Friday, 19 October 2012

'fake it till you become it'

Jim posted a link the other day to a TED talk on body language, in response to my posting the following Paul Oertel quote:

You serve no-one by making yourself smaller out of an inappropriate consideration of someone else's scale

It's an interesting talk about how deliberately changing your physiology (for example, open out and stand confidently, rather than let yourself unconsciously curl up or slump) can change both how you feel, and how others react to you.

It works. I know it does, because I did it for over twenty years. I learnt how to project calm and confidence; in small or large groups, in lecture theatres, in keynote speeches. And it's true, in a way, that I became it. It's also true that I did this by learning to pull down a kind of blind between myself and the audience, by being super-prepared, by learning how to operate smoothly behind a facade.

It's powerful. But faking it, even though it had become second nature, fatigued me. It depleted my soul, even though on the outside everything appeared to be going so swimmingly. I still think it's good to remember the basic message of this talk - that if you're feeling threatened or small, you can adjust your physiology with very real results. But I now feel hesitant about the idea of bullying yourself in this way, and of faking it at this kind of level.

For me, the Paul Oertel quote is talking about how we talk to ourselves, about ourselves, privately, in relation to our creativity. For example, how we might compare ourselves to other artists, and belittle the validity of our own artistic contribution. I know it's in the same ball park as the TED talk, but I think the Oertel idea is about silent, inner work, rather than pumping ourselves up in order to manage a stressful social encounter. Perhaps these are just two equally valid but rather different things. Or perhaps there may be a cost to bigging yourself up through physical manoeuvres, rather than trying to understand something about the original feeling of smallness...

This links to the other discussion about self-consciousness and singing. I worked out long before I gave up my previous career that one of the reasons I was feeling so uncomfortable playing music with an audience was precisely that with music I couldn't hide behind my well-oiled blind.



  1. Doesn’t this have something to do with the belief that there is a core self that cannot (or will not) be changed or adapt to new circumstances or experiences - an immutable self to which one (the rest of one) should remain true? Is it the case that inner resistance should be heeded and how might we distinguish between the inner voice of lassitude or irrational fear from the inner voice of authentic frailty or wisdom?

    Is the arduous always unhealthy or unnatural or might it sometimes be the only possible route to self realisation (indeed ‘health’ in both body and spirit)?

    A bit of mental “bullying yourself” is often the very best thing you can do to overcome the disinclination to exercise, especially in a society where physical exertion is rarely necessary as a regular part of survival.

    The metaphor of a “fa├žade” suggests another level of selfhood, a false one, that sits above or outwith the authentic self. If we thought of exercise in similar terms wouldn’t that mean that exercise is simply an artificial choice rather than a natural desire, something you do because you have to, not because you want to? And if, no matter how regularly you do it, you still find it a grind, should you give in to inner resistance?

    Perhaps many things that used to come naturally to us, and were subtly good for our health, are now so avoidable that we have no alternative but to bully ourselves to stay fit. Perhaps it’s all that bullying in itself, all the chiding and procrastinating about how much is good for us or how little we can get away with that is the real problem. Just do. And if doing it once doesn’t give you confidence or incentive to do it again then do it different or do something else.

  2. I don't feel I have any clear answers here. It's hard to generalise, both in terms of area (is making yourself exercise the same as persisting through humiliation?), and in terms of individual situation. I used to exercise like cleaning my teeth; loved it, felt good on it, but it turned out later that exercising when tired/stressed (and ultimately as a way of keeping doing something that you wouldn't have been able to sustain otherwise)can be very bad for you physically, even though it makes you feel good!

    I don't think what I'm saying here suggests that there's a core self - more that the overall biological system has ways of communicating to consciousness, through the body, about situations that are physically or emotionally questionable for it. From this point of view, if you feel like crap doing something, rather than pushing yourself on through it with the justifications of your mind, or your social conditioning, or whatever, you might consider why your body is signalling such negativity.

    Something that is arduous might feel tough but also good. Inner resistance is, I agree though, mighty tricky. I've thought about it a lot in this blog, as you know. I have to say that, having studied various forms of my own inner resistance over some years, the body communication view seems to be gaining ground. Perhaps this is just me - I'm a big self-discipliner, and have worn myself out with it at times. Whereas other people seem to much more naturally self-regulate, and sometimes wish they self-regulated a little less, in terms of things like taking that nice nap on the sofa when their mind says they should be exercising. But I do have questions about the exercising thing now, and actually other behaviours that are a result of the mind beating the body with a stick and making it 'get on' and 'achieve'. As you say, we live odd lives, and all of this is pretty mixed up. And whatever is said, it's context-specific, idiosyncratic stuff, so very hard to get a handle on in general terms. Perhaps one route is to stop looking for general answers and find out better what makes us personally flourish or decay.

    Re the facade, that's not a general comment about theoretical concepts of self. It's my own label for what I feel I was doing to myself.

    I like your ending. Absolutely. Just bloody do something rather than sitting about thinking about it. See what it feels like. Then adjust, according to temperament, inclination, and current philosophy!



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