First to explain voice therapy. It’s like physical therapy for the structures in your body that are associated with making your voice. The goal of therapy is to figure out what’s going wrong and change how the system is operating in order to get voice function back where it needs to be. Sometimes the problem is strain, other times there is neurological injury. There can be any number of things that start the problem. In order to get their voice back, decrease pain and strain and relearn how to function at home and in their jobs, people come to me.
Conceptually, voice therapy exercises can be somewhat challenging because the muscles are so tiny and you can’t see how the movements are changing as you work with them. Add to that the fact that most people are not used to taking something automatic (for example how we speak) and bringing it to a level of conscious awareness for long enough to fix the problem.
I told you that to tell you this.
As the patient is working with the exercises, they usually need to make a bunch of tries. Some will go the way they want them to; others will not. I encourage people to stick with the experience and observe. Inevitably, however, I get a constant string of commentary. “That was a good one.” “That was a bad one.” “I can’t do it.” (usually said as they are actually doing it…) The bottom line is that all of this judgment distracts their brain from processing the experience and using it to make positive change.
Here’s something else you may not know. When you’re learning to make new movements, the brain learns it largely by trial and error. The brain has no judgment about it though. The brain is just looking for feedback about results. Yup, that’s what I was going for or Nope, not was I was going for. That’s all the brain needs along with repetition in order to learn what to do. All the judgment does is get in the way.
So, I try to reframe patient’s responses about it. “Just saying that it’s bad doesn’t help.What precisely was bad about it?” or “Hey, that just told us something about your inner body assumptions. Now we can work on that!” or “Great! That’s information we needed.” The thing is…
It takes a really really really long time for people to be able to provide the reframing for themselves.
As we grow up, I think that we’re taught very young that mistakes are “bad”. In the United States, certainly, there is also shame associated with making mistakes. Therefore, we not only shun mistakes we have made, but also learn to judge it and if at all possible to deny we made a mistake at all. The thing is though, we get so much good information from the mistakes we make.
There was a story I heard on a CD I have called The Poetry of Self Compassion, by David Whyte that makes this point – let’s see if I can get it right:
Thomas Edison had been working on his invention of the light bulb. His assistant was getting discouraged and suggested that they stop trying. “We’ve tried a thousand times and a thousand times we failed. We know nothing more than we did when we started.” To which Thomas Edison replied, “Nonsense, we know a thousand ways in which it doesn’t work.”
I may have some of the details wrong there, but the point is that we need to rejoice in the information we glean from our mistakes as much as we rejoice in the things we do that have gone well. Even if the experience was uncomfortable, if we can at least be grateful for the lessons we have learned, then we continue to move forward.
This theme has come up in my Pema audiobooks. She cautions us not to use the teachings against ourselves, as a way to perceive our own failure to match up, but instead to use them as a guide to help us understand where our goals lie. She has indicated that the propensity to do this is somewhat Western in nature. Perhaps that’s true given the way in which making mistakes is anathema to we bootstrapping Americans.
Even for me, as much as I am writing about this and need to help my patients with it daily, I forget. Something goes wrong and I start beating myself up about it. Sometimes I can stop. Yeah, success! Sometimes I can’t. Yeah, I’m learning!
YouTube clip: Jim Carrey in Liar Liar. This is what we do every day!