Dodging the perfection trap

How good are your worst days?

I fell to thinking about this after experiencing a crummy day. The low part of the day occurred when I arrived at my son’s school to pick him up for his cello lesson; only then did I realise that I’d left the cello on the other side of town, and that there was no way of going back to get it in the time available. And the teacher wasn’t answering her phone. Oops.

Some of my students have been having crummy days too. Sadly, theirs have been a little more serious than mine. External circumstances have knocked them sideways. One, for example, had to deal with a minor crisis that entailed both emotional upset and a degree of hard physical work that would ordinarily have caused significant back pain.

When this student came for her lesson, she told me how bad her week had been, and about how difficult it had been to keep thinking ‘Alexander’ thoughts in the midst of all the upheaval. So I asked her about how she’d handled the incident. My student then explained about all the planning she’d done so that her life was disrupted as little as possible, and that she’d done all the physical work. And, she said, oddly, she wasn’t as tired or sore as she’d anticipated.

“So did you use Alexander thinking to help you?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” she replied.
“And did it help?”
“Well. Yes. But I couldn’t keep it up all the time.”
“Ah,” I said. “But isn’t that a very high standard to set when you’re in a crisis?”

From where I was sitting, my student had achieved significant success. She’d experienced the crisis but hadn’t reacted in her usual (old, habitual) way either to the emotional stimuli or the physical work that came afterwards. She had taken care of herself wonderfully. In my eyes, she had done brilliantly. In her own eyes, however, she hadn’t done as well as she had been pre-crisis, and was therefore a failure.

 There’s such a temptation to judge our progress and our success using our good days.  Musicians are brilliant at this. ‘I could play that obscenely difficult semi-quaver run on Monday, so that’s now my minimum standard for success. If I don’t get that run right, I’m a failure.’ That’s the sort of thinking I used to indulge in on a fairly regular basis.

Sportspeople do it too. Snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan is a classic example. At his best, he plays the game at a standard that is truly near perfection. Indeed, Ronnie strives for and expects perfection. So when he has an off day and plays only excellently, he often gives post-match interviews where he expresses great dissatisfaction with his ‘poor’ play.

Looking for perfection is the only way to motivate yourself… Sometimes people get excited about shots I play, breaks I make, and I think it was terrible. I’m my own worst critic.”*

Perfection is a tough standard to set for yourself. It is, pretty much by definition, unachievable. If we try to judge our progress by our good days, we are falling into a less extreme version of the trap of expecting perfection. If we take this path, we are more likely to discount our successes and, like my student, judge our efforts (and ourselves) as failures.

When life throws you something difficult to handle, it’s going to be harder than normal to keep your head and keep thinking constructively. That’s why we spend time in Alexander Technique lessons practising thinking constructively around simple activities like walking, or sweeping, or raising an arm (I once had a lesson about lifting a teacup). By working on activities like these, we are creating the building blocks that can lead to success in activities and situations that are a bit more complex.**

What would happen if we gauged our progress by how well we get through our crummy days? Is your worst day less worse than before? Then rejoice! For if we all rejoiced a little more, wouldn’t that do a lot to change our view of ourselves and our world?


*Quotes from an interview with Brian Viner, The independent, 7 January 2010,

** cf. FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living, Irdeat collected edition, pp.588-589.