My visit home to Amarillo typically involves the following: a trip to my grandparents’ house, where I lovingly listen to reruns of stories about their eight children; a wine night with one of my last friends still in Amarillo (whom I have yet to convince to move to Austin); a quartet session with the “Barefoot Babes,” a group of (mostly) women including my mom who get together on Tuesdays to play classical tunes with a side of wine and cheese; a mandatory board game with my family; and a ballet class at my former dance studio.
During a recent visit home, I did all of the above but instead of just taking a ballet class, I also gave a talk to the dancers about the ways in which ballet has influenced my personality and character since graduating high school. Ballet has been a huge part of my life and most of my dancing experiences have positively impacted my life. However, I have done a great deal of self reflection lately, especially on my developmental years, and have recognized that my practice may have fostered some unhealthy mental habits. I hoped that by sharing my story of ballet’s influence on my life would help students recognize early on when their practice is not of the healthiest quality.
One tool I offered was the concept of “pivoting.” In dance, the pivot is a very simple step: while standing with feet together, step one foot forward, shift your weight forward and turn 180 degrees toward the opposite leg so that you face the other direction. One of the more negative consequences of my dancing practice has been an abundance of negative self talk. While training, I would spend six days a week for several hours a day, dancing with my peers in front of a mirror. It is pretty challenging to keep from comparing yourself to others in this environment. It doesn’t take long before you start to develop a rather warped sense of your abilities and talents. While self awareness and critical evaluation is important when considering a career out of the art, if left unchecked it can be debilitating.
This overly critical mentality followed me throughout college and into my professional career and even in personal relationships. It was as if every time I accomplished a task or did well on an exam, I would effectively look in the mirror at my peers’ achievements and wonder why I couldn’t have done better. I can be so hard on myself at times, just like I was back in the dance studio.
I now realize just how damaging these negative inner conversations can be. It is an utter waste of energy, demotivating, and unfair to oneself. So in order to counter this useless thought process, I have instituted a practice of “mental pivots.” Each time I catch myself getting stuck in cycles of negative self-talk, I first pause and remember how counterproductive the thought is, and “pivot” the thought into something constructive or at least release my grip on the negative thought.
I am sure it was surprising for some of the students to think that I ever doubted myself as a dancer. I surely never expressed my self-confidence issues to anyone other than myself, so as to maintain the image of being one of the “best” at my studio. That’s what is so crazy about self doubt: we just assume that the people we consider better, more graceful, more flexible, more intelligent, more bold… that they have no moments of doubt, but they do. We all do.
To prove that none of us are alone in this, I asked the dance students to try physically pivoting while taking technique class. Sometimes, especially in the studio, we get so accustomed to correcting ourselves and getting frustrated by a less than perfect memory, that we don’t even realize we are filling our heads with negative clutter. This exercise brings our self talk front in center to oneself and to others. I envisioned a studio full of students facing every which way and a sort of chaos ensuing – a metaphor for the chaos we can create in our own minds.
Although the students did not end up trying out this exercise in class, I do know it made an impression on at least one of the dancers. The next evening, while I was handing out programs for their winter performance, a parent came up to me and asked if I was the one who gave a talk to the students. I nodded and she told me that on her way home from picking her daughter up from class she was vocalizing some frustration she had when her pre-teen daughter piped up from the backseat and told her, “Mom, just pivot!” That story meant everything to me and reminded me that making an impression on just one person can have a ripple effect, and that children are sometimes the best teachers.
A similar mental exercise I have encountered was through one of my Aunts. She calls it the “theory of reflective glory” and she developed it at the tender age of sixteen, out of “utter necessity.” She is one of eight children in a family where everyone excelled. The Archer kids were straight A students, valedictorians, and award-winning athletes. One of Aunt’s slightly younger sisters was exceptionally exceptional, and my aunt’s confidence suffered due to comparative thoughts leaving her feeling “lesser,” exaggerated by other people confusing the two sisters and their accomplishments.
My aunt’s theory of reflective glory, is the notion that affiliating oneself with someone else’s success can stimulate self glory. Instead of allowing the recognition of her sister’s accomplishments turn into a self-disparaging mindset, my aunt changed her perspective and found a way to feel better about herself by being associated (in this case, biologically) with her sister’s success.
As it turns out, this is known as “basking in reflected glory,” which is defined by social psychologists as “a self-serving cognition whereby an individual associates themselves with known successful others such that the winner’s success becomes the individual’s own accomplishment.” My aunt attributes this mindset to her personal success throughout college, medical school and beyond. It allowed her to come to terms with the fact that there will always be someone better and to not let comparative thoughts stagnate her pursuits.
This mindset is in sharp contrast to something called “schadenfreude,” a term I learned last week while listening to an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast about envy (listen here). Schadenfreude is “the pleasure we feel at the suffering of others.” This is something we can all probably admit to feeling at some points in our life.
Next time you have feelings of schadenfreude or envy, try pivoting your thoughts toward something more positive, constructive, and in support of humanity, and reflect in the glory of others?