”Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right!” – Henry Ford
”Whoa Emma, hold it right there. Do you mean to tell me you flush the toilet whilst you are still sitting on it?!’ asked Mrs. Holmes.
It was the first day of drama class, I’d never done performing arts before but it was newly mandated in the school curriculum and I’d been volunteered, despite attempts to hide behind other students, to improvise the scene of a person using a toilet.
Sat on a wooden chair in the middle of the gymnasium, surrounded by 30 of my peers, I’d been halted mid-way through my performance. My lips puckered, making a whooshing sound and my left hand gripping firmly on an imaginary old-style hanging chain flush; I’d apparently not got it quite right.
Some students began to laugh and I felt my cheeks begin to tingle from the humiliation, my eyes welled up as I tried to laugh it off ”Yeah I do actually, don’t you Mrs Holmes?” Not everyone was interested in laughing it off and I became known by the nick-name ‘Ploop Ploop’, by school bullies for my four remaining school years.
I was useless at performing arts, was what I told myself.
It was this anecdotal memory, from some 20 years before, that played on repeat as I moved across the dance studio mirrors. I’d signed up to a six week Grease-themed dance course that would culminate in a three minute performance in front of a live audience. I caught a glance at the smile that I’d practised in the 10 minutes I’d been stuck outside pressing the studio intercom buzzer. I’d hoped it would give the persistent impression that I was, in fact, having a delightful time. Instead I looked a bit like a clown whose smile was painted on comically high above my lips – disguising a hidden frown.
Everyone else seemed to be able to observe the moves dictated by the dance teacher and emulate them with ease, it was a translation process that felt beyond me. I didn’t know where to put my arms that would make them look like what the teacher was doing. The opposing hand and leg movements were like the ‘pat head-rub belly’ brain teaser. Everything I did felt unnatural and the only move I seemed to do with any confidence was the characteristic pelvic thrusting of the song: Greased Lightning.
I feared this confident and suave move would stand out amongst the rest of my haphazard dancing and I’d be singled out amongst my peers as: ‘the one at the back who thrusts a bit too enthusiastically’ and be given a cruel nickname.
Every second was a special kind of torture as I repeated the following script in my mind:
- You’re not a natural at this.
- You’re taking up too much space.
- You’re making yourself look very silly.
- You’re a second behind everyone else and making the whole dance group look sloppy.
- You’ll never master that move.
- You’re going to knock someone out with your dis-proportionally long wacky-waving-inflatable-flailing-tube-woman arms.”
As I laid in bed that night I did what I always do at the end of each day. I recounted out-loud in a chronological sequence, the events of the day. Considering the next reasonable step for any problems, making decisions and spending time revisiting the moments I enjoyed.
It was a systematic and pedantic routine that for a number of years helped me finish the day, and permit me to enter a restful state. I’d add things to my To Do list, place a particular object that I didn’t want to forget on the handle of my door or draft urgent texts and emails ready to fire off first thing in the morning. In particular I enjoyed writing in my Positive Things book that I’d started a decade before due to a perpetual worry that I’d forget all the great things that happen in my life. They weren’t big things, catching the smell of elderflower on the wind, being given a free coffee or the simple sadistic delight of watching someone else’s child having a tantrum.
But that night I didn’t feel rested as my mind circled repetitively around my experience of the dance class. I’d signed up to meet my goals of feeling joyful and strong, but I just felt awful. I once attended a festival where each morning was welcomed with an hour long disco before breakfast and it was a tradition I often honoured. In the middle of my living room dressed in a suit, espresso cup in one hand and a shaka sign in the other, earphones in on full blast, it was a glorious silent disco for one, but I didn’t feel the same dancing with an audience.
I decided that I wouldn’t go back next week, it would be better for the group if I didn’t make them look untidy. ”Tut tut” I heard Future Emma say. Whilst contemplating this internal lecture from my alter ego I caught sight of a book I’d read about year ago; What to Say When you Talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter. I pulled it off the shelf and fanned through its pages.
As with all of my self-development books I’d ruthlessly taken a highlighter to it, striking through the sentences or paragraphs that I found impactful. I’d taken notes and drawn pictures in the margins against concepts I found intriguing or perplexing. The attached post-it notes, multicoloured page tabs and folded corners were often accompanied by grass stains, chocolate smudges and coffee rings. I always crafted my way through books like this as I was not neurotypical when it came to reading, I found it a slow and laborious task, so when I did read a book, I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t need to read it again by highlighting all of the new knowledge.
The book suggested that your subconscious brain will believe whatever you or others tell it, this it calls ‘programming’. Your programming informs your beliefs, then your attitudes, then your feelings, then your actions and ultimately your results. I wondered if how I was talking to myself about my abilities to dance in front of an audience was affecting my results. Swiping a pen from the side table I wrote out a list of positive affirmations. The new script that I would read to myself every morning before my next class.
- I have a good memory. I easily and automatically remember anything that is important to me.
- I am able to achieve any goal which I set myself. In my mind I have a clear picture of myself having already accomplished my goal.
- I never demand perfection of myself, but I expect the very best of what I have to give – and that’s what I get!
- I am good at dancing. Dancing is something I am good at.
- I never avoid confronting a situation that makes me uncomfortable. I keep myself working and that keeps me winning. If I have ever had any doubts about myself in the past today is a good day to put them aside.
- I am full of resolution and always think in a decisive and determined way.
A week later as I stood pressing the studio buzzer I was joined by another woman from the class the week before ‘Stuck outside again?’ she said. ‘Yeah.’ I scoffed at our situation. A number of minutes passed as we repeatedly requested entrance through the all-powerful intercom button. ‘So, is this your first time taking a dance course?’ she asked.
I would usually have read into this innocent question and said: ‘Oh, yeah I know it’s really obvious that I’ve not done this before isn’t it? I’m such a bad dancer. Like, who invited the wack-waving-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-woman at the back!’ whilst snorting at my own bad sort-of-joke. But after a week of my positive affirmations I found myself saying: ‘Yes it is, I really enjoy dancing and I’m getting a lot out of it.’
Over the next hour I danced with a genuine smile and laughter, it wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t need to be. I found it easier to remember the steps, because I wasn’t concentrating on giving myself a hard time for the step I’d just missed. I was excited to go back the following week and I was still smiling when I wrote about my day in my Positive Things book that night, before drifting into a deep and restful sleep.
I changed two decades worth of bad programming by simply changing how I talked to myself and ultimately reached my elusive goals to feel joyful and strong. I’ve since used this method to change other habits that no longer serve me. Like the belief that ‘I am just someone who is always late’ and that ‘I will never have a good memory’. I’m so glad I decided to return to my dance class and not miss out on a great opportunity.
What opportunities are you missing out on because of what you tell yourself?
Coming up next: Episode 14, an update on this years goals from Entropy Emma.
Photo credits to: Photo by Ilyass Seddoug
How did I get here? Read my previous blogs in this 2019 series ‘Getting in the Driving Seat’ for insight into Entropy Emma and my personal development journey:
Episode 11: In the Driving Seat