Conquer stage fright by changing point of view

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Can you conquer stage fright by changing point of view? Or are the physical sensations of nervousness always going to get to you in the end? This is my story of how I came to realise that between physical sensations and thought patterns, thought patterns are the more destructive agent when it comes to performance anxiety.

When I was young, everyone was certain I was going to be a musician. I played flute and recorder. Recorder was my true love of the two instruments (and still is). I played in the school recorder ensembles and bands. I was always off to some rehearsal or another. I was pretty good – in spite of the fact that I never learned how to practice effectively – and was keen to go to a music school in the Netherlands to further my recorder career.*

So why didn’t I go? How did I end up where I am today?

I couldn’t cope with the nerves. Particularly before solos, my heart would race, my hands and knees would shake, my blood would pump so loudly in my ears that I could barely hear. But worse than that were the fears of getting things wrong, of disappointing people. I spent much of my time before every performance in the grip of a forecast of doom. I was convinced that my performance had to be note perfect, and that anything less was a failure.

I quit. There’s only so long that anyone can take that sort of pressure. At that time, in that place, I couldn’t conquer stage fright. It conquered me.

When I say I quit, I need to be more precise. I quit music. I didn’t quit performing. When I went to university, in addition to all the sensible courses, I enrolled in Theatre Studies for a bit of fun. It became my passion.

I loved the academic approach to theatre, but if I’m honest, I loved the acting and directing the most. And I never suffered stage fright. In fact, I didn’t really experience negative nervousness at all. Not once.

Did I feel my heart go faster before I went onstage? Yup. If anything, it went even faster. I can remember waiting backstage before one performance and wondering what the fastest heartrate recorded might be, as I thought mine at that moment probably rivalled it!

Did my hands and my knees shake? Yes. Definitely yes. When I was in Samuel Beckett’s Play, in which the three actors are encased in urns, mine could be seen vibrating!

But it never bothered me. I was having too much fun.

Now I look back and I can see that, logically, there is little difference between standing in front of an audience wearing a fake beard and carrying a sword, to standing in front of an audience with a recorder mouthpiece between my lips. But at the time, the rules and stories I told myself about each activity were very different.

Music = getting it right, being perfect, being in control, trying to block out the audience (who were ‘against’ me and judging me), getting things wrong and beating myself up for failing

Theatre = experimenting, having fun, having a sort of conversation/interplay with the audience, getting stuff wrong and trying to find a nifty way out of trouble

 

Some of the ideas within these categories may have been picked up from other people and places, but I was the one who held them together and believed them. I created paradigms that made one activity (music) a kind of living hell, and the other (theatre) a paradise of playtime. If FM Alexander had been around to see me, he would have said that he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are a major part of [her] difficulties.” **

One of the unexpected joys of studying the Alexander Technique for me was that the “mental rigidity” (FM’s words) that had fossilised my ideas about music was broken up, and my fear of playing or singing in front of audiences conquered.***

So if you want to conquer stage fright, have you considered whether your ideas and attitudes about the activity of performing might be a significant part of your difficulties? Is there a similar activity that causes you no problems at all? What is the rule that makes the difference?

And it isn’t just stage fright that can be helped by looking at hidden rules and preconceptions. Go hunting, and you may be surprised what ideas you have that rule the way you operate/behave in everyday activities.

Yes, we can conquer stage fright. And sometimes looking at how we think is the first step on the path.

* The Netherlands is one of the major centres of recorder teaching, and early music in general.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.294.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT edition, p.123.
Photo of Jen in a fake beard as Face in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, 1993. Photo by Rex Bunn.

“I’m not used to this” – how careful practice overcomes stage fright

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Is stage fright normal, instinctive, and something you are born with? Or is it a learned, rules-based set of behaviours? And if this is so, can we learn new rules, so that practice overcomes stage fright?

This is an argument that occupies a lot of my working hours, because many of my students would prefer to believe that stage fright is, if not wholly, then certainly almost entirely an instinctive thing that one is born with. I, on the other hand, have come to believe that stage fright is learned. Though some people may be more predisposed than others, stage fright is largely a rules-based set of behaviours.

Why do I believe this? Because I keep encountering evidence that seems to suggest that rules play a determining role in stage fright. This week, for example, while driving through town I was lucky enough to catch a radio broadcast of one of the BBC Proms, in which the Camerata Nordica played a  gorgeous selection of British music by Britten, Tippett, and Walton. The most fascinating section of the concert for me (from a professional perspective) was when a viola player from the Camerata Nordica, Catherine Bullock, came forward to play the solo part in a late Britten work called Lachrymae. She was interviewed by BBC presenter Clemency Burton-Hill prior to performing, and was described as “inching towards the front of the stage.”

This is a portion of the short interview that followed:

Burton-Hill: What’s it like to step out of the orchestra and come to the front of the stage, as it were?
Bullock: Well obviously it’s quite scary. [laughs nervously] I’m an orchestral musician by trade, I’m not used to this.*

I was so astonished I had to stop the car! Ms Bullock is an accomplished, experienced musician. Her performance of the work following the interview was one of great depth and beauty. She has been onstage as a performer many, many times. And yet she was very nervous. Why?

Ms Bullock gives us the answer: she is an orchestral musician by trade. She is accustomed to being part of an ensemble, and so even though it is still performing, because she is used to doing it, it doesn’t bother her unduly. Being a soloist, on the other hand, is not something she is accustomed to, and it therefore is a cause for concern and worry. Put simply, she has a belief (borne of experience) that ensemble playing is normal, but solo playing is not. She has not had sufficient experience to describe herself as a practiced soloist.

I see this frequently with my students when they are faced with performing in a sphere they are not used to. A person used to teaching classes of teenagers is nervous about giving an after-dinner speech. An accomplished speaker is terrified of his first choir performance. An actor who specialises in improv experiences nerves doing a scripted play. I’m sure you have your own version of this.

So how do we deal with it? How do we ensure our nerves and our beliefs about what is normal don’t get the better of us?

  1. Accept that nerves are normal. When we do something out of our comfort zone, nerves are normal. That’s our primitive lizard brain preparing us to fight or flee. Typically, if we just accept that some nerves will happen, the extent and duration of the nerves aren’t as long.
  2. Knowledge is power. Knowing that we are being tripped up because we are doing something a little different is helpful. But knowing that, logically, it isn’t that different a situation to our comfort zone also helps.
  3. Practice overcomes stage fright. How did we end up with a comfort zone, whether it be speaking, teaching, or improv? Typically, by just getting on and doing it! The first time we try anything, we are likely to feel fear. The more familiar we are with an activity, and the more times we have success, the less stressful we are likely to find it.
    So if you are about to do something new, like performing your first solo, find a nice small friendly audience to play to first. They’ll enjoy it, and you’ll get some valuable experience under your belt. FM Alexander advised teachers of his work to set up for students a series of situations or a “a process which ensures that the pupil’s experiences will be, with rare exceptions, satisfactory experiences, which make for confidence.”**

Doing activities outside of our usual sphere is likely to be unsettling, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly frightening. If we take care of ourselves, we can rise to the challenge with enthusiasm, and succeed magnificently.

 

* Taken from http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b039c5f6/Afternoon_on_3_Proms_2013_Repeats_PSM_5_Camerata_Nordica/#programme-info, accessed 5 September 2013. It should remain available to listen to for a few more days, but only for UK residents, I fear…
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.339.
Image by Tina Phillips, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Trust Gap: why we never quite feel performance ready

This is the fifth part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Week 1 was about why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. In week 2 we explored how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it. Week 3 was all about starting from where you are instead of waiting for perfect timing or conditions. Last week was about finding and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity.
And this week? We stare into the depths of the trust gap!

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I’ve experienced it as a musician. I’ve experienced it as an actor and workshop leader. I certainly experienced it as a newbie runner. I bet you’ve probably experienced it too. The gnawing fear – just as you’re about to start the performance/talk/whatever – that you’re not quite performance ready.

You’ve practiced. Golly, you’ve practiced. You’ve worked hard on what you’re about to do. But at that moment, that critical moment as you move from not doing into doing, you experience a particular kind of fear.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out.

And sometimes that feeling is stronger than at other times. In my own experience, I have felt least worried about being performance ready when I’m doing something I do a lot. When I run Alexander Technique workshops, for example, the uncertainty is only momentary. And it doesn’t bother me much when I go onstage with my recorder quintet.

But when I’m doing something that is new, or when I’m doing something familiar but in a new context, I notice that the uncertainty over being performance ready is much stronger. For example, in the final week before the Bristol 10k, every training run was plagued with recurring thoughts along the lines of ‘Am I ready?’ or ‘Will I be able to make it?’ And I know a lot of people get very concerned when they start having the ‘performance ready’ jitters. They take it as a sign of something bad. I have worked with a lot of young actors, and they almost invariably think it’s a bad sign.

It’s not a bad sign.

It’s normal.

The point is, whenever you are about to go into an activity, whether it is running or acting or playing a musical instrument or hitting a tennis ball or picking up a cup of tea… Ultimately, you never know quite how it is going to turn out. Pretty much all singers will tell you that they can sing the same song, even in the same venue at pretty much the same time of day, and it will be different every time. Same with tennis balls and cups of tea.

You can do the preparation. You can get yourself to a very high standard of performance readiness. But you will never know quite how it will turn out. There will always be a chasm between preparation and performance. Practice can make the chasm smaller, but you will always need to make the jump.

And that’s the fun. That’s where the magic happens!

But it’s also where the fear happens. Because we worry about it going all wrong. We don’t want to feel the pain of failure, so we are tempted to do more than we need to in order to feel good. We are tempted, in short, to move beyond our training and lost the very sense of being performance ready that we fought so hard to attain.

This is the way FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my “end” must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.*

The chasm between ‘performance ready’ and performance is just a trust gap. If we trust in our preparation, we will be fine.

What comfort zones are you preparing to leave? Are you ‘performance ready’? And will you maintain the trust in your hard work and planning?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.427.
Image by federico stevanin, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Practice the little things! Hunt for hidden assumptions when leaving the comfort zone.

This is the fourth part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Week 1 was about why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. In week 2 we explored how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it. Last week was all about starting from where you are instead of waiting for perfect timing or conditions. This week is about finding hidden assumptions and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity.

 

This time I have for you a cautionary tale about the dangers of hidden assumptions, and the vital importance of remembering to practice the little things.

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This is a water bottle. It is, in fact, the bottle that I received at the end of the Bristol 10k. Like all the other runners, I received a similar one during the race, about halfway through.

Some of them poured the water over their heads.

Most of them drank from the bottle.

I didn’t do either of those things. I did something far sillier.

You see, when I was training for the run, I never ran for very long. The longest time period was about an hour. And because I was training in my local park very close to my house, I never bothered to take a water bottle out with me. If I got thirsty on a longer run, I would just detour back home and grab a glass from the cupboard and pour myself some water.

But during the race, I wasn’t close to home. And I couldn’t detour for a nice, civilised glass. When I got the water bottle, I very quickly realised something.

I hadn’t practiced drinking while running.

Oops.

The water went over my cheeks. It went down my chin. It went down my front. It went pretty much anywhere except my mouth.

I looked like an idiot.

It had simply never occurred to me to practice drinking while running. But during the race it became clear that it was part of the race plan that I hadn’t thought about at all. I discovered that I had hidden assumptions about my ability to drink on the run. And I was wrong.

And it’s the little things that get you. When I was coaching a student recently for some practical exams, the student had thought about everything… Except for the order in which he was going to speak to the participants in the test, and how he was going to order his time in the simpler stations that formed part of the test procedure. It seems like a small thing, but it could be vitally important.

It is really tempting to concentrate on the big things, like the training runs. And they need attention. But the little things need attention too. Why?

1. Little things are part of a whole. Part of the way we handle big new experiences is to break them up into easier-to-handle pieces. Each piece is important. If we haven’t prepared all the small pieces, we haven’t fully prepared the whole. In fact, if we’ve neglected a little thing, it frequently indicates that we have hidden assumptions lurking, and they might have large consequences.

2. Little things can throw us off course. Especially if we’re doing something new, or trying to react to a difficult situation in a new way, we have enough to think about already just putting our newly formed plans into action. We don’t need surprises. And FM Alexander would suggest that if we leave an opening for ourselves to be caught off guard, we are more likely to depart from our reasoned plans and fall back to more instinctive unreasoned patterns of behaviour.*

So, more than a month after the race, I keep the water bottle. It is a reminder to me of how little things really do matter.

What little things do you need to take account of today?

 

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.417; p.433.

No one will die – leaving a comfort zone and fear of the new

This is the second part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Last week we looked at why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. This week we’re exploring the relationship between leaving a comfort zone and fear of the new; how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it.

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Last week I told you about how I decided to move past my belief that I was No Good at Sport, and chose to enter the Bristol 10k. I recognised that I had a belief that was limiting me and set myself a goal to help challenge it. But what happened next? Which of these two stories do you think is more true?

Story 1: Jen organised a training programme and stuck to it. She was at all times completely confident of achieving her goal because she was doing the necessary work. On the day of the race, she found it easy.

Story2: Jen didn’t know where to start. She did some research and found training plans and advice. She tried to follow them, but found it hard work, physically and emotionally. Many times she felt like quitting, and she was terrified of getting it wrong and making a fool of herself. Even on the day of the race, she wasn’t completely certain she’d make it.

Worked out which one is the truth yet? Yep, the second. I was leaving a comfort zone and fear of the new was a major problem for me. I felt scared almost every time I went out to train.

The truth of it is that people stay in their comfort zones because they are, well,  comfortable. People like being comfortable. When you try to challenge a belief or behaviour in yourself that you don’t like, you pretty much need to expect it to feel uncomfortable. It may feel odd. It may even feel wrong.

We need to expect it not to feel good. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself because it will, but more often than not you’re going to be dealing with levels of discomfort.

So we recognise that leaving a comfort zone and fear are very closely related. How do we deal with the discomfort? Here are my five big tips:

1. Make sure you’ve chosen a goal that is challenging but still realistic. I, for example, as a non-runner, did not choose to make the London Marathon my first ever race! I chose something that was not going to be easy, but that was still achievable.

2. Have a plan to follow. Do some research, find out how other people typically go about achieving the goal you’ve set, and then modify that to your own circumstances. I was lucky and found a ready-made training programme that I could adapt easily.

Sometimes planning is trickier, and you may not be sure of all the variables you need to consider. in those situations, sometimes it can help to talk to someone who specialises in planning and reasoning. If you need help with the planning aspect of your goal, contact me and I’ll see if I can help you out, or at least point you in the direction of someone else who can.

3. Have a good support network. I had a friend who was incredibly supportive, and who actually ran the race with me. I also had friends and family helping me find the time to train, and just generally cheering me on. Support isn’t essential, but it sure makes things easier.

4. Accountability. If you are worried you might quit or find excuses to dodge the discomfort of trying the new activity/behaviour, you may want to set some consequences to help you stay on track. For example, a friend may ring you each week to check on progress. Or you might try using Stickk, a new website that was created to help people stick with their goals.

5. Be kind to yourself. Recognise that sometimes your ‘lizard brain’ (limbic system) is going to catch up with you and cause you to feel panicked. Just keep breathing, remember that everything is fine and no one is in imminent danger of dying, and let it pass.

This week, if you haven’t yet chosen a goal for the activity or behaviour you want to try/change, set one! Start working out how you are going to achieve it. Do some research. Set some consequences for bailing out. And start. Setting up your support network. And be kind to yourself.

Image by John Kasawa, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Steps to conquer stage fright: permission to fail

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Third, we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. Fourth, we looked at the importance of knowing what you’re doing. Last week, we talked about the danger of focusing on results.

 

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The other day I read a fantastic blog post by one of my favourite writers, Sarah Duncan. She was advising the readers of her blog to give themselves permission to write rubbish. Sarah wrote:

“I tell students to write rubbish because the worst bit of rubbishy writing on the page is worth more than the most perfect bit of prose stuck in your head. Stuff on the page can be improved, developed, tweaked,given colour and life and energy and style. Stuff in your head is – well, stuff in your head. It can’t be read by anyone.”

I think there are two important points to draw out of this.

  1. To do something well, you have to do it a lot. A lot. And you have to be prepared for some of what you do to be rubbish. There is no point waiting around for perfect inspiration to strike! I wrote about the importance of practice here.
  2. You have to give yourself permission to fail. It is important to allow yourself to be bad at something.

Reasons to be rubbish

  1. Everyone has to start somewhere. Even the greatest musicians and artists started off at the beginning. And part of being at the beginning is making mistakes.
  2. Mistakes are part of the learning process. Robert Kiyosaki writes about this very effectively in his book If You Want to be Rich and Happy, Don’t Go to School.
  3. Perfection paralyses creativity. If you wait for perfection before you put the sentence on the page (or the brush on the canvas), you’ll be consigning yourself to a potentially angst-ridden experience.

FM Alexander remarked in 1923 upon the fact that our response to stimuli is in part determined by our psycho-physical condition. He reminds us that “a man’s conception of his present or future financial condition in life is different when he is … in a good and happy ‘frame of mind’, from what it is when he has a ‘grouch’.”*  And Cognitive Behavioural Therapy would tell us that our frame of mind is a decision we have made based upon a thought process. (See Burns’ Feeling Good)

Therefore, making a different decision about how we are going to respond to the concept of failure is actually really important. Nobody particularly wants to fail. So we mentally (and possibly physically) tense up in preparation. It is hard to be creative and perform well when tense.

So if we give ourselves permission to fail, we on’t merely take pressure off ourselves. We may even give ourselves the freedom to perform better.

But what about the performance? I can’t give a bad Groom’s speech!

It’s true that sometimes the rubber has to hit the road. You have to be ready. But that’s why it’s a great idea to give yourself lots of trials runs, having a go in low-risk situations where it is easier to allow yourself to fail. If you have to give a speech, join Toastmasters and get some practice there. If you’re a musician, find a group to play with informally. Play in small competitions. Find places to try things out and be rubbish. Then you’ll be more prepared when you’re in the performance where it has to ‘count’.

Will you give yourself permission to fail?

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.240.

Steps to conquer stage fright: How to banish panic

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Last week, we talked about the fear factor. This week, we’re talking about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic.

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Last week I talked a little about the fear symptoms we experience when we’re about to perform. I explained that many of the symptoms that we experience are the result of hormonal ‘fight or flight’ response – what FM Alexander described in 1923 as ‘fear reflexes’.*

Right on cue, after I posted my article, a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article in Scientific American, entitled ‘This is Your Brain in Meltdown.’ The authors are scientists who have been researching the way even small amounts of stress can cause us to jettison the logic-based functions of our pre-frontal cortex (home of our executive centre), and fall back upon the primitive reactions of our amygdala to take over. The amygdala is responsible for emotional responses, and can cause us to experience mental paralysis and logical ‘meltdown’.

I bet many of us have experienced this kind of mental paralysis. I can remember a music performance where I was so paralysed that I couldn’t remember not just what the first note was, but also what fingering I should use to play it!

So how do the scientists recommend we prevent our brains jettisoning our reasoning and going primitive? Interestingly, current research seems to be confirming FM Alexander’s principle of building a ‘staircase’ of satisfactory experiences to build confidence. The scientists write:

“Animal research suggests that the sense of psychological control that becomes second nature to a soldier or emergency medical technician remains the deciding factor in whether we fall apart during stress… The routines of the drill sergeant are mirrored by animal studies that show that juveniles grow up to be more capable in handling stress if they have had multiple, successful experiences confronting mild stress in their youth.”

 

Steps to success!

If you have a big performance or presentation coming up, here is a plan to help you prepare.

  1. Prepare your speech/performance thoroughly. The better you know it, the less you will need to work your pre-frontal cortex to remember the words or music.
  2. Do trial performances. Find a sympathetic audience or three. Or six. My recorder quartet like to trial new music at our local music festival, where the audience is small but appreciative. If you’re doing public speaking, find a local Toastmasters group (or similar) where the members are friendly and knowledgeable.
  3. Have a goal for your performance. Small goals help you to keep focussed. When I played a recorder solo recently, my goal was not to win the prize at the festival. My goal was to play a very difficult piece of music, to allow for mistakes to happen, and to keep going. And I did.

Do you freeze pre-performance? Do you become irritable? Have you tried having goals and constructing a stairway to success? Tell me about it in the comments!

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscous Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.338.

Photo by criminalatt from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Steps to conquer stage fright: Fight the fear factor

This is a series about conquering stage fright. Last week, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. This week, we’re talking about the fear factor.

 

There was a pause. The group in the room all turned towards me expectantly. This was the moment I had feared. I breathed in slowly, trying to control my thumping heart. This is it, I thought. I tried to collect my thoughts, remember what I had to do. It’s now or never.

“Kalimera. Me lene Jennifer. Pos se lene?”

 

Yes, that was my first ever Greek class, and my first sentence in Greek. Scary stuff. My heart pounded, I can tell you, just as it used to every time I performed as a musician or actor.

But why? Why did it pound? Why was I so anxious about saying a very few words (albeit in a foreign language)? I mean, it isn’t as though I was doing anything death-defying!

And that’s just the point. When we stand up to make that speech or sing that song, our bodies pump us full of adrenalin. It’s the chemical that is behind the fight or flight response, the response that was so useful to us when we had to deal with dangerous animals on a daily basis.

But when we are onstage, or making a speech, we aren’t being chased by a lion. We aren’t in danger of imminent death. Our bodies just make us feel that way. I think this may be part of the reason why FM Alexander wrote “Unduly excited fear reflexes, uncontrolled emotions … are retarding factors in all human development… This is particularly the case when a person endeavours to learn something calling for new experiences.”

So how do we deal with the fluttering tummy and pounding heart?

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Steps to fighting the fear

1. Accept that it is normal. So often my students think that the physical signs of adrenalin are bad and wrong and they shouldn’t be feeling them. On the contrary, it’s a normal reaction to stress. So don’t stress about it!

2. We need to do something to make the activity that is stressful to us, not stressful any more. And the classic way to do this is to give ourselves a few trial runs. FM Alexander says of teaching that the teacher should ask the student “to learn gradually to remember the guiding orders or directions.” And why learn them gradually? Be ause, in Alexander’s words, “satisfactory experiences … make for confidence.”

3. Give ourselves time. If we allow ourselves trial runs and give ourselves confidence from our steps to success, Alexander says that success is guaranteed. But he doesn’t say when: “This may not be today, tomorrow or the next day, but it will be…” So let’s give ourselves time, and a little bit of latitude!

 

Do you get butterflies? Do they stress you out? How will you deal with them next time?

Quotes are from Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat Complete Edition, pp.338-9.
Image by renjith krishnan from FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

 

5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 2. Rejoice that you are fallible

cupboard

In my teaching room, I have a cupboard. It has two main uses. Firstly, it stows my computer away out of sight. This is its practical use. But it has a far more important function than that.

It stores all of my students’ sticks.

Sticks? I hear you ask.

Yes, sticks. The sticks they beat themselves up with.

Mental sticks

Obviously I don’t mean actual physical sticks. I’m talking about something far more insidious, though just as damaging. I am talking about the things that people believe about themselves and say to me during their lessons.

“I have such terrible posture.”
“I sit really badly.”
“My right leg is okay. But my left leg is really bad.”
“I know that my walking isn’t good, but there’s nothing I can do to make it better.”
“If my furniture at work was better, I wouldn’t have this neck pain.”

 

Why these statements are sticks

1. They are examples of what I was talking about last week: they are examples of thinking that is stuck in a groove. They are conclusions masquerading as statements of fact, and the reasoning on which those conclusions are based has long been forgotten. The assumptions are hidden. And hidden assumptions are dangerous!

2. They are conclusions that assume that improvement is impossible. When someone says “I have terrible posture,” typically the unstated ending to the sentence is something like “and it can’t change.” And the student sincerely believes this, because so far they haven’t been able to change what is bothering them. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t change.

3. Because these statements assume that change is impossible, they are a means of abdicating self-responsibility. Think about it. If something can’t change, the how much responsibility do we need to take for changing it? None! Instead, we claim the apparently unchangeable behaviour and use it to make ourselves feel bad.

 

Give up the stick!

This is what I tell my students. I fact, I hold out my hand and require them to give them up! Here is why.

1. Change is possible.

2. Change begins by owning up to the things that we do to ourselves. Or as FM Alexander would put it, we need to “acknowledge in fact that [we] suffer from mental delusions regarding [our] physical acts.” *

3. Doing this is not an admission of failure. It is an admission of power. As soon as we stop beating ourselves up and own up to the unnecessary muscular activity we are doing to ourselves, we have gained power over it. We are no longer slaves to discomfort. We have, in fact, taken the first major step to mastering it.

So give up your sticks. Send them to me – write them down in the comments and leave them there. And then you’ll have taken a leap away from discomfort and towards everyday happiness.

 

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.59.

 Image by Mati Martek, stock.xchng