Why fear of competition shouldn’t faze performers

Are you afraid of performing? Whether it’s a concert, play, audition or after dinner speech, do you find yourself frozen up by the fear of what is to come?

Many people are afraid of the battle. To them, every performance, audition or job interview is a competition, and one that they are afraid of losing. The audience/panel are the enemy, the competitor that they must fight. And the fear of competition seems almost all consuming. Some of my students have described it this way:

  • Fighting the audience – fight to keep the audience engaged and with you.
  • Fighting the panel – battling to keep them looking at you as a real contender.
  • Fighting the competitor, and fighting oneself –  struggling to retain the self belief to keep competing.

I want to share with you something I’ve been reading that threw a lot of light on the fear of competition issue. I’ve got two main points that I hope will set you thinking anew about it. My fondest wish is that you’ll come the the conclusion that fear of competition is a mental trick that you can escape – if you want to.

 

1. Fear of competition is a state of mind.

I love watching snooker, and especially love watching Ronnie O’Sullivan. I’ve often wondered what goes through a player’s mind, especially at the beginning of a tight match where the scores remain even, and one player does not gain immediate dominance over the other.

Do you think this would be stressful, or do you think it would be fun?

Many people might imagine that a player would find it stressful. But that isn’t what Ronnie O’Sullivan describes in his most recent book, Running.

I went bang! Long red. Eighty. He went bang! Long red. Eighty. I went bang! Long red. One hundred. He went bang! Seventy. And I thought, 2-2, we’re having a row here, this is good! I’m enjoying this.*

What Ronnie is describing is a joy in the heat of battle. If the other player is matching him frame for frame, he relishes it. He describes a joy in being able to hold his own and gradually overcome another player who is also playing at the height of his powers. For Ronnie, when he is at his best, the battle isn’t something to run away from. It is, rather, something to engage in and enjoy.

Fear of competition is a state of mind, a “trifling habit of thought” (FM Alexander’s words there**) that at some point we have taken on. But it is just a state of mind, and states of mind can be changed.

2. It isn’t really a battle.

The second point is that most performances, most presentations, most auditions and job interviews even, are not battles. They are not a competitive sport, and the audience/interview panel are not your competitors. They are not your enemy. You are not fighting them.

The audience, at heart, wants to be entertained.

The business audience, at heart, wants to get out of the room alive. If they enjoy their time, they are thrilled.

The audition panel just wants to cast the role. They want you to be the one.

The interview panel just wants you to be the right candidate.

They aren’t your competitors. Unless you’re in a particularly extreme set of circumstances, they’re on your side. So what is there to stop you just getting on and enjoying being with them?

 

*Ronnie O’Sullivan (with Simon Hattenstone), Running, Orion, 2013, p.71.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT edition, p.52.

Self criticism while performing – and how to avoid it

Do you struggle with self criticism as a performer? Me too. I’m telling this little story about my own self criticism, partly so that you can all feel a little better by having a laugh at me, and partly to make a point about why we don’t need to do it in the first place!

The self criticism tango

Just recently my group Pink Noise played a concert at a small church in Somerset. We finished our programme with a lovely arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion. I play the lead line. This is a fairly accurate rendition of my thoughts as I play the first phrase.

Will the high D sound? Please God, don’t let it crack!
Brilliant! But it sounds so thin. Argh!
Argh! Relax those fingers!
The note’s so boring. Finger vibrato!
Argh! Not enough finger vibrato!
Argh! Too much finger vibrato!
Argh! Finger vibrato isn’t even enough!
Running out of air – gotta breathe…
I hope I didn’t sound like an asthmatic walrus…
I never get the articulation right there…
Phew – made it!

And that’s just the first phrase!

It feels like I never do the piece justice, that I never manage to play it as cleanly and smoothly as it deserves. Frankly, I always feel like I struggle with it, and wonder why the others in the group don’t take the part away from me.

That’s how it feels. And that’s how I’d see it, if one of our group hadn’t made a video recording of the performance. I finally got round to watching it. And what did I find?

The awful truth… isn’t that bad

Actually, it’s okay. I was pleasantly surprised. There are things to work on for us as an ensemble (we haven’t performed this piece very often yet), but it holds up. And my lead line isn’t nearly as bad as it sounded in my head. I hesitate to say it, but it’s really quite decent.

FM Alexander warned us all decades ago that our feelings aren’t a reliable guide to anything much. Anyone who has had an Alexander Technique lesson will have seen or experienced a session in which they are convinced they’re about to fall over backwards, only to be told they’re standing perfectly straight. Or that when they think they’re turning their head, they’re actually turning at their waist. Or that when they think they’re bending their knees, they’re just not! What we think we’re doing is very often not what the outside world sees.

What I love about watching videos of my performances is that I get to see a view from outside my own head. I get to listen, maybe not to a studio quality recording, but at least to something that is outside of me and the processes I’m engaged in to make the sound. I get to experience what the audience might experience.

The lessons for today?

  • Teachers aren’t perfect. Thank goodness. That’s why we understand the struggles our students go through.
  • If you’re a performer, or are having to give some sort of speech or presentation, find a way to get objective feedback. Video yourself. Get a person you trust to watch you. Do what Alexander did and look at yourself in the mirror, if you can bear to. Find some means where you can evaluate your own performance, and preferably AFTER you’ve done it, not DURING. During, you should be far too busy doing it to evaluate anything.
  • And finally, if you’re having a thoughtfest of self criticism like the one I wrote out, be kind to yourself. Notice that you’re doing it, then get back to the job of playing/performing. Evaluation comes later.

Do they really hate you? Misunderstanding audience reaction.

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When you perform, are you concerned about audience reaction? Perhaps you keep half an eye or ear on the audience as you perform. Do you try to gauge how they’re liking your performance? How would you feel if, heaven forbid, someone should frown or even walk out while you’re performing?

It is a fairly common theme when I work with people with performance anxiety that their tension levels increase through fear of negative audience reaction. Bluntly, they are stressed out by the thought of the audience hating them, or at the very least disliking what they’re doing.

But if they’re frowning, do they really hate you? Or are you perhaps misunderstanding the audience reaction?

This was really brought home to me when one of my students auditioned for the full-time acting course at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.* He came out disconsolate, saying that one of the panel had spent the entire audition staring at him, her head resting on her hands. “She looked like she hated me,” he said. “My audition was terrible. I’ll never get the place.”

Luckily, I was also friends with another member of the panel, who told me the story of what happened after my student had left the room. The supposedly grumpy panel member had turned to the other auditioners, fixed them with just as intense a stare as she had the young student, and said, “he’s absolutely marvellous!”

My student looked at the panel member and was convinced she hated him. And it just wasn’t true. So how did my student get it so wrong? How did he so misjudge the audience reaction?

1. You can’t know what’s in their heads.

What a person is thinking is private information. You can’t access it directly. You can make guesses based on available (public) information, like their facial expressions. But your guesses are still just guesses, and while they might often be accurate, under stress your ability to make accurate guesses might be severely compromised. If someone in the front row has a massive frown on their face, you have no evidence that they don’t like you. Maybe they always look like that!

2. The psycho-physical truth

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.**

This is one of my favourite quotes from FM Alexander, because it so neatly sums up the human condition. We think and act according to our belief structures, whatever those may be. And so if we come across new information or new experiences that require decoding, we will do it according to what we already believe to be the truth about the way the world works.

I ran across a lovely story that speaks to this. The author recounted how the youthful babysitter he had hired looked in wonderment at his (slightly old-fashioned!) corded kitchen phone. “Mr Hunt, what a wonderful idea,” she said, “to tie up your phone so that people won’t walk away with it. Just like the pens at the bank.”***

The babysitter had only experienced cordless phones, and so created an explanation for what she was seeing based on her beliefs and previous experience. We do this all the time. But just like the babysitter, our explanations may be completely off target!

If we’re in a high pressure situation, our systems are pumped with adrenalin. This makes changes to the way we are thinking. And if we’re accustomed to thinking of performing as unpleasant and we’re already looking on the negative side of things, then we will prioritise anything we see that confirms our negative viewpoint, and discount any contradictory (positive) information.

You can’t know how other people are taking things. And it isn’t your business anyway. Your job is to deliver your content in as truthful, sincere and efficient a way as you can. Watching the audience to see how much they like/hate you just distracts from that. Be convinced of the worth of your content and your process, and keep delivering.

 

* This is a brilliant college. I know I’m biased, but if you live in the UK and are thinking of studying in the fields of music or acting, you simply must investigate Royal Welsh.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.304.
*** Andy Hunt, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, Pragmatic Bookshelf 2008, p.130.
Image by Freddie Pena, Flickr Creative Commons

Decision making and FOMO: what FM would say…

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Are you good at decision making, or are you plagued by those modern evils, Fear of Commitment and Fear of Missing Out? This post is about why decision making is a fundamental skill within Alexander Technique, and how you can do it better.

Decision making fail – leaning on the fence

A week or so ago I had the great pleasure of taking my family along to the ExCeL conference centre in London to see the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebration. It was a massive exhibition – tons of displays of costumes and props, lots of stalls selling things, and lots of demonstrations and theatre shows in a number of small spaces.

Many of these small spaces were defined within the large exhibition space by little fences. Inside each fence there were chairs and a stage. The fence was small, and though you could easily see over the top, staying outside to watch the demonstrations wasn’t exactly comfortable. The fence was rickety and wobbled every time it was touched, and the crowds bustled past constantly.

But that didn’t stop people. Every time I walked past one of these little theatre spaces, only about a third of the chairs inside was filled, but the fence was lined entirely by people leaning uncertainly against the rickety barrier and watching from the outside.

They didn’t want to commit. If you went inside you got a (more or less) comfy seat, but it also made it harder to leave if you didn’t like the show. And who was to say that there might not be a better show starting in the next space in just a few minutes?

So most people decided to hedge their bets, and spend an entire 40 minute show jammed against a wobbly barrier while the crowds brushed past.

Decision making and reasoning

Now, I admit that I’m not the world’s best decision maker. But I do know that standing around in a crowded passageway for 40 minutes just to ‘keep my options open’ is what FM Alexander would disparagingly call ‘unreasoned’. It stems from a fear of making the wrong choice, and a lingering worry that we might be missing out on something ‘better’. But really, does it really matter if there’s a better show than the one we’re watching, especially if it will take use half of the show time to push through the crowds to get to it?

If FM Alexander had worried about making the wrong choice about what experiments to make while he was trying to find the solution to his vocal troubles, we wouldn’t have the Alexander Technique today. FM made tons of mistakes. He went up conceptual blind alleys, tried wrong things, and even realised at one point that “all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.” (p.419)

But he never let his errors stop him. Indeed, more than once in Evolution of a Technique (the chapter in which he describes the creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique), he says clearly that he profited from the experiences he had from his mistakenness – the experience helped him to form new ideas and new experiments to try. (see p.418, p.424)

 Decision making – which side of the fence are you on?

Ultimately, there are very few decisions where the outcome is really that crucial. Most things can be changed, or improved upon. Most decisions will not be completely bad or wrong – we can learn from most things.

Therefore, don’t sit (or lean) on the fence.

Try that new restaurant or cafe.

Try that new watercolour brush technique.

Try playing that phrase with a different fingering pattern.

Try a different route home.

In the vast majority of circumstances, even if the choice turns out to be less than optimal, it won’t matter that much. You might end up with a lesser cup of coffee, or it might take you five minutes longer to get home. But if you don’t try, you might end up missing the best cup of coffee you ever tasted.

If you lean on the fence for too long, you’ll just end up with sore feet.

 

“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

Re-evaluate: what to do if you venture too far out of your comfort zone

This is the sixth 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. Week 4 was about finding and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity. And last week we learned about the Trust Gap.
This week? What to do if you discovered you’ve ventured too far out of your comfort zone.

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I was never a brave person when I was young. Not physically brave. So there were lots of things that I have simply never tried. One of those was skating. My son had tried ice skating last year and really enjoyed it. So this winter, for my birthday, I decided that it would be fun for the family to go ice skating. My son would have a great time, and I would get to move out of my comfort zone and try something completely new.

But as the day approached, I began to realise that I was making a big mistake. I had a sense that I was moving a little too far outside of my comfort zone. I had a growing awareness that this activity was not one that felt comfortable for me.

One of my friends on Twitter, the lovely Paula White, had a similar thing happen to her recently. She had entered a triathlon, but discovered during the course of training that she had taken on a larger challenge than she was comfortable with. Training sessions, especially in the pool, were becoming anxiety-producing affairs. But Paula is intelligent, brave and resourceful. So she did the only sensible thing. She decided not to do the triathlon.

Sometimes we set ourselves goals, and decide to push our comfort zones. But sometimes we set those goals a little too ambitiously. Or once we start the process we’ve decided is best for achieving our goal, we discover that it involves many more steps than we thought at first. Or we may even discover that our desire to achieve our goal is eclipsed by other priorities.

In those instances, deciding to step away and re-evaluate is A Good Thing.

FM Alexander was very clear about what made for a successful pattern within education (and life):

Confidence is born of success, not of failure, and our processes in education and in the general art of living must be based upon principles which will enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence…*

In other words, when we are constructing a plan that takes us outside of our comfort zone, we should be aiming for a series of successful experiences that build confidence. If we are having a consistent series of unsuccessful experiences that leave us feeling anxious or unhappy, there’s something wrong. Either we need to change the way we’re going about the activity, or we need to re-adjust our expectations of what we want to achieve.

So if you’re feeling anxious about leaving your comfort zone, don’t be alarmed at first. But take note of the anxiety. If you are consistently finding that your experiences of the process to achieve your goals are filled with unhappiness and negativity, then maybe you need to re-evaluate.

Remember: there is no shame in quitting, just as there is positive benefit in being wrong and making mistakes. Knowing when to quit is just as important a skill as knowing when to continue. So if you feel as if you’re too far outside your comfort zone, stay “in communication with your reason,”** and make sure you re-evaluate. A little fear is good, but a whole lot? Maybe not so much.

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT edition, p. 425.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, op.cit., p.159.
Image by renjith krishnan, 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

The ‘me’ problem – why people start Alexander Technique

recorder

Last week I told you how the beginnings of the Alexander Technique were to be found in threatened passion. FM had a passion for acting and reciting, and when he was threatened with the loss of the career that he loved, he decided to take the bold step of solving his problems for himself.

I was pretty similar to FM, in that the thing that got me started on my Alexander Technique journey was threatened passion.

I was 22, newly married, starting a postgrad degree in a new country, discovering cooking and new groups of recorder enthusiasts to play with, and finding a whole new world of knitting yarns and patterns. I was also a long way from home and everything that had been familiar and supportive, and trying to make the best of the tremendous career opportunities I had been given. Life was both incredibly exciting and astonishingly stressful.

When my arms and wrists started hurting when I used the computer or knitted, at first I ignored it. But when the discomfort increased, I went to the doctor for help. That was the beginning of my journey to doctors, specialists, physiotherapists, osteopaths and goodness knows how many other health practitioners. None of them solved the issue. Sometimes I got some temporary relief, but then I’d do more research on the computer, or play another concert, and it would be back worse than ever.

I stopped playing recorder. It hurt too much. Then I stopped knitting. Same reason. Then I got told to rest my arms completely for six weeks. No computer (while writing a thesis!) and no cooking. Not even tying shoelaces was allowed.

My life was getting smaller and smaller. And somehow I knew that the reason why medical solutions weren’t helping me was because I didn’t have a medical problem. I had a Me problem. There was something about the way I was doing the things I was doing that was causing my problems.

And that was where FM Alexander began. He asked exactly that question of his doctor:

 

‘Is it not fair, then,’ I asked him, ‘to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?’ *

 

FM suspected that there was something about the way he was using his voice that was problematic. I suspected there was something about the way I was using my arms that was problematic. He studied himself in a mirror to work out what he was doing and how to stop it. I found an Alexander Technique teacher and started having lessons.

Is there something about the way that you are going about the activities you love that is causing you problems? What one step can you take today to begin change?

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.412.
Image by Steve Ford