRITISH says:

    Honestly, Rob, you should have just closed your eyes again and your captive audience would have instantaneously disappeared. Kinda’ like how hiding under the bed covers makes the armed and dangerous, escaped convict, burglar, gang rapists go away at 4am. Well, so far so good, anyway!
    Please feel free to digress about that Swedish model sometime, though. Don’t know about your other readers but I’m now intrigued…

  10. Alice says:

    Oh my god, was that you on the subway the other day singing out loud? I videoed it on my phone and put it on youtube! Ha ha ha ha ha
    Good song, so is “Nutshell”, try “I Alone” or “Pillar of Davidson” by Live, or Aretha Franklin – but make sure you’re in my car again if you’re gonna sing that out loud!

  11. futurecolleague says:

    I often tell me children, “if you knew how often other people actually think about you would never worry about what others think.” the truth is we, especially teenagers, spend most of our time thinking about ourselves or what we are doing and very little time thinking about other people. Sure there are exceptions, when you’re in love (or should I say infatuated) with someone else, but other then that it’s pretty much zippo.
    That being said, air guitar rocks and so does Weezer.

  12. nate says:

    I usually have to keep myself from rocking out to “Say It Ain’t So” (or practically any Weezer song) whenever I listen to it in public.

  13. Vince says:

    I would have looked around and wondered out loud, “Hey, where’d my band go? Those fuckers!”

  14. Limoncello says:

    Oh, Dr. Rob.. Say it ain’t so.
    Well, no iTunes gift card for you this Christmas then.
    I’m glad it happened though. At least you spread some giggles through the subway car that day, even if it’s for a few fleeting moment. Isn’t laughter the best medicine? Do it often enough and you just might improve mental well-being of fellow New Yorkers. One ride at a time.

  15. John says:

    Heh, that’s a reat story Dr. Rob. I remember once being caught rocking out to Duran Duran. In 1997. I wish I’d read your advice on dealing with embarassment before that particular incident, but it’ll certainly come in handy in future!

  16. Dan James says:

    You should have just smiled, taken a deep bow and said “thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week, tip your waitress!” and gone back to listening to your tunes. I find that when I do something dumb/embarrassing, owning up up to it, maybe taking the piss out of myself a little, and moving on lessens the effect dramatically. Because we all do goofy shit at some point; that just shows you accept it.

  17. Steffie says:

    Hee hee! You’ve just reminded me about a time last summer when I was rocking my ass off to Garbage’s “Why Do You Love Me” when a truckload of college-aged kids pulled up beside me and started shouting, “WOOOO! ROCK ON!” Thanks for the flashback, Doc. ^_^ More than likely, you just gave those people something to smile about, and ain’t nothing wrong with that.

  18. Tina says:

    I would have had to take a bow, assuming I wasn’t laughing hysterically at myself. That’s all you can do when you get caught being a Doofus. And, think about it…for 30-ish people, you were probably the best thing that happened that day.

  19. Bridget says:

    Poor Dr. Rob, don’t feel bad if anything the effect on the universe was ultimately a positive one and how bad can you feel if you were spreading a random moment of joy. I once accidentally tucked my skirt into my pantyhose at work and as I was about to saunter out the door when a security guard caught my arm and discreetly whispered into my ear to point out my mistake. I slipped into the nearest empty office to correct my fatal error wishing I could escape through the windows rather than having to cross the busy lobby again, quickly ruling that out as a viable option I just fixed it strutted out of the office, gave the security desk a big thumbs up and announced “crisis averted”. The way I see if no one else got hurt then we might as well own these little moments and enjoy the funny parts.
    Also, if you like “Say It Ain’t So”, you need to try “Great Salt Lake” by Band of Horses.

  20. Blank says:

    At least you didn’t pull a PhilaLawyer and blast the shit out of ABBA for everyone to hear.

  21. Wayland says:

    Rob. That’s awesome man. I congratulate you on your performance. Good luck finding some more good tunes.

  22. Ironman says:

    This reminds me of a short series of webcomics, “How to Embarass a Duck.” It was a series of step-by-step instructions (starting, of course, by using a mirror to remind the duck of its own curious visage), guaranteed to result in “maximum avian discomfort.” As the comic progressed, it laid out progressively more and more complex scenarios to simulate real life situations – forgetting someone’s name, making an error during a presentation – for the sake of embarrassing the poor duck.
    The underlying satire to the whole thing was – not just how ridiculous the idea of a duck being vicariously embarrassed by seeing you on the TV gameshow ‘Wheel of Horse Fellatio’ – but how absurd it is for any of us to be embarrassed for doing the exact same thing that millions of other people have done before.
    Who hasn’t been caught singing out loud? Forgetting someone’s name? Walking out of the washroom with their zipper undone? Slipping and falling on the ice?
    I just try and have a good laugh at myself. To quote another webcomic “You came into this world face first through some lady’s vagina. What are you doing acting so dignified?” [XKCD.com]

  23. Rhia says:

    Also, it’s the subway. So ‘big-headed guy busting out in song’ is probably item just #12 on the ‘Weird Shit I Saw on the Subway Today’ list.

  24. lizza says:

    This entry caught my eye because I have the same sort of association with “Say It Ain’t So” – it brings up good and bad memories, depending on the day. Anyway, good call on the Weezer! Try the rest of their blue album, or “The Good Life.” Any of their songs, really 🙂
    Everybody has their embarassing moments though, try not to sweat it, just laugh about it with friends and you’ll be fine. It’s what I do.

  25. Maren says:

    A perfectly timed post. Thank you!

  26. Adrift says:

    You’re awesome! You should be in a mentos commercial.

  27. Tippy says:

    Take heart- you could’ve been singing TLC’s Creep( great song, btw) instead of Radio Head.

  28. Erica says:

    You know, that’s so true (one of your comment-ers near the top said it well) that usually a screw-up gives someone else a little entertainment, a little distraction from their insecurities and self-consciousness for a moment. I’m going to try to remember that the next time I’m “entertaining.”
    Oh, and the perfect soundtrack to any day is Weezer and Radiohead!

  29. agun says:

    I just realize that their feelings of rejection towards me if I where singing like that are mere projection from humiliating situations they have had in their lives. The lowder they laugh, the worse the humiliation they suffered.

    Either way, at least it wasn’t a song by Nicki Minaj or some shit.

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