Facing Our Demons

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I have been thinking quite a lot about this recently, mostly in the context of helping directors develop, but - as so often happens in this endeavour - the thoughts spread easily beyond the specialist field of choral music out into all kinds of corners of Real Life. Ensemble musicianship is, after all, about working with human beings.

And, in much the same way that people who train to become counsellors and therapists themselves have to undergo counselling and therapy, educators can’t go very long thinking about the people whose development they are supporting without stopping to consider their own progress. Hence the funny mix of naval-gazing and advice that sometimes emerges...

So, as directors (and in our various other roles in life), we all have areas where we are reasonably confident and secure. We also have areas that we are a bit scared of, that we fear we are not as strong in as we should be. We may try not to think about them too much, which means we remain a bit hazy about exactly what it is we feel inadequate about, but the awareness of it lurks at the back of our minds, ready to assail us in the dead of night whenever things go a bit wobbly.

Not every skill deficit is a Demon, you see. Some things we know we’re not so good at, but if it doesn’t worry us, then we can deal with it on a fairly matter-of-fact level. We figure out strategies to either improve or work around it. We go to classes, and/or we do extra practice, and/or we delegate to people who are good at this stuff.

And these strategies are precisely what we should also be doing with our Demons. But because of the emotional charge these carry, we find it hard pull them out into the light of day and deal with them on a face-to-face basis.

It occurs to me that in some ways the hardest bit is actually in identifying our demons. If you ask someone (or indeed yourself) what they most need to improve at, they (you) may proffer one of their (your) unproblematic skill deficits as a nice safe response. And we can all distract ourselves by developing and following nice busy strategies to improve and thereby avoid facing our demons.

And, to be fair, such displacement activity is pretty benign, as you do end up with an improvement in an area which will be useful. It just doesn’t deal with the scary thing skulking in the back of your psyche feeding your impostor syndrome.

It was thinking about these avoidance tactics that gave me a penny-drop moment about procrastination. This is one of the things that people beat themselves up about a lot, and it struck me that this gives a pretty reliable guide to where our demons lie. Procrastination is imbued with that negative emotional charge of an obligation not fulfilled, a sense of duty betrayed, whether that is a duty to someone in particular, or to yourself, or just a more abstract sense of ‘ought’.

We only call it procrastination, that is, when we consider the thing we’re avoiding important. When we put off something trivial, we call it prioritisation, and - quite rightly - feel pleased with ourselves for not wasting time on it. We can spot our demons by the way they always seem to be the item left on the to-do list when everything else is done. Or, in extreme cases, they are the ones that never get onto the to-do list, which is full genuinely useful distractions to stop us thinking about it too much (or is that only me?).

My father used to say that his work-flow was organised into an In-Tray, an Out-Tray and a Too-Hard Tray. (Gosh, it’s weird writing about him in the past tense. Kind of getting used to saying it, but writing it feels different.) And I’m thinking that the Too-Hard Tray could be a useful place to corral our demons, pending the courage to face them.

I think we need permission to acknowledge that the demons are, on first confrontation, Too Hard. We need permission to stop beating ourselves up about not having dealt with them earlier before we can brave the challenge of dealing with them. Putting them in the Too-Hard Tray involves accepting their existence. On one hand, this brings them scarily into view, but on the other, it relieves the underlying anxiety that they’re waiting in secret to jump out at you.

You’ll notice I’m posting this on New Year’s Eve, and also that I don’t seem to be posting about New Year’s Resolutions. This is because the things I really need to get on with in 2015 are in the Too-Hard Tray right now. But that, in itself, is progress.

Wishing you all an appropriately celebratory start to 2015, and all success in either facing your demons, or doing some really effective displacement activity, whichever fits best in your life at the moment.

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