Mental Muscles

Hey friends,

I wanted to write today about one of my favorite concepts. I strive to integrate this throughout working with my band students, who constantly are in a place where they have to learn something new all the time.

Learning an instrument is hard, in different ways to different students. Sometimes it’s about learning how to listen. Sometimes it’s about re-shaping what the face does. Sometimes a student has difficulty with reading notation. Sometimes everything is in place, but playing in front of a teacher is really scary.

There is ego involved with something so liquid as music. Success at something one time does not guarantee success a second time. Student musicians constantly experience potential embarrassment.

These difficulties are all normal and okay. We work through them.

Comfort

What happens if we’re comfortable all the time? Maybe I’m sitting on the couch, mindlessly playing a game on my phone with the TV on cartoons (this may or may not be something I do every morning). My body is using minimal energy, just resting. There is no challenge to the muscles and no growth in strength. There is no progress.

The same thing happens with the mind, and this where my anecdote of the day comes in. Because I haven’t been working – I’ve been on disability leave for six weeks and still have six more weeks to go. And that’s a big deal to me.

Something you should know about me – I’m an introvert. That is a part of my personality that I am very aware of. (Introverts tend to be very aware that they’re introverts. Many of the most charismatic educators I’ve ever learned from have confided to me about their introversion.)

And I have a natural inclination to be shy. This is something I’ve worked on my whole life. My career (talking to students and adults) has lent itself very well as a stage to my explicit practice of social skills. I love talking to people. But I get nervous if there are problems – they are uncomfortable. It has taken me years of work to get to a place where I can talk to people as freely as I do about issues at work.

This takes work and maintenance. Just like anyone with a hot muscle-y bod, if I don’t do the work it takes to maintain those mental muscles, the skills deflate.

My Own Discomfort

I am approaching six weeks into recovery from a major shoulder surgery. Before the surgery, I was bendy-bendy-bendy. I could twist and contort both of my arms in all directions. I could bring my clasped hands over my head from the back to the front. I could lick my elbow.

So imagine my surprise today, in physical therapy, when I was asked to bring my arms forward and up, and then out and up, and I could only begrudgingly go about halfway.

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It’s supposed to go all the way up!
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One reluctant thumb up for this exercise…

I am embarrassed to say that this hurt my ego a little bit. I thought I was so great because I used to be able to do so much before. I thought, because I had worked so hard to stay strong before the surgery, that it wouldn’t take so long to regain my range of motion or strength as my protocol suggested.

I was so wrong and that was truly the uncomfortable part. It hurt like needles in my shoulder and like daggers in my mind. No way am I anywhere near ready to resume the activity level required to do my job at the present moment.

I was mean to my therapist. I questioned what he was having me do. He assured me that he was following the protocol outlined by my doctor. I am embarrassed that I didn’t trust him for a second and I plan on apologizing next time.

Mindfulness

One of my favorite professional development talks I ever went to was a session called “Mindfulness, Discomfort, and Growth.” It was geared toward teaching GATE kids, but I firmly believe that students and humans of all needs can extract value from taking a mental inventory of any uncomfortable moment. (The presenter was Dave Mochel, by the way.)

I loved it when he said, “The best two times to practice mindfulness are when things are going really well, and when they aren’t.” When I got home from PT this morning, I immediately prepared my dog for a walk and prepared my brain to feel some feelings. Years ago, I would have felt hopeless about my situation and cried on the couch. (This is still a valid thing to do, but I’ve gone through this process so many times I’ve learned how to streamline it/save it for later.)

As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I immersed myself mentally into every aspect of how I felt. My arm already aches. It will hurt more tomorrow. I will plan on breathing through the physical pain that I know is in my future. I will probably do a drug.

There is also mental discomfort. I regret that I gave my therapist attitude. I retraced the steps that prompted that behavior. I realized that some of my mental/social muscles (usually exercised at work) have weakened. I will work on mending that important relationship.

Through mindfulness I can figure out the source of our discomfort, and create a plan to either fix it or work through it. And there is growth. It’s my most powerful tool.

-Stephy

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