Last week I wrote a post about Professor Roy Baumeister‘s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, talking about willpower. Prof Baumeister, if you recall, advocates us spending time each day reminding ourselves to sit or stand up straight. He has evidence to suggest that spending time exercising willpower over something like ‘posture’ will improve our self-control in other areas.
This week I want to talk about why Prof Baumeister’s advice may help your willpower, but may in the end do you more harm than good. Quite simply, today I am going to tell you why it could be positively harmful to ‘sit up straight.’
People and their people-ness*
FM Alexander wrote in his final book about how each one of us has a psycho-physical unity equipped with “marvellous mechanisms” – that is, we all have a body (and mind), and all work pretty similarly. But each of us chooses how we use this marvellous mechanism we have been given. This is our manner of use. And our manner of use of ourselves can influence our general functioning for ill or for good.**
In other words, we each use our psycho-physical unity uniquely, according to our ideas, beliefs and preconceptions. We each have a me-nes that determines the effectiveness (or not) of our general functioning.
Alexander believed, I suspect with some justification, that “the great majority of civilized people have come to use themselves in such a way that in everything they are doing they are constantly interfering” with the mechanisms that determine the standard of their general functioning.*** Their me-ness gets in their own way.
This means that if we are asked to do an exercise designed to improve our standard of functioning, we will do it through the filter of our me-ness – the very me-ness that Alexander says got us into trouble in the first place.
Me-ness says ‘sit up straight’
Sitting up ‘straight’ is a classic example pf this problem. When we try to ‘sit up straight’, we do this through the filter of our me-ness. Probably without knowing it, we have a whole catalogue of beliefs and preconceptions of what this act will involve. And the likelihood is that most of those preconceptions will be wrong and unhelpful. They will, on evidence from my classes, involve excess tension (frequently of the muscles of the mid- and lower back) and arching of the spine, the onset of muscle fatigue and sometimes even outright discomfort.
Imagine what would happen if you did that every day, as Prof Baumeister suggests, whenever you think of it?
Don’t sit up straight!
So don’t try to ‘sit up straight’. Not, that is, until you’ve had a good think about what that might involve. You could think about (or even research) the location of your hip joints. You could think about which muscles actually need to be involved in sitting (fewer than you’d think). You could think about the part the spine plays in keeping you upright, and what shape it is.
If you think of these things, you won’t be just trotting out your old me-ness. You’ll be adventuring into the unknown, and exercising that wonderful gift that Alexander said was the secret of our ability to govern the circumstances of our lives – our reasoning intelligence.****
* With a nod to Prof DF Kennedy of Bristol University for this wonderful phrase
** FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat Complete Edition, pp.523-4.
*** ibid., p.526.
**** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.17.
Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.net