Self-Talk: A Practical Project

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This is a post written for a particular set of people whom I’d like to help, arising out of a specific form of language I heard in their midst on a particular occasion. But it could have been written for all kinds of other people on different days - it is a very normal turn of phrase. So I’m sharing with the world to help anyone else who finds themselves using it.

Self-talk refers to the language we use to process our own experience of doing something (in our context, making music, though it applies also to all kinds of other skilled activities). It can refer to either the directed, purposeful instructions we give ourselves as we do it, or to the ways we process and frame our experience as we reflect on it. Hence, our choice of vocabulary for our self-talk has a significant impact on how we go about deploying our skills, and how we feel about ourselves as we do it.

The bit of self-talk we are going to focus on today is starting a sentence, ‘I struggle with...’ The project is to replace it with the phrase, ‘I would like to be better at...’

So, it is perfectly obvious why people would use the first version. As human beings, we are all works in progress, and intelligent, conscientious singers care about the areas where they are not doing something as well as they wish. ‘I struggle with...’ is a statement arising from self-awareness, measuring the distance between current and ideal self. This capacity for reflection is a quality to cherish.

However, the form of language it is couched in makes it harder than necessary to reach that ideal self, in several ways:

  • It frames the difficulty as an endemic state of being. Even when someone doesn’t say ‘always’ out loud, it lurks there in the form of the sentence. This is the kind of person I am, it states, and that kind of person isn’t good at this thing. Once you’ve given yourself that identity label, you make it more likely that you will continue to struggle with it.
  • The world ‘struggle’ defines the experience as inherently infused with anxiety and tension. Struggle is not a joyful word. It sees obstacles rather than adventures. There may be some activities in which extra tension, whether physical or mental, help you do a better job, but singing isn’t one of them. When I hear the word ‘struggle’, I feel sad, because I want people to be having more fun and fulfilment than that.
  • And in an ensemble, self-talk becomes a group-defining as well as self-defining activity. Every time one person says the word ‘struggle’ in ear-shot of their fellow singers, they help others define their personal skill deficits in these endemically difficult terms. A choir’s culture is made up of their habitual, casual interactions as much as by their formal structures and procedures

So, our project is to practice expressing our valuable self-assessments of our skill gaps in terms that frame them as things we know we can get better at, and that we will enjoy improving. The phrase ‘I would like to be better at...’ brings our future, more accomplished self into our present imagination. It expresses belief that it is possible to improve skills, and that doing so is a source of pleasure and satisfaction. That is, after all, why we choose to invest so much of our lives in the rehearsal process - it’s not just that the end goal of making the music sound better is to be desired, it’s that the journey there affords so many opportunities to feel a sense of achievement.

And ‘I like to be better at...’ is a really motivating turn of phrase to use to your director or coach. They get their kicks from seeing the people they direct and/or coach get that ‘I rule the world’ feeling from mastering skills. (At least, that’s where I get my kicks. I can’t be the only person who feels this way.) If you can re-frame your current struggles as the possibility of future success, you not only get to look forward to those achievements yourself, but you dangle the carrot of future satisfaction in front of the nose of those who want to help you.

I hadn't really thought about this before Liz, but you're so right. Phrases like that can be demotivating. As a director I'd try to help singers get over their personal demons to "remove the blockage to their flow" and help them achieve pleasure from their singing, but when they began with "I can't do that/i have a problem with that/i can never get that" etc I felt like they were closed to anything I was about to suggest, beaten before they tried. They'd confirmed to me and themselves out loud that it was going to be a waste of time. Of course I put all my energy and enthusiasm into proving that we could succeed but it took half of the time to switch their mindset to positive. I'm smiling to myself as I write this as I remember being just like them a few years back. Work you did with my quartet completely changed my mindset to the positive and the benefits of self belief. Thank you. X

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