Walking Through the Emotional Desert With Shaun Morgan
Seether frontman embraces vulnerability.
Posted May 12, 2017
“If I could speak I'd tell you all my fears and deprivations;
If I could feel I'd take away your pain;
If I could bleed I'd show you all my scars and imperfections;
If I could breathe I'd hold you in my veins”
From “Let You Down” by Seether
For Shaun Morgan—songwriter and vocalist of the band Seether—being vulnerable has never been easy.
His first memories are of the abandonment he felt from his biological mother following his parents’ divorce. “She didn’t care about us. She often left us in a car in the middle of the night when she was sleeping with a married man,” Morgan told me. “And we’d be sitting in the cold by ourselves literally 11 or 12 at night.
“And it was more important for her to sleep with this guy.”
Morgan recalled one particularly terrifying night when he was five; his mother was gone all night and he and his brother did not know where she was. “She wasn’t in bed and she wasn’t in the bathroom. I woke up to look for her and she wasn’t in the apartment,” he recalled. “I remember trying to unlock the door to the apartment with a kitchen knife—I was trying to unlock the apartment to get help. Eventually she came home.
“She said she was moving the car.”
After a couple of years, Morgan’s mother sent him and his brother to boarding school, and yet the pattern of neglect continued. “She put us in boarding school when I was 7 and my brother was 5—miles from where she lived because we were too much for her to look after. And we invaded her party time when she was not allowed to drink as much,” Morgan explained. “And then she would say she was going to pick us up on a Friday and she wouldn’t show up. And we’d be sitting there all by ourselves like these two little idiots.”
Eventually, Morgan’s father got custody of him and his brother, but the feelings of abandonment lingered. “For years I would lie in bed and I would call his name; I would call, ‘Dad’ and he would say, ‘Yes,’ and I would go, ‘Oh,’” Morgan said. “That vulnerability was instilled in me at such a young age that it’s carried through my entire adult life. The feeling of being abandoned in the middle of the night when you’re so small, and the fear of it happening again. It was such a horrific moment in my childhood that it’s followed me my entire life. And so vulnerability is something that I try and shy away from as much as possible. I just feel so helpless.
“It was vividly burned in my mind.”
What complicated matters for Morgan was that while he was left with deep feelings of vulnerability, he did not feel free to express emotions to his father. “I also grew up in a house where speaking about your feelings or emotions and what’s going on in your head was frowned upon,” he described. “You don’t show vulnerability. You don’t show emotion. You don’t cry because you’re a boy. And if you cry, you’ll get a reason to cry by getting a spanking.
“If you think about it, it’s pretty brutal to treat children that way.”
Morgan developed an aversion to being open or vulnerable to others. Even as he found music, which allowed him an outlet to express his emotions, he often was not able to listen to his music in front of others because he felt too exposed, and open to judgment.
“If I’ve been very honest in a song, it’s difficult for me to sit in a room with people I don’t know and listen to the song with them. I know what the lyrics mean, and it’s so vulnerable and so exposed that I actually get embarrassed and have to walk out of the room. It feels wrong to be vulnerable,” Morgan explained. “I think it’s an overexposure to what I’m thinking …They’re sitting there taking in the words I’ve written and interpreting them in there own way. And sometimes people assume…that’s what these lyrics mean to me. And what follows is judgment…So what I do for a living is I get up on stage where I feel most vulnerable and most exposed and yet I enjoy it.
“I love it but I despise how it makes me feel.”
Worse, if he does allow himself to accept feedback, Morgan feels that he only focuses on negative feedback. Self-verification theory posits that people with low self-esteem will seek out criticism from critical people because it confirms their belief system.
“If I’m judged, I always err on the side of being negatively judged. And that’s because of a low self-esteem thing. And so it’s a vicious cycle,” Morgan explained. “No matter how many people say you’re amazing or great…it’s the one person who says, ‘Hey man, you suck.’ And that’s the person that affects you…The compliments are well-received and they give you a warm fuzzy feeling inside. But it’s never sustained. Most of the time I find it embarrassing, because I don’t agree.”
Later on at the age of 23, Morgan experienced another heartbreak, which inspired the song “Broken” and the lyric, “Cause I’m broken when I’m open.” Morgan’s wife did not follow him from their homeland of South Africa to the United States, and chose to live in South Africa with their daughter. And thus Morgan feels he lost out on his best chance to have the family experience he always wanted, worsening his already dismal self-esteem.
“I really wanted that family, and I really wanted to be part of that family unit. And I really thought this was going to be my nucleus and my happy place,” Morgan lamented. “Ever since then I have had a hard time feeling like I’m worth anything. And ever since then I have had a problem caring. I feel like this emotional desert.”
Morgan was left with a maladaptive pattern of desperately wanting to connect with others, but being unable to allow himself to be vulnerable enough to engage in the behaviors that would help perpetuate intimate relationships. And as he continued to focus predominantly on criticism, and deemed himself unworthy of love, he saw no point in taking interpersonal risks that would build intimacy.
“I didn’t know where I fit. I have a string of relationships behind me that will tell you the same thing. My insecurities destroyed those relationships, those potentially beautiful things, because I didn’t like being vulnerable, and therefore I wouldn’t do things that put me in a vulnerable position,” Morgan explained. “So for example, I wouldn’t go to the beach and take my shirt off because I didn’t like the way I looked. Because there you are, you think you look bad, and there’s proof that you look bad. So instead of going to the beach and having an experience with a better half or even with my daughter, I avoided the situation completely.
“You lose a level of intimacy because you are so paranoid.”
More, Morgan began to develop an ability to cut off people from his life when he felt slighted or betrayed, thus increasing his sense of isolation. “I also have this horrible ability, where someone that I’ve known for twenty years betrays me or my trust, I can cut them out of my life without even a thought about them again,” he said. “And every good feeling that I felt for that person disappears. And it becomes nothing. And it doesn’t take me weeks, years. It takes me a matter of minutes.”
Eventually, Morgan turned to alcohol and drugs, ending up in rehab in 2006. Alcohol allowed Morgan to feel more comfortable in social situations. “At first it was a social, interactive lubricant. And then you rely on it,” he described. “Then alcohol isn’t enough, you start turning to drugs. Suddenly, you’ve got so much to say, and you’re a funny guy and every synapse in your brain is firing. And you go, ‘life is great.’ And that becomes a habit. A hell of a mask to wear to hide the insecurities."
But rather than modify his insecurities and thus make him more able to connect with others, Morgan found that drugs and alcohol resulted in his engaging in behavior that harmed relationships. “The flip side is you do some things you really aren’t proud of. Sure it makes you feel vulnerable and like you’re ok. But then after awhile you feel like it’s not enough. So you start doing horrible things like cheating or emotionally cheating,” he explained. “If this girl wants to go to bed with me I’m worth something. So I have to keep trying to find that. It’s not enough that the one I’m with wants that, there needs to be more. Because my worth is measured by how many women want to go to bed with me. You’re manically reaching out to people at four in the morning. When I think about it now, it’s embarrassing.
“But that’s the mindset of a plate full of blow and bottle of vodka.”
Morgan experienced another loss when, in 2007, his brother committed suicide. Morgan was on tour with Seether at the time and felt unable to find support to talk about his brother’s death. Once again, he was left suppressing intense emotions and soon Morgan began abusing prescription medication as well.
“You get super drunk or super high and you don’t feel anything. And that’s the whole point.”
Eventually, Morgan was able to stop using drugs and alcohol. “I was operating at half a human being for ten years. I just cleaned up a year and a half ago,” Morgan explained. “And it’s amazing how much things have changed and how much I’ve achieved and how I look back and regard it as such a waste of time. But it was the only way I could deal with anything.”
He found that being vulnerable and honest was the only way things worked for him.
Morgan has been pouring his experience into Seether’s new record, Poison the Parish. And what he has found is that not only does he now not fear vulnerability in the same way, but he knows that honestly embracing and expressing his intense emotions is the only way forward for him. And he’s hoping that he inspires his fans by letting them know they are not alone in struggling with vulnerability.
“The bands that influenced me are the ones that felt like the guy is speaking to me. He understands me. And that music was so powerful and that’s what got me through. His ability to make music…can give people that sense that they aren’t alone in what they are feeling. They are not alone in their struggle,” Morgan said. ”You’re in that dark place. But creating the music gets you out of that place. Being honest is the only way of getting out of that place. You have to go as far down and as deep into the sadness and the torment as possible. It really is cathartic.
“I write music so I get it out of my system so I don’t go insane.”
And Morgan is finding that being vulnerable is something he fears much less. “So as I get older I’m trying to figure out in my own head, that it’s not bad to be vulnerable. At the time being vulnerable meant that you were broken. It meant that there was something wrong with you because you had to be tough,” Morgan said. “It was the idea that being overly-masculine was the way to be. It doesn’t have to be extremes. You can sit somewhere in the middle. I mean Tony Soprano said he loves his wife, and he’s a tough guy.”
And he hopes that he can help his daughter, who is now a teenager, avoid the same trap he fell into. “I allow myself to be vulnerable because you want to be the best example and show her that it’s OK to be vulnerable,” Morgan described. “I guess that’s my role as a parent…to always create an environment of safety and understanding. And you won’t be criticized for vulnerability. You won’t be ridiculed.
“You won’t be hurt at the end of the day.”
Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ, and is a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow Dr. Mike on Twitter @drmikefriedman.