Impossible? 

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'”

(Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

In the illustration above from the classic story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is cramped inside the Rabbit’s house, just having grown many times her original size. She looks supremely uncomfortable, her neck is compressed, and her arm is reaching out the window because there’s simply no room. It’s not possible for her to stretch to her new full size in a house that is too small. 

Perfectionism Limits Possibility

For many of us, perfectionism is like a tiny house constraining our ability to see or even imagine what’s possible for ourselves. We’re so focused on doing something perfectly, on never failing, that we limit our own growth. This in turn limits what we’re even able to do, and also limits our enjoyment of life. While perfectionism can effect anyone from any background, I observe it frequently in my work with musicians, who work so diligently to perfect their craft. 

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brené Brown wrote:

“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” 

Perfectionism is harmful to body, mind, and spirit. It asks us to use strain, tension, and rigidity in our bodies; tips us toward stress and anxiety in our thinking; and leads us to negative feelings like shame and low self-worth, and harmful coping behaviors. 

Process & Play

I admit that I will always be a “recovering perfectionist,” and I’ve found the tools of the Alexander Technique to be one of the most powerful antidotes to my perfectionist tendencies. The embodied mindfulness process that we can learn from the Alexander Technique is incredibly powerful, and can be used anywhere, any time, in any situation. 

We can:

1. apply kind, non-judgmental self-awareness

2. create a non-doing space between our thought and our response, and

3. constructively choose how to use ourselves in the moment

This process can invite us out of “needing to get it right,” and opens us to possibility. And most of the time, it works!

However, I’ve noticed that the most staunch perfectionists among us can turn even this process into a goal to be perfected. That’s why I often invite students (and myself) to PLAY. 

“Play!?” you might ask. “But I’m a serious musician! I don’t have time to play.”

Or: “I’m going to conquer this back pain. I’m not in a mood to goof around!”

What is Play?

According to Stuart Brown, play has seven elements: 

        • Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
        • Voluntary
        • Inherent Attraction
        • Freedom from time
        • Diminished consciousness of self
        • Improvisational potential
        • Continuation desire

He writes: “These properties are what make play, for me, the essence of freedom. The things that most tie you down or constrain you — the need to be practical, to follow established rules, to please others, to make good use of time, all wrapped up in self-conscious guilt— are eliminated. Play is its own reward, its own reason for being.” (Play)

One of the most powerful things about play is that it prepares playful creatures for a continually changing environment. Because we live in a world full of uncertainty, play is not only a fun diversion, but an essential training for adapting to life with poise and openness.

Play Helps Us Grow

In essence, playfulness sets us up to learn and grow. It gets us out of the trap of being “right” and into a new framework — really, a new world — in which we’re not “striving for,” but rather, “exploring toward” and responding to life.

As we explore, we get to practice imagining those formerly impossible things!

  • It’s possible to play your instrument beautifully AND without pain.
  • It’s possible to sing with freedom and power.
  • It’s possible to feel good in your body and easy in your mind.
  • It’s possible to respond to life without strain, without anxiety. 
A child playfully extending an arm to pop a bubble.

Ways to Play

The actual form play takes is unique to each person (depending on your skills, profession, culture, personality, and experience) but the underlying state of being is the same! Take a look at the list of the qualities of play above. What feels purposeless to you, but is enjoyable, makes you want to continue, and takes your attention away from self-consciousness?

Here are some ideas to play with (and certainly add your own!) 

  • Go for a walk in a natural area and DON’T worry about counting your steps. See how many things of a certain color, or of a certain kind (birds, mushrooms, flowers, etc.), you notice.
  • Try something you’ve always wanted to try, like juggling, a dance class, or a new instrument.
  • Put on fun music (whatever that is for you) and have a solo dance party in your home! (Invite your friends or family if they’re willing to play, too.) 
  • Make something creative WITHOUT a need for it to be “good.” Enjoy the process of creating. Throw it away at the end if you want, or frame it and hang it on your wall! 
  • Sing something you love to sing, NOT something you’re practicing for a performance, or that you feel is what you should be singing. For me (classically trained singer) this might be classic rock, American Songbook jazz, or folk music. 
  • Play a board game without worrying about who wins. 
  • Go axe-throwing (or some other fun outside-of-the-box activity) 
  • Try a sport, even if you think you’re terrible at it! 
  • Put on silly hats, glasses, or outfits, and take ridiculous selfies. 
  • If you have a child in your circle (your own child, grandchild, niece, nephew, neighbor, etc.) observe how they play. How do they approach their activity? If it’s appropriate, see if you can play too! 

Possibility

“In the measurement world, you set a goal and strive for it. In the universe of possibility, you set the context and let life unfold.”

(Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Personal and Professional Life)

When we play, we discover freedom. We can learn from that experience of freedom about the conditions that limit us, and the ways of being that open us up. We discover what’s possible. 

I believe that the opposite of “possible” isn’t actually “impossible”… I think the opposite of possibility is preventing. We box ourselves in through thinking we have to be right, or perfect, or strain toward our goals, we prevent freedom of movement and prevent the willingness to risk something new, and this in turn prevents us from living with poise and freedom. 

Possibility is waiting for us, if we only stop preventing ourselves from imagining it. 

If you’re looking for a perfection-free learning environment, where you are supported in your learning with a process that encourages working toward your best with ease and creativity, and honors your unique possibilities, please reach out. You can also directly schedule a 1:1 lesson or book a Free 20-minute Zoom or Phone Consultation for more information.