It is well-known that mental “toughness” is needed in the world of sports in order to succeed against the blistering competition. Athletes go through extensive training programs that address their bodies, minds and emotions. They are taught to have a healthy attitude towards competition, to think positively and believe in their own abilities, to be able to deal with tremendous pressure and to pull out victories from situations that could easily have been defeats. Mental toughness is often credited as the edge of great champions, who consistently play well and win over equally-talented opponents.
Singers, on the other hand, receive little to no mental or emotional training to help them be successful as performers. Many singers are trained vocally by teachers who themselves are not even aware of the necessity of careful handling of a singer’s delicate psyche. Everything is left to the singer to figure out alone. With no guidance, singers’ negative thought-processes and feelings about themselves can turn them, sorry to say, into creatures who are unhappy, spiteful and judgmental or so needy that they spew their most personal issues to anyone they can pin down. Obviously, neither is an asset for an aspiring professional in any field.
There are a few books on this subject, like The Artist’s Way, but it is a huge field and a variety of approaches are needed. In a previous post, I advocated for therapy/counseling for singers to help them get over any deep-seated emotional issues. That process helps take singers from a negative state of mind to a more neutral state of mind. However, work still needs to be done to move from neutral into a positive state of mind that will be a productive, creative place from which to live and sing. In this part, I discuss the habits of mind and how it is possible for us to change them. In the second part, I offer some ideas I have found helpful, along with some a reading suggestion list for those who want to delve further.
How we think and what we think about are indicative of our habits of mind. Just like any other habits, they get ingrained over time and become the “default” to which our minds automatically go. Because they are our habits and seem so natural to us, we begin to identify them as an integral part of ourselves. However, that is very far from the truth. Who we are as individuals is not defined by our thoughts. How could we be? Our thoughts are constantly changing throughout our lives. Thoughts that are crucial to us as teenagers no longer seem important only a couple of years later. What we believed when we were 22 years old is often quite different when we are 30 years old. We are constantly learning and being influenced by our experiences and as we do so, we develop, grow and our thoughts adapt. Our thoughts, including our beliefs, memories, etc., are not fixed and are not us. They are learned habits jumbled up with associations, old experiences, pain, pleasure, etc.
Let’s do an exercise:
1. Close your eyes and think of a time when you were very unhappy. Stay with the thought. Notice how you feel thinking about it. Does your body have a physical reaction for your thoughts?
2. Take a deep breath and think of a time when you were deliriously happy. How do you feel now? Stay with the thought. What is happening with your body?
What did you notice while doing that exercise? Probably a drastic difference between how you felt thinking the two opposite types of thoughts – not so good with the unhappy thought and wonderful with the happy thought. And you did that yourself simply by directing your thoughts – you controlled how you felt by controlling your thoughts. That is what successful athletes do. They control their minds, keeping positive thoughts in their heads and not allowing negative, defeatist thoughts to come in. We as singers know that habits can be changed in vocal technique. It just takes awareness, persistence and time. Habits of mind can also be changed using the same formula. We can train our minds just like athletes do, so that we are thinking in positive, helpful ways. Since our bodies react well to positive thinking, it has the added benefit of helping us sing better, too – it’s a win-win situation. Changing these habits is not easy, just like getting rid of a bad vocal habit isn’t easy, but it definitely possible!
Everyone has a running dialogue of self-talk running through their heads most of the time. This self-talk is a huge factor in how we influence ourselves throughout the day. Often, we expect perfection of ourselves, berate our actions, repeat old, outdated ideas of who we are, replay negative conversations, and then wonder why we feel so unhappy all of the time. We can enter into this stream of self-talk and change it, but first we have to be aware we are doing it.
1. Sit still for a few minutes and pay attention to your own self-talk.
2. Notice the individual ideas as they come up. Are the positive, neutral, negative or a mix of all three?
3. Pick any one, strong, negative thought, like, “I am too tired to practice tonight.” Turn it into a positive thought, “I have plenty of energy to practice for 20 minutes tonight.”
4. Say the new, positive thought internally as self-talk. Repeat it.
5. Whenever the old, negative thought comes back, correct it with the new, positive thought.
6. Keep noticing and correcting. Does replacing the new thought for the old change your expected outcome?
Amazingly enough, just changing a negative thought to a positive one consistently can often change an outcome, which was practicing for a short time versus not practicing at all in this case. Try it again with a different type of thought and see what happens. You have to be persistent about it – just changing the thought a couple of times isn’t enough. Notice when the negative thought comes into your mind and flip it instantly to the positive. This requires discipline, but is the first step on the road to a healthy, trained mind that will be an asset, instead of a hindrance.
As I discussed in my previous posting, realizing that you, the singer, can control your thoughts and thereby your feelings is an important first step to training your mind. But realizing that and practicing that are two very different things! After all, you can think about vocal technique all day long, but if you never actually get up and sing, you won’t sing very well. It is the same with your mind. You have to practice (1) noticing your negative thoughts, (2) not reacting to them and (3) assiduously flipping them to positive thoughts. This is not easy, I know. It takes time, loads of discipline and equal amounts of patience. Below I will outline some steps to help with the process.
Obviously, you won’t be able to change all of your negative thoughts at once. Like with working on vocal technique, you pick one or two concepts to starting working on and see if those need to be replaced or combined with other concepts along the way. Start by picking one or two concepts to focus on. Be specific and find something you think about fairly regularly. To be nice to yourself, pick several thoughts to experiment with at first that are easy and without a lot of emotional charge to them. Once you have a little experience, you can try tackling the more painful, deeply-rooted thoughts.
Let’s use a thought example of, “I’m always late”. If you keep thinking, “I’m always late”, it never seems to make you get places on time. Why is that? It’s because our thoughts always have a witness, the subconscious mind. It listens to everything our conscious mind says, records it to the very last word and ends up helping us create situations that bear out exactly what we are saying to ourselves. That is why it is so crucial not only to stop thinking negatively, but to start thinking positively, so we will get the results we really want and not the manifestation of our worries and anxieties.
Because of this, “I’m always late” needs to be flipped to a positive affirmation of “I’m always on time”. The subconscious does not understand negatives and does not have much of a sense of humor. It is a literalist. So, “I’m not always late” won’t work as an affirmation, since the subconscious will only pick up “I’m (buzz-static) always late”, which will just reinforce always being late for you. Affirmations, as indicated by the name, need to be phased in a positive way without any negative, judgmental words. Play around when creating an affirmation until it rings true to you. Someone else’s words might not work for your situation. Have fun with coming up with positive affirmations for yourself. “I always arrive on time at work”, “I love arriving early to everything”, “I am always prompt and punctual” and “I continually arrive places early” are a few more examples of how to create affirmations.
Once you have crafted an affirmation to counteract a particular negative thought, you can say it to yourself as a mantra whenever you think about it to try to reprogram yourself. It is important to believe it wholeheartedly when you say it. When you notice yourself thinking, “I’m always late”, just laugh and repeat positively, “I’m always on time” or the affirmation of your choice. There is no need to beat yourself up for having a repetitive thought you have had, maybe even for years, pop into your mind. In fact, the more strongly you react to the thought, the harder it will be to change it. This is when understanding that your thoughts are not synonymous with you is crucial. Thoughts happen. That’s ok. Step back, gain some perspective and say your affirmation with conviction. Then keep repeating it. It can take a while, but you will notice a big difference in your thoughts and your feelings on this subject if you do it consistently.
Tackling more emotionally-laden negative thoughts can be challenging, though that isn’t necessarily the case. If you feel the need for support when trying to change painful, old beliefs, by all means get it. A therapist, family member or good friend could be on hand or a phone call away to help. The process is the same. Identify a negative thought like, “I’m a terrible singer” and turn it into a positive affirmation like, “I’m a wonderful singer”, “I give pleasure to all those who hear me” or “I am exceedingly talented”. Use it as a mantra and replace the habitual, negative thought with the new, positive affirmation. Interestingly enough, after a while you will notice that when you say the positive affirmation, you will feel better, even about painful situations, memories, etc. It is actually the negative thoughts we repeat to ourselves that we react to and give us pain. When we slow down the negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts instead, we feel better and open up a whole new world of possibilities.
Above I mentioned that the subconscious helps carry out what it hears the conscious mind saying. That is true, but it isn’t a blank check. Just thinking positively won’t change your life – you have to move forward and take action. But thinking positively will help you see more options and motivate you to act… with the help of your subconscious, of course.
All of this is quite simple really. If a sweet, little puppy heard only negative things like, “No!”, “Bad dog”, “Stupid animal!”, “You’re so filthy!”, “Get away from me”, all of the time, would it be happy? No, it wouldn’t. It would be emotionally wounded, think something was wrong with it and curl up in a corner trying to protect its sense of self. That’s essentially what we do to ourselves all day, every day with our negative self-talk. Be nice to the puppy (yourself) and say good, positive, encouraging, loving things instead. Say them with conviction and believe them to be true. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it and it will make you a happier person and a better singer.
Below are some extremely helpful books and websites with much more information than I could provide here. Some use religious language, but you can read around it if it’s not your cup of tea. There is tons of information, so take what is useful to you and leave the rest.
The Game of Life and How to Play It – Florence Scovel Shinn – considered one of the most important classics on positive thinking, this is a must-read and is available on-line in pdf. format. It does contain some religious language.
Your Word is Your Wand – Florence Scovel Shinn – hundreds of wonderful affirmations on various different topics. This is a great resource.
Working With the Law: 11 Truth Principles for Successful Living – Raymond Holliwell – this is an amazing book that gets a little rambling towards the end. Most of it is very clear and well-organized.
As a Man Thinketh – James Allen – a short, important book that covers the important principles – highly recommended.
You Can Heal Your Life – Louise Hay – more focused on healing emotional issues, this is a very helpful book for singers – highly recommended.
Think and Grow Rich – Napoleon Hill – another classic, this book echoes many of the same principles, only with a business emphasis. Very helpful.
For more articles and information, visit my website, http://www.thebricelandstudio.com