The Self (Part 1)

As most musicians (all human beings really) learn or become aware of, there are a lot of pressures that can be perceived or "placed" onto our lives. From the demands of our education and technique, to the supply and acquisition of jobs, there's a lot we can be worried about. All these, in the end, are external circumstances which, if one allows it, can create and trigger imbalance or conflict within ourselves. I can't count how many times I've been frustrated during a practice session. In fact, I was playing timpani the other day and I got extremely frustrated. I even called my girlfriend to help me calm myself down. If you know this feeling then you may have or have not come up with ways of dealing with it; not ignoring it, dealing with it. I won't proclaim to have any of the answers, but I want to at least give you my personal answer. Maybe it can help lead to yours.

I personally think that dealing with these feelings of frustration with oneself, self doubt, self pity or self abuse, requires an objective look beyond the circumstances that trigger these feelings. In order for this to happen, you have to figure out why they trigger these feelings in the first place, become aware that the trigger is being activated and push passed it to regain your composure and sense of yourself. For me, and for most people I think, the first occurrences of self doubt comes during childhood at a very interesting time. It's not during the toddler years,  you feel pretty invincible then. It's not during pre-K or kindergarten, your pretty caring, friendly and outgoing, making tons of friends and playing freely. It started for me during the first grade, when my ability to do something was being judged as either perfect, imperfect, average, below average and failure. Yes, as soon as we entered into the education system, our sense of ourselves became jeopardized, left to be compared to the standard of a "good student". So, in my case, and it may be similar to yours or not, having to undo the years of comparing myself as a person to the standards of a perfect student was not easy, and I to this day still struggle with this, as many others do. Still, being aware of any type of comparison to your self and its effects on your self image and life is the first step to changing and retraining your brain to a more compassionate view of yourself.

Perhaps you have a different trigger origin, but I believe that the end result is the same;comparison of yourself to a model imposed on you and despairing about your supposed inability to achieve the model's standard. Look at the circumstance objectively. Let's deal with the most dangerous comparison, perfection. Am I trying to be perfect because I choose to be or someone told me to be? So let's say, "I choose to be perfect." Objectively, is this possible? To what extent? How many people have done this? What is my definition of perfect? Is that definition possible and to what extent? These are all objective questions we can ask ourselves without getting into an emotional dissertation about how we aren't as perfect as someone else. Honestly, perfection isn't possible as far as the common definition is concerned. Really, to me, perfection is doing what I set out to do as efficiently and as accurately as I can in that moment. If I get my intention across, then I was "perfect". This recognition of impractical and practical definitions can help guide you to a better outlook on your life. If you let go of the harsh definition of perfection, achievement without errors, and replace with a positive one, achievement despite errors, you can reshape your reaction to that comparative trigger. It takes time, but with patience and will it is indeed possible with any circumstance. 

The other danger of these comparisons is the limitations it puts on us. Let's say that we were still using the harsh definition of perfection. If we felt that a certain piece of music, or any task for that matter, was too difficult or impossible to achieve that standard, we would place a limit on our ability and not go forward with learning that piece. It's all based on what we believe we are capable of. This limitation view not only keeps us down but also stagnant, unwilling to tread new ground, leaving us little to no space to grow and improve. If we maintain the ideal that, because it exists it is possible, there is always the opportunity for us to be able to accomplish it at some level. The false, negative definitions limit us and the true, positive ones are our liberation. Change the belief, change the outcome.  

Now, the more common and active our triggers are, the more we start to define ourselves by them. When I made several mistakes in biology tests and got C's I began to tell myself I wasn't good at biology. At that point I lost interest in the class and thought/accepted that I would probably fail. The same can be said of our music. If you know you have trouble with reaching that high note, usually the first reaction is to realized your incapability to do it at that time, assume its immense difficulty and assume your failure status at consecutive attempts. It is here where not only our definition of our success at something must be observed, but our definition of ourselves as well. We can't compare ourselves to something without having two things to compare. Who are you? Not who do people say you are, not what is expected of someone in your race or gender or sexual orientation or religion or age etc.? Who do you know yourself to be, right now, at this moment? Forget the past and don't look to the future, who are you right now? Is who you are right now being what or perceived as being what you want or think you to be? Doing or perceived as doing what you want or think you want you to do? Wanting or perceived as wanting what you want or think you want? If yes then great! If no, then why? The key here is to get to know who you are and to be proud of who you are right now! Forget if you aren't where you want to be in the future and recognize that you are who you are right now, in this moment, and that is just fine, even "perfect." Change and betterment are always welcome, but never at the expense of one's love and acceptance of themselves in that present moment. If you aren't where you want to be, recognize it, find the reason behind it, and look for the ways to change it.

So we have, so far, redefining what our standards of comparison are into positive, practical standards that are our own, and reshaping/rewriting our personal self story, our self image, into one that portrays our true selves, not what people say we are. If we can do this then we are pretty much at the apex of being self confident within any situation or circumstance. As long as we look at events objectively and deter them from effecting us on an emotional level, we can make clear judgments on whether react or not and how. Instead of assuming the high note is too hard, realize that because it exists it is possible to achieve and be encouraged by that truth. Why can't I hit this note, objectively? The answer cannot be, "Because I'm a clutz," if you look at it objectively. It could be that your fingers aren't fast enough. You embrace and take ownership of that inability and that informs your actions towards ability. Or maybe it's because the instrument is faulty. Then it's not even your fault, but you still embrace and take ownership of the inability (because the instrument obviously can't) and that informs you to buy a new instrument. From objective analysis you can organize yourself and begin to tackle the new standard for yourself. Still, one thing lingers over us, even if we are self confident and look at things objectively; fear of failure. You may feel that you can hit that note, but the presence of "what if I fail?" can paralyze you, stopping you from even trying. Failure is not your enemy.

Long story short, ever since I went to college I've dreaded auditions. It wasn't until last year that I finally shook that feeling off of myself. Still, that trigger still hovers if left unchecked. So what are we afraid of? Again, it goes back to our first two issues. The circumstance/standard and the self image. Usually we tend to think, because of our current society, that our actions and achievements permanently define us as people. "Once a thief always a thief", "You can't teach an old dog new tricks", "You can take the man out of the street but you can't take the street out of the man", etc. The fact is that your actions don't permanently define you. Remember, you are who you are a this moment. If something happened in the past it is not occurring right now! Yes, past events may inform and influence decisions or pathways but they don't define your existence. Also, negative views of the future do you no good because they haven't occurred yet, and very often never do. "Oh here comes that note I always miss." How do you know you always miss it? Did you travel into the future and see yourself miss it every time? These negative influences on your "now", your present moment, imprint fear on you which inhibits your actions, judgment and choices. Fear of the known or the unknown must be looked at objectively in order for you to see that it is just an illusion, a mirage, that doesn't exist. Yes there's a possibility of failure, but assuming its imminence does more damage than anything else.

Finally, we must accept the existence and possibility of failure. Everything in this world has an opposite, you can't have or know one without the other. So, without failure, you will never know success. Without loss you won't know gain, without turmoil you won't know peace. As bad as we may feel in that present moment, we must regain our awareness that these feelings are temporary. If you stop avoiding failure, acknowledge its presence, it can lead you to more correct actions and choices that lead you to success. So what your snare drum dropped during a tacet movement where the strings were playing pianissimo, a few moments later no one will be talking about it. Maybe because of this you buy a better snare drum stand. So what you missed the high note, the panel will be talking about the entire audition, not just one moment of error, and actually that's the key right there. Maybe you even win the job! Our lives are built out of moments. Moment to moment to moment. We cannot define all based on one specific moment. As long as we acknowledge it's existence and be honest with ourselves on whether it's because of our personal actions or not, embrace the possibility of it occurring and accept it when it does, we can always learn from whatever happens and improve because of it.

Again, this is the way I found peace of mind and gained more self confidence. I don't pretend to have all the answers because no one does. It takes everyone to share their experiences and knowledge to even come close to that. I will say that we all have similar things in common. We've all felt inadequate or some version of it at some point and probably have even been afraid to fail at something. Knowing you're not alone in these feelings is indeed a helpful thing and even seeking and confiding in close friends or relatives about these feelings can be a great method of release and empowerment. Still, the confidence must come from within yourself. Know that you have the power to change any aspect of your life, all it takes is the willingness to start and make steps towards that change. Yes, we might fall and fail, but we never learn unless we become aware of the mistakes and failures that are possible. Maybe you'll find that you don't have the answer you're looking for. Instead of viewing that negatively, that awareness can lead you to a teacher or a mentor. It's all about how you perceive it, how you perceive yourself in that moment, and how you react to that perception. I know from experience that it is not easy to retrain yourself to not fear failure, especially after you've been doing it most of your childhood, but it is possible! Free yourself from fear of failure. Realize your greatness and ability to grow, adapt and persevere. Be aware that your circumstances or from the past do not fine your existence, nor influence your future. Go for your dreams, go for your happiness, go for your confidence, go for your goals and standards. "Take chances, make mistakes and get messy!" - Magic School Bus When you do find your way, I hope you to will share your story to help others find theirs.