Settling for ‘good enough’ as an antidote to perfectionism

I work with a lot of musicians, so it goes without saying that I work with a lot of people who would describe themselves as perfectionists. Now, I’m not knocking standards in this post – of course we should strive to be the best we can be at what we do. But I am going to attack the particular stream of perfectionism that causes some of us to delay finishing things, or to delay even starting, for fear that we might create something that falls short of impossibly high standards.

Perfectionism as procrastination

For some of us, perfectionism becomes a means of not starting something we’ve said we intend to do. Many writers will tell you about the curse of the empty screen and the tyranny of the blinking cursor. Artists will talk about the fear of the empty paper or canvas. I can vividly remember, as a teenager, being faced with a blank piece of very nice and very expensive art paper in my high school Art class, and being frankly terrified to mark it because I felt in my bones that any mark I made would be terrible.

This fear of being terrible is a key component in the dark side of perfectionism – we want to be perfect, but are inwardly convinced that we are doomed to fail. So we don’t even begin. Note that it is our belief that holds us back, not any actual clear evidence.

Perfectionism as fixed mindset

But how did we end up this way? Toddlers will fall over many times while learning to walk, but we don’t see them not bothering to get up and try again. What happens to change the way we think so dramatically that we begin to fear even the prospect of making mistakes?

This has been a subject of study for a number of psychologists, including Aaron Beck, Carol Dweck, and Angela Duckworth. Beck’s contribution was the foundational insight that the same objective event can be perceived in different ways, depending on the interpretation – the self-talk – of the person involved.[1] In other words, two children can make a mistake on a maths quiz, but one might have a very different interpretation of that mistake to the other. The first might see the error as proof they are ‘no good’ at maths. The second might see the mistake as a cue to try harder in order to succeed next time. Dweck demonstrated in one of her early studies that telling a group of children to ‘try harder next time’ when in a group solving maths problems was far more successful than simply praising them – the praise group were more likely to give up on harder problems, whereas the ‘try harder’ group did exactly that![2]

Whether we are aware of it or not, our self-talk around whether it is okay to make mistakes, or whether we need to be right (perfect) all the time is a belief that is rooted in the examples given to us by parents, school teachers, music teachers, sports coaches, and pretty much any other adult we were around as kids. Children soak up knowledge, but they also soak up beliefs and attitudes. Some of them will be good and useful, and some will be rather more unhelpful.

Alexander’s take on perfectionism

FM Alexander was clear, in his chapter called Incorrect Conception, that a student’s fixed ideas were the cause of most of the student’s difficulties. All those little ideas and beliefs that each one of us has picked up over the years and added into our own little private universe of what is Right and True – these are the things that trip us up.

it is probable that all his former teachers will have instilled into him from his earliest days the idea that when something is wrong, he must do something to try and get it right. Beyond this, he will have been told that, if he is conscientious, he will always try to be right, not wrong, so that this desire to “be right” will have become an obsession in which, as in so many other matters, his conscience must be satisfied.[3]

If our overriding belief is that it is bad to make mistakes, then we’ll do whatever it takes to avoid them. And if we can clothe our fear with the seeming virtue of perfectionism, so much the better. But whether our perfectionism stems from fear of mistakes or a genuine desire to be perfect, what good does it serve us? It stops us from finishing projects, from trying new things. I know of a French exchange student who barely spoke to his English host family, for fear of getting his English wrong. He effectively threw away a tremendous learning experience through fear! Do we really want to make that mistake?

Listen to the new means; make mistakes

The only way out of the perfectionism trap is to start being prepared to make mistakes. It’s a decision, and as a recovering perfectionist myself, I can testify that it isn’t easy. But it’s the way of progress. Allow things to be ‘good enough’ occasionally. And if you’re having lessons in a skill, whether music or sport or something creative, make the experience of listening to what your teacher is telling you and trying it out, no matter how silly you may feel. You may be on the road to great things.[4]

[1] Duckworth, A., Grit, London, Vermilion, 2016, p.175f.
[2] ibid., p.179.
[3] Alexander, F.M., Concstructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat 1997, p.295.
[4] ibid., p.298.

Change and Alexander Technique: confronting self perception

People come to Alexander Technique because they aren’t happy with the way they are currently using their minds and bodies, and they want to change. But the change they are asking for tends to be a very particular and specialised kind of change: they want to be better, and yet FEEL exactly the same! In other words, they want the improvements without any change in their self perception.

Happy by Derren Brown includes a great section on self perception

I was reminded of this during the week while reading Happy by Derren Brown. Brown recounts how his physical trainer suggested that he work on changing his stance while walking so that he didn’t round his shoulders forward. Brown noticed that when he walked in the way his trainer suggested he felt a sense of authority and connection to others that he hadn’t previously experienced.[1]

Changes feel different.

Brown’s experience chimes neatly with FM Alexander’s concept of psycho-physical unity. Because we are an interconnected mind-body organism, we shouldn’t really be surprised that making a change in the way we stand or walk is going to make a change in the way others perceive us, and in the way we perceive ourselves. Amy Cuddy’s work on power poses highlights a similar fact: if we change one part of our psycho-physical organism, we should expect those changes to create a cascade effect throughout the rest of the organism.

But we so often don’t expect this. We think that we can make a specific change (like walking without hunching our shoulders) and it not affect anything else. This is very human, but it’s still a logical fallacy. And so often the change that is most noticeable is one of self-perception; we feel different. As Brown says in Happy,

Perhaps between a preference for not drawing attention to myself in public and the physical placement of my hunched shoulders, I had come to feel rather invisible on the street. The sudden shift in my mood engendered by this point of correction was startling to me, and a little unsettling, as I felt far more conspicuous. [2]

Feeling right as a means of guidance

When trying to remedy his own vocal problems, Alexander realised that feelings (including self-perception) were very significant in his difficulties.

I had to admit that I had never thought out how I difrected the use of myself, but that I used myself habitually in the way that felt natural to me. In other words, I like everyone else depended upon ‘feeling’ for the direction of my use.[3]

This becomes very important indeed, though, when one tries to make a change to one’s manner of use. For as Alexander came to realise through his own experiences, the way we use ourselves habitually, no matter how inefficient or downright painful, feels right. We feel like ourselves. So when we start to make changes, there is a strong likelihood that we will cause a cascade effect that causes us to feel different. As as Derren Brown experienced, that change in the way we feel ourselves to be in the world can be unsettling.

At this point every student of the Alexander Technique has a choice. Will they stick with the new way of doing things and make an effort to deal with the change in self perception, or will they go back to feeling ‘normal’?

Derren Brown chose to return to his slouch. FM Alexander decided to ride his way through the sense of feeling wrong. Which will you choose today?

[1] Brown, D., Happy, London, Corgi, 2017, p.297.

[2] ibid.

[3] Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.35.

How powerful is a decision?

Anyone who studies Alexander Technique learns that decisions are powerful. Decisions that we make determine how we see the world. They also determine what we think we can and can’t do. 

An example.

proficiency in bass clef is a decision as I play a very large recorder

As a young musician, I learned bass clef quite a number of years after I became proficient with treble clef. Even after decades of playing, bass clef still doesn’t feel as comfortable as treble clef to play.

When I am gigging with Pink Noise Recorder Quartet, I frequently play the contrabass recorder, which obviously requires me to read bass clef. I do it a lot, and I do it well (even if I do say so myself!). 

I don’t own a nice bass recorder, so tend not to play bass parts; those with really classy instruments take those parts. But every so often I borrow someone else’s bass and play, reading from the bass clef. And for the longest time I would struggle a bit and make mistakes, believing that because I don’t have much experience playing the bass recorder (and by extension, the bass clef) I will struggle to read the notes.

And then one rehearsal I suddenly realised… The way I read bass clef easily to play contrabass recorder? It’s the same bass clef that I play with difficulty when I play bass.

It’s the same clef. And the same notes. With the same fingering.

I changed my decision about bass clef being hard. Suddenly my bass playing improved substantially.

I am aware that I probably sound very silly. But that’s the nature of so many self-limiting decisions. How often do we make a choice about how we’re going to act or behave and then realise down the line that our choice is illogical or a bit silly?

FM Alexander knew the power of a decision. In 1923 he wrote:

A teaching experience of over twenty-five years in a psycho-physical sphere has given me a very real knowledge of the psycho-physical difficulties which stand in the way of many adults who need re-education and co-ordination, and, as the result of this experience, I have no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.[1]

I know from my own experience both as a student and teacher of the Alexander Technique that FM is quite right! So my question to you is this: what little decision or belief are you holding onto that keeps you from performing the way you want?

[1] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT 1997, p.294.

Photograph of Pink Noise Recorder Quartet members by Matthew Mackerras.

Separating injury from compensatory movements

injuries can cause compensatory movementsHave you ever injured yourself, then found yourself moving other parts of you in odd ways so as to compensate for the injured part? Perhaps you found yourself tensing muscles around the injury in order to prevent movements that cause pain? It’s a very human response, but sometimes compensatory movements cause more problems than they prevent. This is a post about how I know this to be true. It also contains a tip or two for how to deal with the problem.

Compensatory movements: autobiography

Last week I injured a muscle in my right shoulder. For a number of days the injury was so bad that I could barely move my head. I even took anti-inflammatories – it’s rare for me to resort to painkillers, but on this occasion it was necessary. And a week later, it still isn’t better.

When I met up with a colleague earlier this week, she did some hands-on Alexander Technique work with me, and found that I’d been tightening pretty much every muscle in my shoulder girdle on both sides in order to try and deal with the pain. With her help, I started to loosen off some of the tension.

The pain got worse in the injured area. Then everything felt markedly better.

Compensatory movements are different to the injury

Why did my symptoms improve, even though Alexander Technique does not (and cannot) deal directly with injuries?

It’s important to remember that there is a difference between an injury and our reaction to it. I think we’ve all had the experience of hurting ourselves – perhaps spraining an ankle – and then moving differently in order to avoid putting pressure on the injured area and causing ourselves pain (and possibly further injury). We indulge in compensatory movements, usually to avoid further hurt and upset.

Unfortunately, our compensatory movements aren’t always rational or reasonable. Worse than that, they aren’t reasoned, and fall into the category of what FM Alexander would call ‘specific treatment’ which doesn’t take into account the general working of a person’s whole body:

It is in the nature of unity that any change in a part means a change in the whole, and the parts of the human organism are knit so closely into a unity that any attempt to make a fundamental change in the working of a part is bound to alter the use and adjustment of the whole … any attempt to eradicate a defect otherwise than by changing and improving this faulty concerted use is bound to throw out the balance somewhere else. [1]

The injury makes one set of adjustments to the working of the whole body. If we then generate compensatory movements and throw those into the mix, we can have no idea of what effect all of these will have on the condition of our general use of ourselves.

As I said, compensatory movements are likely to be rational or reasoned, they are almost certainly specific ‘fixes’, and sometimes they can cause us more discomfort than the original injury! I think every Alexander Technique teacher could tell stories of students who had created elaborate movement strategies that ultimately were detrimental to the student’s wellbeing, even though the student had created them from the best of intentions.

So what do we do to avoid making ourselves feel worse?

Top tips

  1. Let yourself be injured. Don’t try to ‘muscle through’ activities.
  2. Think about range of motion and alternative movements. You will be tempted to throw lots of muscular tension at your problem to prevent movement of the injured part and avoid pain. Better to know what ranges of motion you can use safely, and find alternative ways of doing things. For me, this has meant getting much better at using my left arm!
  3. Make an effort to think about your head-body relationship. If Alexander is right and our general condition of use is fundamental to our wellbeing, then spending time thinking about this relationship will help to ease any tension we may have unwittingly created by compensating for the injury.

Afterword

I’ve found since meeting with my colleague that if my shoulder is particularly painful, I need to do a quick check of myself. What am I doing with my head in relation with my body? Am I letting my arms be optional add-on structures, or am I pulling them in towards my midline? And then, if I think about leaving my neck and shoulder muscles alone, the pain rapidly gets worse and then much better.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.54.

Image courtesy of yodiyim at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What Google Maps can teach us about ignoring advice.

Have you ever asked for advice, and then ignored it and done what you wanted to anyway? Ignoring advice from experts and teachers isn’t very sensible, but it’s very human, and I think we all do it occasionally.

Google Maps: a paradigm example of ignoring advice

I was reminded of this the other day when out with a friend. My friend used Google Maps to give directions to where we were going, but didn’t follow the directions given. Rather, my friend decided that they knew better than the app and chose their own route – even though we were going to a place neither of us had been before!

It’s very tempting, when faced with a road you know, to use the known road rather than the one that is unfamiliar. But it might not be the best way to where you want to go. And this isn’t just a transportation story, but a metaphor about trying to reach any new goal; and it’s a story that FM Alexander used in one of his very best chapters, called ‘Incorrect Conception’.[1]

So why is ignoring advice so common?

FM Alexander says that we ignore advice because of our own fixed ideas about what we can and can’t do. For example, a singer might have a belief that they need to throw their head backward in order to take a breath. Their teacher might notice this, and work with the singer to encourage them to open their mouth by allowing the jaw to drop. But if the singer is convinced of the necessity of throwing their head backwards, they’ll keep doing it, no matter what their teacher says.

That is to say, they’ll keep doing it… until they don’t.

I once worked with an actor who made a very particular set of muscular contractions in order to use their voice. Every lesson with this student would lead to me highlighting how this set of contractions wasn’t helping the actor’s voice, and the actor saying a variant of ‘But I NEED to do that!’ After months of lessons, I was ready to tell my actor student that I couldn’t help them. As the lesson started, I had my goodbye speech planned. It was that very lesson that the actor exclaimed, “I’ve been doing this really weird muscular thing, and it’s not helping me!” Crisis averted.

It’s hard to take the unknown road, because (of necessity) we don’t know where it leads. We navigate away from all the familiar landmarks. But sometimes we simply must take the unknown road, otherwise we’ll just keep heading to the same old destination.

So if you find yourself going to a teacher and not following their advice, pause. Ask yourself why your are ignoring them. What is it that you are convinced you can’t do? What mental block (or dodgy decision) have you made that might be holding you back?

Your teacher might just be right. Give their advice a go!

[1] The original story is in Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.299.

Image courtesy of taesmileland at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pick one thing: the causal factor that changes everything

A causal factor is like pushing the first domino in a domino runOne little domino: the causal factor

Have you ever watched a video of one of those amazing domino runs? The ones that split, go over obstacles, do amazing things? I’m always fascinated by those sorts of displays: the time it must take to set them up, the precision… And the fact that the whole display depends on pushing just one little domino to make it work.

This works for far more than simply dominos. It is the experience of my students, and countless other Alexander Technique students, that if you pick the right spot to make a change, everything else will improve around it.

The causal factor in the wild

FM Alexander found that if he focused on preventing pulling back his head, he also stopped depressing his larynx and sucking in breath, and his vocal condition improved.

One of my students found that, but thinking about how she opened her mouth to sing, she prevented a scrunching down in her neck and could improve not just her singing, but her ability to concentrate upon the words and the line of the song.

Another of my students, a jazz pianist, found that by focusing on listening to the noes he wanted to play inside his head and just allowing his fingers to do what they needed to do, he was able not just to play more effectively and beautifully, but also stop doing all the movements in his legs and jaw that were bothering him.

So what’s going on? Why does it work?

Why the causal factor exists.

A bit like the domino run, everything has to start somewhere. If you look at the dominos laid out ready to go, they look like a selection of separate pieces. It is only when you push the first one that you realise they are all connected.

It’s the same with the problems that FM Alexander found when he watched himself in the mirror. He saw three ‘harmful tendencies’, and they may have looked like three separate things, but FM guessed that it was likely that they were all connected, just like the dominos. The scientific principle involved is called the Principle of Parsimony (or Occam’s Razor) – the simplest solution to any problem is likely to be the right one. FM correctly made the assumption that the three separate physical act he saw were related to one causal factor. He then worked hard to find the causal factor, and successfully prevented himself from doing it.

And we can all do this. My singing student decided not to dilute her attention by trying to think of neck, breathing, opening note, words, and countless other things that obsess singers; she thought about how she opened her mouth, and found that everything else improved indirectly as a result. My jazz pianist found that by focusing on the notes in his head, he was free to let his well-trained fingers find the notes for themselves, and he was more able to stop the other extraneous movements.

So next time you are stuck with a problem that seems intractable, or you have a ton of things you could concentrate upon and you don’t know where is best, try doing this:

  • Ask yourself what is the most important thing about the activity you are about to do. What is your main focus? What action starts the activity? Is there part of the activity that involves high-up axial structures like the head and neck?
  • Decide to commit yourself to focusing on that one thing that you’ve decided is important.
  • Do it. Not just once, but a number of times. Note your results.

You may not pick exactly the right One Thing that changes everything first time around. We know that FM Alexander took a little while to find the right causal factor for his vocal troubles. But when you find it, just like the domino run, everything will have a chance to change and flow.

 

Image courtesy of posterize at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sometimes what a student wants is not what they need

student wants and needs are two different things; like wanting and needing chocolate cake!It is a sad truth that sometimes what a student wants is simply not the thing that is going to move them forward most effectively.

My music teacher friends know this phenomenon well. A violin student, for example, may want to improve a particular passage in the music they are playing. Their teacher gives them an arpeggio to work on. The student can’t see the point of the arpeggio and just wants to work on the passage. The student wants improvement, but only wants to work directly on the thing they perceive as the problem.

Here’s another example. An Alexander Technique student has an issue where their arms hurt when they are working at a keyboard (computer or piano, whichever is more appealing to you). The student wants me to help them with their arms. But I look at what they’re doing and can see that the issue with their arms is created by the way they are sitting – there might be a backward rotation in the pelvis and crunching in the neck.

I want us to look more closely at this example, and examine these questions:

  • Why do the student’s arms hurt, and not their neck?
  • Where do I, their teacher, go to work – on the arms where the student expects, or where I think the problem originates?
  • And if I work where I think the problem originates (the spine – or higher!), how will the student respond?

Why do their arms hurt?

One of the key ideas behind the Alexander Technique is that everything is connected; we are a psycho-physical unity. Because everything is connected, if something is not working well in one area of the body, everything else has to compensate and adjust. That may mean that a completely different part of the body may hurt from the one that caused the trouble in the first place.

That’s exactly  what happened to FM Alexander. He was suffering hoarseness when he tried to recite, but the issue wasn’t with his vocal folds. Rather, the hoarseness was an indirect result of the habitual way he pulled his head back and down before speaking.[1]

Where do I go to work as a teacher?

It should logically follow from what I’ve said above, that if I go to work using hands-on techniques on the student’s arms they may get some benefit, but not nearly as much as if I go to where the trouble really started. I need to go to the root of the problem to really clear it up. I also need to make sure that I am clear with the student about why I’m apparently ignoring the bit of them that hurts!

So I’m probably not going to work with my student’s arms as a first point of approach. But where will I work?

Go to where the problem starts

In the example I’ve given, I can see that my student is doing unhelpful things with their head in relation with their body, going down through their spine all the way to their pelvis. I’m likely to use a hands-on technique that interacts with that relationship. But I’ll also be working somewhere a bit higher, because it seems very likely that there’s some kind of unhelpful thinking that has generated the unhelpful movement behaviour.[2] If I can get my student thinking more clearly, then the physical behaviour is likely to vanish far more quickly.

How will the student respond?

My task as a teacher is to help the student improve. What the student wants and what helps them improve might be the same thing, but more often than not, it isn’t. If I’m the teacher, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t do the thing that with generate the most benefit for my student. And mostly, that means clarifying their thinking while working with their head in relation to their body.

[1] Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, Orion, 2001, pp.27-28.

[2] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat complete ed., p.52.

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big questions: should I be using mirrors to practise Alexander Technique?

Self image is how we see ourselvesIn my teaching practice, many students ask me whether they should be using mirrors to help them practise Alexander Technique at home. This happens particularly if they’ve done some reading and know that FM Alexander used mirrors. They also note that I don’t have a mirror in my private teaching room, and that I very rarely use mirrors in my public or College classes.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using mirrors? Should you use one, or not?

Using mirrors – ideas in favour

We know that FM Alexander used a mirror when he created the work we now call the Alexander Technique. He wanted to see what it was that he was doing with his vocal mechanisms while acting that was causing his vocal problems, and how it was different to what he did when speaking normally.

To this end I decided to make use of a mirror and observe the manner of my ‘doing’ both in ordinary speaking and reciting, hoping that this would enable me to distinguish the difference, if any, between them… [1]

Alexander was working entirely on his own – no teacher to help him. It makes complete sense that he would want to use a mirror to be able to see what he was doing. Music students often like using mirrors for a similar reason – it enables them to see exactly what they are doing as they play. The music college in which I work has mirrors installed in virtually every practice room. The students can work on their technique and their playing posture without needing a teacher handy.

So if you are working a lot on your own – if you are having lessons by Skype, or your Alexander Technique lessons are by necessity spaced out – then working with a mirror could be a great option for you. You get instant feedback on what you’re doing as you go about an activity. And, sometimes the things you learn and change are actually more valuable than the sensations you would have encountered in a hands-on lesson (because you did it).

Using mirrors – reasons against

This is where things start to get personal, for the simple reason that some people may simply have good cause to find mirrors very difficult. Some people dislike them, or dislike looking at themselves. When I teach group classes, when I ask how many people will find themselves instantly staring at the part of themselves they like least when faced with a mirror, I get many heartfelt nods.

When a person looks in a mirror, he* sees what he is conditioned to see – what the person’s self-concept and body image allow him to see. If the person has a negative self image, he is likely to look first at the areas that he perceives as a problem. At its mildest this is a simple dislike of a nose or some tummy flab; at its worst it manifests as Body Dysmorphic Disorder [2]. BDD is a mental health condition where the sufferer is entirely unable to reconcile the image others see with their own highly prejudicial impression of their body to the point where it seriously affects their day-to-day life. I myself am a fair way towards the clinical end on this continuum. When I look in a mirror, the first place I look is my face, then my stomach. If a teacher asks me to look in a mirror, any teaching point they were trying to make gets lost in a haze of dysmorphic anxiety.

Even if you don’t have difficulties with seeing yourself negatively when using mirrors, there is still an issue around self-discipline. Put bluntly, it can be really hard to not make yourself look like your idea of your ‘best self’! How many of us will pull in our tummies when we stand in front of a mirror, or do funny things with our shoulders? It can take a lot of willpower to just ‘be yourself’!

Using mirrors – my advice

So should you use a mirror? It depends on the answers to these questions:

  • Can you look at yourself dispassionately?
  • Are you able to reflect on what you see open-mindedly? (no pun intended!)
  • Do you have the discipline to be able to not be ‘your best self’, but be imperfect?
  • And have you developed the observational powers to be able to see yourself doing habitual movements while in activity? Or are you prepared to develop those powers?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to most or all of these questions, then using a mirror could be good for you. But if you feel, like me, that a mirror could be more harm than good, rest assured that you can progress and improve successfully without it.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion 2001, p.26.

[2] For a good book on this topic, read Callaghan, L., O’Connor, A., & Catchpole, C., Body Image Problems and Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Trigger, 2017.

*I’ve used the pronoun ‘he’ deliberately here. Frequently I use ‘she’, but I don’t want to give the impression that all females suffer from BDD. Also, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that males don’t suffer from it. Anyone can have an issue with their self image.

Image from Pixabay.

Self responsibility – why an Alexander Technique teacher shouldn’t tell you what to do

The pathway to self responsibilityMy son is now a teenager and eager to become more his own person. The other day we were discussing independence, and he said, “I just wish you could spoon-feed me independence a little more quickly!” 

Then he wondered why I was laughing.

Self responsibility

Self responsibility is one of the key concepts of the Alexander Technique. It’s actually the first major principle that I teach from Evolution of a Technique, the piece of writing where FM Alexander describes how he created his work. FM experienced vocal problems that threatened his career and received no lasting solution from his doctor. After two weeks vocal rest, FM again lost his voice onstage during a particularly important engagement. He recounted his conversation with the 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?” He thought a moment and said “Yes, that must be so.” “Can you tell me, then,” I asked him, “what it was that I did that caused the trouble?” He frankly admitted that he could not. “Very well,” I replied, “if that is so, I must try to find out for myself.”[1]

When FM Alexander decided to discover for himself what he was doing with his vocal mechanisms that was causing his hoarseness, he was taking responsibility for his own problems. And every student that walks through my door does pretty much the same thing: they’ve decided that whatever is holding them back is a self-imposed restriction, and they want my help in getting rid of it.

My job, then, is to construct a pathway that will help my student in solving her own problems. My task is to make sure she has all the tools and concepts she needs to be able to get rid of her own unhelpful thought and movement behaviours, and even to construct new and better ones. It isn’t my job to tell my student where she is going wrong, or to solve her problems for her, even if I can see them more clearly than she does. Because my job isn’t to impose myself on my student’s life and thinking – my job is to help her become so adept at reasoning her way out of unhelpful behaviours and into more effective ones, that she doesn’t need me any more.

Self responsibility leads to independence

Independence is, in fact, what Alexander said was his ultimate goal. In the preface to his first book, FM said:

I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself.[2]

FM wanted us all to be so adept at thinking our way out of difficulty and into efficiency that there would be no need for Alexander Technique teachers! We might be a little way off that yet, but it’s still my goal for every student that I teach. i want each and every student to be able to do the work for themselves, and my task each time is to create a pathway – individual to that student – that will help them achieve that goal.

So I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’ll ask a lot of questions, and I’ll give a lot of support when necessary, but I’m always going to make sure that you take responsibility for yourself.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Irdeat ed., p.412.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.5.

Lesson thrills: what’s even better than having the good feelings last?

How long do good feelings last in AT lessons?

When students come in for Alexander Technique lessons, they enter an environment where they are encouraged to change their thinking, which changes the way they move. And this very often also brings about a change in the physical sensations that they feel. Very often, students report having great experiences: they feel lighter, or more open, or tingly, or just more awake and alive.

When we have Alexander Technique lessons, we often have good feelings as one of the outcomes. And we expect – or possibly just hope – for the good feelings to continue.

I’m really sorry to have to tell you this, but you probably won’t keep on feeling the lovely feelings that you experience immediately after making a change in your thinking and movement. There are good psychological and physiological reasons why this is true, and I’ll give you a quick summary of them below. And most importantly of all, today I want to explain why it’s actually a good thing that we ‘lose’ the good feelings.

Hedonic Adaptation: why psychology says the good feelings don’t last

According to Prof Laurie Santos in her popular Coursera course The Science of Wellbeing, hedonic adaptation is “the process of becoming accustomed to a positive or negative stimulus such that the emotional effects of that stimulus are attenuated over time.” [1]

Cat and hot dogs - good feelings don't last

But what does this mean? It means that if you win the lottery, you think you’re going to experience a massive jump in your level of happiness. Actually, though, you initially won’t be as thrilled as you expect, and your happiness levels will drop to normal levels pretty quickly as you get used to having all the extra cash. Good things don’t affect us as positively as we predict, and bad things don’t hurt us as much as we fear.

Similarly, the cat in the meme above thinks he’s going to enjoy the seventh or eighth hot dog just as much as the first. But those of us who have ever binged on chocolate know that this just won’t be the case – you get used to the taste, and can even become tired of it! This is because your body is physiologically geared to get used to sensations, and then to discount them. Your taste buds stop registering a taste quite quickly; and even if they did, your brain is bombarded with so many pieces of sensory information every second that it couldn’t possibly process them all. It prioritises information that is new or vital to your continued existence, and junks the rest.

This is what happens to all those nice feeling sensations that students often experience as a result of changing their ideas and reducing their overall physical tension. Immediately after losing the tension, they feel fantastic. And understandably, they want to feel fantastic forever. But just the same way as one’s taste buds stop reacting to the delightful taste of chocolate, one’s brain stops registering the delightful feelings of freedom and lightness. They become normal. And if we carry on doing a positive behaviour for long enough, it becomes part of our normal happiness ‘set-point’, and we don’t register it.

But is that sad, or is that something to rejoice in?

Yay! – The good feelings don’t last!

You won’t notice those lovely feelings any more, because the change in thinking that generated them has become normal. Wow! That means you’ve made a substantive, lasting beneficial change to your life! It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily feel that way.

But I would hope that we don’t just settle for the new improved way we are using ourselves and go blithely about our days. Why settle for good, when even better is just around the corner? If we keep thinking and keep experimenting, we open ourselves to more beneficial changes and more lovely sensations. And more than good feelings, we will be opening ourselves to the possibility of true wellbeing. FM Alexander wrote:

William James suggested to us that we should get up every morning looking for health. We hope to go further, for we have a technique to offer in this connection which will command for the human creature an increasingly high standard of that condition of psycho-physical functioning which makes for health … the all-important duty of the human creature … is that of the continuous individual cultivation of fundamental, constructive conscious control of the human psycho-physical organism and its potentialities. [2]

So if we want to be truly healthy, we need to move beyond living in a non-feeling daze, or even hoping for consistently feeling nice. We just have to keep exploring and improving the way we think.

[1] You’ll find the quote in Week 3, lecture 3.

[2] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.391.