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(Image courtesy of animaster)

I used to find it really hard to do things when I knew someone was watching. I’d become self-conscious, uncoordinated and clumsy (or more so anyway). It’s interesting to observe this effect in other people at close quarters. The desire to be right – and associated fear of being wrong – is no doubt developed within us at a young age. But it seems to be a great enemy of, well, of excellence (that maybe sounds a bit prattish – agh, I feel like you’re looking at me while I’m writing!).

What happens when you become self conscious, or when you start to worry about not being right? Well, maybe you feel yourself getting a bit sweaty, feeling a bit worried. From a muscular point of view, there is a subtle sense of certain muscle groups contracting and the person beginning to lose height and width, to squash themselves. If the feeling was ramped up continuously you would probably end up curled up like a ball on the floor (I’m sure we’ve all wanted to do that at some point in our lives, or when watching The Office).

It’s a variant of something physiologists call the ‘startle response’, which covers the whole range of postural responses to stress. Fearful emotions like self-consciousness and embarrassment tend to come on with a kind of “withdrawing from the world” response, something like the shape shown below (shown in exaggerated form for illustration purposes).

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Image (above): A version of the “startle response”. The withdrawal reaction that can accompany a fearful situation (includes tensing of jaw and face, pulling forward of neck, lifting shoulders, tightening abdominal muscles, contraction of hamstrings)

It’s a helpful shape to adopt if you want to hide yourself from a predator, which is probably why we evolved to do it. But it also makes you quite stiff, tense, unbalanced (making it harder to do anything requiring good balance – caution, tight-rope walkers!), as well as bringing some quite uncomfortable emotions in its train. So that helps explain why I found myself becoming uncoordinated when I was practicing keepy-ups in the school playground and suddenly noticed that girl from fourth year looking out the window.

So exponents of Alexander Technique work on themselves to develop the ability to withhold this kind of response, and to allow the body to come into a state of muscular expansiveness, balance, poise… whatever you want to call it. Even in the face of difficult or fearful situations.

What feels right might be wrong
Related to self-consciousness is the desire to be right. One unhelpful aspect of the desire to be right is the fact that people believe their own kinaesthetic senses can be trusted. If we believe we’re standing up straight, then we must be, we conclude. Most people persist in this delusion even when the evidence is stacked against it (even the odd nasty surprise in years past when noticing my stooped form reflected in a shop window wasn’t enough to make this clear to me).

Most of us develop a kinaesthesia very tuned to our current repertoire of postures and habituated actions. Moving outside of this limited range of movements makes us feel like something is wrong. If you develop a habit of standing like the crouched figure depicted above, then over time this will come to feel to you like standing up straight. To then be shown how to actually stand up straight would feel odd, like you were going to fall over backwards. For me it also felt slightly embarrassing as well, like I was now holding myself in an unnaturally upright manner.

Reading an article the other day about one of the first generation of Alexander teachers, Marjorie Barlow, the author Mike Cross mentioned that “Marjorie did her best to persuade me that, in the field of working on the self, being wrong is the best friend we have got.” And those working in this discipline – which is a fascinating one for its track record in helping people become much better coordinated – generally find that this is one of the major obstacles to progress, this unwillingness to allow yourself to be wrong.

So it’s worth exploring on your own. Notice your need to be correct for the tension it brings in the neck and shoulders. If you’re a juggler, for example, practise letting the balls fall to the ground and not being bothered about it. Let all that neck or shoulder tension – your preparedness to duck down to catch a falling ball – fall away. And then practise juggling after a period of this practice and notice if you find it easier to remain relaxed, upright and in good balance.

If you already have some familiarity with Alexander concepts like inhibiting and directing, you can apply these to situations that make you embarrassed or “in the spotlight” to an uncomfortable extent. So you can quieten bodily responses like shoulder tension, and carry on breathing, and lengthening and widening outwards (sorry if this means nothing to you).

Anyway… this has been a ramble on the subject of self-consciousness and fear. And I don’t even feel like curling into a ball and disappearing. 

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