By Mike McMahan, LPC
Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian recently got to realize one of his dreams, joining classic rockers Cheap Trick onstage for a run through their anthem, “Surrender.” It might not seem obvious at first, but this story makes a perfect case study of a way that a person can apply neglected strengths towards reaching a goal.
Before we take a look at the specifics of this really fun and cool story, let me say that I hope you will read this in the spirit is intended: as stated above, an educational tool. In reality, Scott Ian has been in the music industry for 30+ years and his father-in-law is classic rocker Meatloaf. I have no doubt that these factors led to him being acquainted with Cheap Trick and getting the nod to guest star on “Surrender.” However, let’s set that aside and take a look at the story as a lesson in strength-based problem solving.
I have been a huge Anthrax fan ever since I encountered the first album that brought them huge exposure, 1987’s Among The Living. At that time, thrash metal was breaking wide open and was seen as many as an antidote to the leather-clad hair rockers who were dominating the charts and MTV. Anthrax combined elements of classic metal from the likes of Iron Maiden with a love of hardcore, comic books and skating. It was a new sound, and they were proudly metal. I’m pretty confident that there was no way Cheap Trick would have invited Scott Ian onstage and I am highly skeptical he would have accepted, youthful love of Cheap Trick be damned. But fast forward to today, when it was a “dream.” What happened in-between?
The first thing is that, obviously, everyone is quite a bit older. Anthrax had some turbulent times in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Lineup changes, inconsistent albums, the backlash against 80s metal. They were thrust into the news for the first time in years in 2001, as the anthrax terrorist mailings reminded everyone that anthrax wasn’t just a metal band—it was also a deadly disease. Not the kind of publicity they were seeking.
The years in between weren’t all bad, though. Ian found success as a talking head on VH1, dropping knowledge and one-liners on their endless series of nostalgia fests, such as I Love The 90s. Who knew that the screaming, goateed, bald guy was also an expert on Beverly Hills 90210 and one-hit wonders?
By the time 2010 rolled around, Anthrax’s classic lineup was 80% back and Metallica was feeling sentimental. They organized The Big Four tour in Europe, bringing the four biggest thrash metal acts together: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. Our heroes, having stumbled quite a bit, were relegated to the bottom of the bill, but were still on the bill. And what a tour! The Big Four filled stadiums and put Anthrax back on the metal heap. But the scene had changed. Metallica had been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. As unlikely as it may have seemed in the heady days of the 80s, these four bands were now classic rock. In their 80s heyday, the other band members teased singer Joey Belladonna about his love for Journey. Now they found themselves as old guys belting out classics that, seemed tame compared to the blast beats and ferocious “harsh” vocals of modern extreme metal. Maybe Journey’s decades long career belting out their classics night after night wasn’t so bad after all.
So did they run from this new reality? No, they didn’t which is where the idea of utilizing previously overlooked strengths comes in. In their 80s heyday, Belladonna’s considerable vocal chops and Ian’s encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture had been something of a joke. Now those strengths came to the forefront, and the band released the covers EP Anthems in 2013. It included covers of 70s rock tracks like Rush’s “Fly By Night,” Boston’s “Smokin’” and, you guessed it, Journey’s “Keep On Runnin’.”
So the band had now embraced their classic rock status, utilizing Belladonna’s classic vocal stylings. His sound, which had seemed stale and dated in the “grunge” era was suddenly a strength, and he hadn’t lost his range, something else rare for singers who use the high end. And Ian’s love of classic rock was a strength, too, as their aging fanbase didn’t care as much what was metal or what wasn’t. They wanted to hear songs that reminded them of their youth, which Anthrax could deliver. Along the way, they’ve spit out two albums of original material 2011’s Worship Music and this year’s outstanding For All Kings. The new songs have even crept into the live setlists, though it’s the classic tunes that anchor the show.
So Anthrax answered the question “how do we stay relevant and make a living 30 years later?” by turning things that they didn’t care about or were even considered weaknesses into strengths. Consider a challenge that you face in your own life. Let’s say, as an example, a (fictional) client comes to me and he wants to overcome social anxiety. He’s tried giving himself a pep talk before he goes out to a party. He’s tried socializing with a small group of friends. All of these things are not working, and he feels an overwhelming urge to flee as soon as he arrives at a social event. His heart is pounding and nothing can stop the feelings.
There are a lot of ways to treat anxiety, but let’s consider the idea that problems are caused by overlooked or neglected strengths, which is obviously the same framework we used to look at Anthrax’s embrace of their new status as classic rock. One approach would be to look at the current symptoms and situation. This might include something that has been used at the VA hospital, according to a psychologist who was one of my professor’s in grad school. She said that the department purchased an espresso machine and had the clients down several shots of highly caffeinated rocket fuel (a.k.a. espresso). Not surprisingly, their hearts were beating quickly in no time at all and she would work with the veterans to relax using breathing exercises and other self-calming techniques, which they could use to alleviate the symptoms.
But I might ask a client something like “tell me about what your life was like when you were in college?” This provides not only details about the person’s story, but also gives a chance to look for strengths. The client might talk about school, a college job, living in the dorm. But then he says “I went fishing a lot when I was growing up. I used to really love going fishing with the guys from the dorm. I got really good at it, too. I knew how to tie flies, and even won several tournaments at the lake by school.”
“And you aren’t doing this anymore?”
“No,” he says. “I moved away from the University and got busy with work, so I never got back to it.”
So here we have a skill, tying flies, that has been neglected, but also has no overt tie to anxiety. “So when you were fishing with the guys from the dorm, did you get the racing heartbeat and sweating?”
“Never,” he responds. “I was really comfortable with those guys, since I was around them all the time.”
“But aren’t you around your co-workers all the time?” I ask.
It may be that when we explore further that the client’s friends from the dorm really were people he was more comfortable with. Or it may be that he felt confident in his abilities about fishing, and this allowed him to focus on that rather than on the socializing aspects. In this case, an appropriate homework assignment might be for the client to think about taking up his fishing hobby again. It could be that by going to a lake he will have some casual encounters with fellow fishermen (and women). When we discuss these casual encounters he may find that he is more confident in the casual environment and that he does not experience the anxiety symptoms or that they are lessened. Then I, as a therapist, can reinforce the positives of these experiences and use these skills as a step in the process of overcoming the larger issue of social anxiety.
The lesson here is that virtually anything that you are good at can be applied to solving a current problem or facing a challenge. Something to consider the next time you feel like you’ve hit a wall or are without options.
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture