Something strange happened in my singing lesson today. My teacher was trying to get me to do something that I just couldn’t seem to manage, no matter how hard I tried to do what she said. And I noticed she was getting really frustrated with me – not that she was nasty, just sounding frustrated.
I knew that, in the past, I’d have felt that her frustration was justified, and that I was to blame for not being able to do what she was asking. Maybe because I wasn’t trying hard enough, or going about it the wrong way – either way because I wasn’t doing the right thing.
But after all that I’ve been through in recent months, I took a very different approach. I dared to contemplate the possibility that it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t do it. I reflected that I’m a quick learner, intelligent and motivated, an experienced singer, well-coordinated physically and genuinely trying to do my best. So if I couldn’t do something, perhaps it was because she wasn’t explaining it in the right way for me. I decided that it was inappropriate for her to get frustrated with me.
This led to a brief but intense confrontation, which revealed a fascinating misunderstanding. My teacher felt that I kept having ideas of my own in a way that resisted what she was teaching. So she felt frustrated that every lesson I seemed to be doing something different from the previous one. It seemed to her that I was ignoring what she was saying. Whereas from my side, I was working really hard to do exactly what she told me, and was confused that she seemed to be giving me different ideas to work on from week to week.
(Part of the problem is that singing is such a difficult thing to teach – singing teachers generally use all sorts of ideas and metaphors to try to get their students to internalise a particular physical sensation or activity – my teacher was aiming at the same sensation every week, but using different images to get me closer to it.)
We eventually worked out that the problem was that I was overreacting to her suggestions. I was trying so hard to do exactly what she asked that I was abandoning everything I’d learnt up to that point. And so she was finding me as difficult to guide as it would be to steer a car with a steering wheel so sensitive that the tiniest finger movement triggered a dramatic change of direction! The more I hit obstacles (I think the problem today was simple physical tension in my shoulders and neck!), the more I’d try to find ways to do what she asked, and the more it would appear to her that I was following my own ideas and completely ignoring what she was saying.
Once we reached this point, the hostility and frustration all vanished and it suddenly made sense. Almost two years of putting up with occasional moments of frustration (her) and confusion (me) were resolved in ten minutes of tense but honest confrontation.
What stopped us resolving this before? I have to admit that it was my tendency to blame myself, rather than consider that others might be at fault.
I’m not quite sure where this comes from. To some extent it’s a conflict-avoidance measure. I don’t have much experience of having productive personal confrontations – ones that resolve issues rather than making them worse (generally because I use confrontation as the very last resort!). But I’m not afraid of conflict in situations that don’t relate to blame (e.g. political or philosophical debates). I suppose there’s also an element of “if I criticise them, they won’t like me” It feels like a mental habit – once I realise I’m doing it, it’s quite easy to stop myself – the trick is to notice something so ingrained!
I’m also not quite sure how I’ve survived up to this point in my life without undergoing terminal self-esteem failure. I’ve had several bad moments, but up until the break-up last autumn, it was never really a problem. I suppose it’s a combination of being good at doing lots of things and having had the luck to avoid encountering a lot of people who were unfairly critical. (Several times today I’ve been surprised to find myself feeling an utterly genuine gratitude to my ex – he said so many things about me that were glaringly wrong that he taught me to recognise it and say so!)
It’s fascinating to me just how much difference it makes when I dare to challenge the idea that I’m to blame for any problem I encounter! For one thing, it means I have to work a lot less hard to maintain my self-esteem – and I’m much less vulnerable to criticism from others. But it also gives me a much more balanced view of a situation, and thus a much greater ability to take appropriate action. And I think I’m going to learn a lot more this way, too.
The willow tree that bends to the wind may have good reason to be proud of her flexibility, but she probably doesn’t learn as much about the wind as she would if she stood up for herself a little more!