Freedom is: the gap between stimulus and response

Over the past few weeks I’ve written about FM Alexander’s approach to planning an activity: setting a goal, analysing conditions present, reasoning out a means, and putting the means into action. FM’s experience was that he needed to find a new protocol for speaking that he could use to replace his unhelpful instinctive protocol. When he tried to put it into action, however, he found he had two problems. First, he found it difficult to stop the old unhelpful protocol from jumping ahead of his new protocol. Next, he realised that one of the reasons this might be happening was that the old protocol had been well rehearsed while the new one had barely been rehearsed at all. How to solve these problems?!

Last week I discussed mental practice as the means Alexander used to learn his new protocol. This week I’ll address Alexander’s approach for preventing the near instantaneous application of the old unhelpful protocol.

Stimulus and response

Once FM had created his new protocol for speaking, he still found that he didn’t successfully use it as he intended. As we discussed last week, one issue he identified was that his old instinctive protocol was well-learned and thoroughly practised, and so dominated the new plan he’d made. But there was another issue, too. Alexander realised that

…an immediate response [to do the old protocol] was the result of a decision on my part to do something at once, to go directly for a certain end … with the inevitable result that my old wrong habitual use was again and again brought into play.[1]

Alexander was acting at once to the stimulus to use his voice. His response was immediate. He was a bit like those people – you probably know one – who will answer their phone the moment it rings, no matter how inappropriate the situation. There was a stimulus (to speak / the phone rings) and his decision was to respond immediately.

What’s between stimulus and response? It’s your decision

That’s the most remarkable part of this section of Evolution of a Technique, in my view. Alexander realised that he had made a decision about the manner of his response, and that decision coloured everything that came after it. He had decided to prioritise doing something at once.

But there is no need for us to do that. Often we treat stimulus and response like they are some variety of German complex noun:

We treat stimulus and response like a German complex noun - no gap between the words

That’s our decision. There is no reason why that should be the case: there is no actual causal link between a stimulus and our response to it. We can, in fact, choose to give ourselves time to respond, in order that we can also choose the manner of our response. Alexander came up with the following formulation. It functions as a useful tool in training oneself out of responding instantly to stimuli: make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.[2]

We can use this formulation ourselves. When we receive a stimulus – whether to speak or answer a phone or anything else – we can make the experience of receiving that stimulus and refusing to do anything immediately in response. That gives us the opportunity to choose the manner or our response. As Stephen Covey points out, we can even choose whether we wish to respond at all![3]

So no matter what the next couple of weeks hold for any of us, we can receive a stimulus, make an experience of refusing to do anything immediately in response, and then choose whether we do what we originally intended, or something else we’ve planned, or nothing at all. And that is true freedom: knowing that we always hold the key to our our reactions.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.40-41.

[2] ibid., p.40.

[3] Covey, S, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Melbourne, Business Library, 1989, p.69.

Keep success going: don’t chase results!

I learned not to chase results by singing with fingers in my ears, just like this German girl.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how to keep success going. I said that in the initial stages of learning a new skill, we are rendered inconsistent because we have a dodgy process AND a poor (or at least inconsistently good) use of ourselves. If we want to be successful, we need to have a consistently good process, and we want to use ourselves consistently well as we follow the process we’ve honed.

But there is one more thing that can trip us up in our quest to be truly awesome at what we do (or, if you’re British and prefer understatement, rather good at what we do). It is this.

We start to look at the results.

Worse, we may begin to assess our effectiveness by our results. This can lead to a dangerous path: choosing to chase results and forgetting the process.

Chasing results

Let’s be honest: we all love results. Pretty much everyone wants good results from their efforts. The problem is, results can’t be good all the time. The peril of success is that it becomes very tempting to be bewitched by good results. When you do this, it can become very easy to stop thinking about the process that led to the good results in the first place. And if you stop thinking about the new process and focus on the end, FM Alexander says that it’s very likely that you’ll (without noticing) revert to using the old process that you’d worked out wasn’t useful. He writes:

if the pupil thinks of a certain end” as desirable and starts to pursue it directly, he will certainly take the course of action in regard to it that he has been accustomed to take in like conditions. In other words, he will follow his habitual procedure in regard to it, and should that procedure happen to be a bad one for the purpose (and the fact that he needs re-education proves this to be the case), he only strengthens the incorrect experiences in connection with it by using this procedure again. [1]

By failing to focus on the new process, and instead focusing on results you want to achieve, you actually run the risk of strengthening the old and insufficient way you went about things before! Musicians and sportspeople: this is doubly dangerous when you begin evaluating the results you are getting while engaged in the activity. I’m sure every musician has experienced that moment as they play where they begin to think about how well things are going, and then immediately make a mistake! My lovely singing teacher, the late Gerald Wragg, used to try to get me out of this particular trap by asking me to block my ears. When I couldn’t hear properly what sounds I was making, it was easier to focus my attention on carrying out the changes in technique he was asking me to make. The physical barrier made it impossible to chase results!

Sticking to process and choosing not to chase results

My singing teacher found that the only way of stopping me evaluating my singing – as I was singing – was a physical barrier. I’m sure most of you aren’t as recalcitrant as me! You can choose to stop focusing on results, and instead work on the process – what Alexander in the following passage calls the ‘conscious means’:

If, on the other hand, the pupil stops himself from going to work in his usual way (inhibition), and proceeds to replace his old subconscious means by the new conscious means which his teacher has given him, and which he has therefore every reason to believe will bring about the desired result, he will have taken the first and most important step towards the breaking-down of a habit, and towards that constructive, conscious and reasoning control which tends towards a mastery of the situation. [2]

Note the final sentence of the passage: Alexander is telling us that we are aiming towards mastery. He isn’t looking at ‘just good enough’ or even ‘fairly proficient’; he tells us that if we keep working on using our constructive, conscious, reasoning control, we will achieve mastery! If this is the case, then evaluating our success by only looking at our results might not tell the whole story. We should ask ourselves: did I follow my new process? Did I manage to stop myself from going to work in my usual way? Have I improved my skills at mental discipline?

If Alexander is right – and I firmly believe he is – then if we just follow the process we’ve reasoned out, success (mastery) is inevitable. Start by working on the process, and leaving the results to themselves.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.308.

[2] ibid.

Image: Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (]

“Just One More…” – how the desire to do more can be harmful, and how to stop overworking.


Do you have problems with one of the holy grails of personal productivity: how to stop overworking? Do you find yourself exhausted by your drive to keep checking things off the To Do list?

I’ll answer just one more email…
I’ll write just one more paragraph…
I’ll play that phrase just once more – just to be certain of it…

At the recent Dance and Somatic Practices conference in Coventry, Jane Toms and I presented a workshop in which we discussed how Alexander Technique can be a great tool for circumventing the stories and beliefs we all hold that can prevent us from achieving our potential. I mentioned a couple of the self-limiting (and self-harming) beliefs that caused me to begin studying Alexander’s work.

My tendency to try to fit in ‘just one more thing’ wasn’t one of them. But I’ve realised that it should have been.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve grown up exposed to the belief that hard work is the key to success. I knew I had taken this belief to heart, but only recently have I begun to see how it affects my day-to-day life. I don’t like to cook only tonight’s dinner. I like to start tomorrow’s lunch, too.

I will try to fit in just one more email. Just one more dish on the rack. Just one more load of washing. Just one more student in the schedule.

Yes, this can be productive. But it can also land me in trouble. I can take on too many jobs, or end up doing too many things at once. It’s exhausting.

So I made the decision to stop overworking, and to start treating myself more kindly. But it’s hard. It is as though I have a ‘default setting’ that demands overwork, and any stimulus can set my default setting into overdrive.

But it is not for nothing that FM’s last major piece of writing was entitled ‘Knowing How to Stop’, because stopping is a major key in his work.* When trying to solve his career-threatening voice troubles, FM realised that he needed to “make the experience of receiving a stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.” **

In other words, FM received a stimulus to speak but made the experience of refusing to respond in his usual way. This gave him time to choose not just how to respond, but whether to respond at all.

And this has been my challenge: to receive the stimulus – another email, another phonecall – and to refuse to spring instantly into action. This gives me time to choose what I actually want to do – stop overworking. It gives me time to think. And when I take this time, I have the chance to make the decision anew to choose the path that I have decided is best for my purpose, rather than relying on my default programming.

This is the way we change habitual behaviour – by receiving a stimulus, not instantly using our default programming, but instead making a decision to put into effect the process that we have decided is better.

For me, this is the key to how to stop overworking. It means pausing before fitting in ‘just one more’ of anything. What about you?

*Michael Bloch, FM: The Life of Frederick Matthias Alexander, Kindle ed., p.186.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Irdeat ed., p.424.
Image courtesy of stock images,

Stopping the snap: Alexander Technique and stress management

Santa by Matthew Mackerras

Christmas. It’s that time of year again. The best of times, the worst of times. So much fun, and yet sometimes so much stress too. D you ever find yourself reacting to circumstances in a way that isn’t very helpful or constructive? Have you ever resolved to do better next time, but when next time came, found your resolve wasn’t enough?

Frankly, how do we stop ourselves from reacting to stressful or difficult events/circumstances/people in a way that isn’t good?

This was exactly the situation FM Alexander found himself in. He realised that he needed to change the way he was reacting to the stimulus to speak, because his instinctive response was causing him to lose his voice.

He had a good think, and worked out a plan for how to open his mouth and use his voice more effectively. But when he tried to use it … He found he wasn’t using it. He was using his old instinctive way instead.

Resolve and planning? Check!

Success? No!

FM realised that he was having trouble implementing his plan because when he had a stimulus to speak, he went on auto-pilot, so to speak. It didn’t matter how good his new plan was, because it never got past his auto-pilot reaction.

And this is what happens to us, too. We have grand plans about how we are not going to snap at our pesky siblings (for example), but at the critical moment, we seem to react without thinking, and snappiness occurs.

So what did FM do? He realised that he needed to switch off the auto-pilot.


“If I was ever to be able to change my habitual use … it would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.” *


And that’s what he did. He refused to do anything immediately in response. He was giving himself the mental space to stop, turn off the auto-pilot, and decide what he actually wanted to do.

So at this time of great stimulus, this is what I’m asking you to do. If there is a stimulus that causes you trouble and grief, make the experience of receiving it, and refusing to do anything immediately in response. Give yourself the space to choose your reaction – or even if you want to react at all.

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT edition, p.424.

Steps to conquer stage fright: give yourself time

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 examined how our general state of wellbeing (use of ourselves) affects our performance.

This week, we’re giving ourselves time.


Today in my singing lesson, I was reminded of what is possibly the greatest luxury any performer can give themselves.


Time is a slippery customer. It can seem to move so quickly. It can feel as though it is in someone else’s control. When I asked my students at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama what they found hardest about doing auditions, feeling rushed came high on the list. My students felt as though they were not able to give themselves the time and space to give the calibre of performance they were capable of giving.

Note this: they felt as though they couldn’t give themselves time.

No one said they couldn’t. No one told them not to take a second to breathe. It was a choice that they made in reaction to the given circumstances (such as the general atmosphere in the room).

Allowing oneself a moment to stop is a fundamental tool within the Alexander Technique. When FM was trying to solve his vocal hoarseness, he realised that:

“if ever I was to be able to change my habitual use … it would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving a stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.”*

FM realised that if he didn’t give himself this pause, he was far more likely to speak using his body in the more habitual way that caused the hoarseness. If he received the stimulus but refused to do anything immediately in response, he gave himself the chance to put his new reasoned process into action.

So give yourself time.

Stand up. Pause. Then begin the speech.

Finish the sentence. Let it be finished. Then start the next.

Finish the musical phrase. Stop the breath. Allow the body to breathe in. Then sing.

If you stop, you give yourself a priceless gift: the chance to choose what happens next. So what will you choose?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p. 424.
Image by Just2shutter from



Don’t stay being a victim!


This post is likely to get me into trouble and upset a few people. Why? Because today I want to talk about the concept of being a victim, and the place of self-responsibility in the Alexander Technique.

Over the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve met students who’ve had some really tough things happen to them. Near fatal car accidents, severe motorbike accidents, physical violence, workplace bullying, sudden and severe health scares… Nasty things. Things that we wouldn’t wish on anyone. Some of my students have suffered physical or emotional agony that has persisted, in some cases, for years.

We probably all know people who have suffered something in those realms. Perhaps one of you reading this article today is in a similar situation. And it is you in particular that I want to talk to. Because I have realised something important: my students who have suffered all have one thing in common. They are remarkable for the way in which they handled the events that have struck and laid their lives waste.

How did my students react to being a victim of nasty events or circumstances? By not being a victim.


The two meanings of victim

In that last paragraph I deliberately used the word ‘victim’ in two different ways. In the first sentence I used the word as you would speak of a victim of crime; to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “one who suffers severely in body or property through cruel or oppressive treatment,” or even in the softer sense of “one who suffers hardship, injury or loss.”* In other words, someone who has had something unpleasant happen to them. This is a noun. It is a statement of fact.

Sometimes, however, the term ‘victim’ moves from being a noun, a fact, to becoming a decriptor or a label. It becomes an identity in which people can clothe themselves. And it can be such a danger.

I’m sure we’ve all known people who have failed to move on from an incident which hurt them. Years later, they still refer back to the incident, speaking of it in similar terms as soon after the incident happened. They just don’t seem to be able to let it go. And as we look at them, we see that in some way they are stuck, sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, in a way that is not helpful to them or to anyone else around them. It is a painful thing to witness.

This concept of victimisation led author Melody Beattie to write:

“We do not have to be so victimized by life… We are not victims. We do not have to be victims. That is the whole point! … We can do what we need to do to take care of ourselves… If we can’t do anything about the circumstance, we can change our attitude. We can do the work within: courageously face our issues so we are not victimized… We are victims no more unless we want to be.”**

And Melody should know. She survived drug and alcohol dependency, divorce, co-dependency and the death of a child. She knows about pain and suffering, and she knows about the necessity of moving on.

So what tools can the Alexander Technique supply to help with this? Two very powerful concepts – self-responsibility and the freedom to choose.

1. Self responsibility. Think about the event that happened. Ask yourself if there was anything that you did/said/did not do/did not say that contributed to the event. If no, then great! If yes, then you’ve got a great place to start learning and healing and moving forward. This is the equivalent of FM Alexander asking “was [it] something that I was doing … that was the cause of the trouble?”*** It’s a simple question, and yet so very powerful.

2. Choice. The bad event has happened, or is happening. Ask yourself if you are able to choose your response to that event. This is what Alexander did when he began his investigations into how to alleviate his vocal problems. He realised that  he needed to “make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.”**** For example, one of my students historically had a terrible relationship with her parents. Through reading FM’s words, she decided to see if she could make the experience of receiving the stimulus of being with her parents, but refuse to do anything immediately in response. What she discovered was that she could create the space in which to choose to respond without her usual rancour. What her parents said still irked her; she simply chose not to respond to it.


Don’t get me wrong – I know this is a tough ask. I know that what I am suggesting is difficult, and may even seem practically impossible. And yet it is the way forward. I’m not asking you to believe me. Believe Melody. Believe my students. And believe in yourself.


* Oxford English Dictionary online,
** Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go, Hazelden, pp.209-210.
*** FM Alexander, Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.412.
**** ibid., p.424.