Self-Confidence and Self-Talk

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I have been thinking recently a good deal about self-belief and conquering the demon of Impostor Syndrome. It is something that many choral leaders grapple with on and off, not just when they are new and inexperienced, but throughout their lives. It is like a chronic condition that you get under control for a good long time, and then something triggers a flare-up just when you were least expecting it.

And it’s something that mostly people deal with alone. The lovely thing about working with choirs is that you always have company in your music-making. But if you’re worried that you are letting your singers down, or that they aren’t satisfied with your efforts, you are immediately isolated from what is usually one of your primary support networks.

So this post is partly to say: you’re not alone. Many people feel like this. And you’re doing fine. The fact that you feel responsible to your ensemble and care about their experience shows that you are on the case. It’s the people who never doubt their wonderfulness who should (but don’t) worry.

But it’s also to share some thoughts on how to pull ourselves out of this place when we fall back into it. My starting-point was the notion of self-talk, as used by sports psychology: the internal dialogue we use to coach ourselves through our praxis. There is a good deal of research on this, and it is pretty conclusive that positive, rational self-talk improves performance. Moreover, it seem that motivational self-talk (‘You can do it!) is most effective for activities that require speed or strength, but for more complex or fine motor control, instructional self-talk (‘Head still, breathe deep’) is more useful.

Self-talk in this sense has some relationship to the kind of affirmations you find recommended in self-help books. Both operate on the principle that the content of your thoughts affects your emotional state and thus your actions. But there is a key difference: sports self-talk is about your internal script as you do your thing in preparation, training and competition. General life affirmations are things you practise in between doing other things, and are thus less focused and directed. This may be why I have tended to doubt the latter’s usefulness: it is all very well telling yourself that you are strong, calm and beautiful (or whatever), but if you’re in a place of self-doubt to begin with, you’ll have trouble believing it.

And this is, in some ways, the difficulty for adapting self-talk for the choral leader. Usually, our moments of great doubt aren’t when we are in the middle of working with singers - there’s just not enough head space spare at that point for anything other than doing the job - but in between rehearsals. We need to find ways to re-write the internal scripts we use with ourselves as we reflect on and plan for our work with choirs, rather than necessarily those we use in the heat of the music.

In conversations with people going through these phases, I noticed that their focus is often inwards (concern with how others are judging them) and towards the past (beating themselves up over things they could have done better). What would happen if the focus were turned outwards and towards the future?

One of the most freeing as well as useful bits of advice to emerge from the early 21st-century blogosphere was Kathy Sierra’s mantra: It doesn’t matter what people think about you (or your product/service), what matters is how they feel about themselves when they interact with you (or your product/service). She gives us permission to look beyond our self-doubt and just focus on user experience.

The great thing about this approach is that it doesn’t ask you to deny your feelings or repress them, but it does give you something concrete to think about instead. And, attentional resources being limited, a conscious focus on others’ state of being will necessarily make less headspace for self-doubt to play on. And, like any habit change (since our internal scripts are essentially habitual modes of self-talk), it is much easier to replace a behaviour than to stop one.

In practice, how would we do this? I would suggest journaling as a technique to develop the new patterns of thought. You were going to spend time planning choir activities anyway, and writing gives you more executive control over your thought-processes than just letting them flow freely through your head. (Did you ever wonder why I write a blog?)

There are four key questions to ask:

  1. What are we doing well right now?
  2. How is everyone feeling about themselves?
  3. What does the choir (collectively and as individuals) need?
  4. What could we usefully work on next?

You can’t think about these questions very long without being pulled into a to-do list. You might happen across all kinds of things you have been beating yourself up about in the process, but because the focus is on what to do next, they are reframed as things to plan for.

And once you get practised at using these questions as a planning aid, you have them to hand any time your brain throws you a ‘feel bad about yourself’ thought. Someone was frowning at you from the risers in rehearsal? Your doubting script tries to tell you it was because they didn’t like your directing. Your new, outward-focused script observes that they need something - possibly just more practice, maybe extra support with how to sing it, maybe help understanding the value of the music - and checks in with them to identify the need and thus work out how to meet it.

Note also how I have framed the questions as ‘we’ rather than ‘they’. Choir and director are an ensemble together, with different roles to be sure, but collaborating in the same musical experiences. The individual strengths and needs will differ (as they do amongst the whole group), but the corporate strengths and needs are shared. It is not just that thinking in these terms helps heal the isolation generated by doubt, it is musically sensible to plan in these terms.

The big thing I have learned working through these ideas is that you don’t build self-belief by thinking about yourself. You do what needs doing, and just run out of cognitive capacity for self-doubt. And if you concentrate on keeping those in your care feeling good about themselves, they will constitute a happy emotional environment for you to work in.

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