Practice Makes Perfect

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Are you a world-class worrier, or going for gold in the anxiety stakes? We need to pay attention to what we practice.

Practice makes the difference between people with natural talent and potential and those who are real experts and leaders in their field. This is obvious in areas such as sport or music, which require specific and complex skills, and refining them sometimes to push beyond the limits of what appears possible. These fields involve absolute dedication, and the severe curtailment of other areas of life, putting in many hours with regularity, discipline and full-on support, both from a coach and from others who facilitate life on a practical level.

I’ve been surprised recently to see how practice and focus have improved my own performance in skills I always assumed I simply didn’t have. I had assumed because I didn’t just open my mouth and hear an amazing powerful voice soar out, that I ‘couldn’t sing’. It was only when I sparked my own intention somehow and decided to invest in learning that I realised that there was a complex set of skills involved, which with practice became automatic, hence the bar rose higher and higher the more I sang. There was no such thing as not being able to.

Another area I had quite correctly assumed I didn’t have a natural disposition for was speaking in front of a camera. The list of impediments I felt here was impressive, and I could easily have boxed myself into a corner with this one forever. But needs must: in this case, the need to start a crowdfunding campaign for the healing refuge I’m co-founding is inescapable. If we don’t build an access road not a lot else can happen, and that’s a huge investment. Hence, I got in front of a camera — and both the experience and the results were tragic.

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I kept going though, until I got the hang of thinking, speaking, breathing and moving all at once, in relation to the camera. I realised that my still-sketchy performances were resting on a certain base level of ease. Things which had seemed impossible at the start were suddenly incorporated into the set of things I can do automatically. And by the end of it, I was communicating fine.

That’s the way it is, of course, with everything.

It’s also the case that we’re often practicing, with great dedication, skills that we don’t want to have at all. If we look at where our attention goes it becomes clear that we’re often going for gold at worrying, or at provoking ourselves to anger or despair. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have valid reasons to feel what we’re feeling, but our strategies for dealing with our feelings often become engrained activities that we get really good at. We can become, in a sense, professionally anxious, or absolutely ingenious at finding downsides to every possible circumstance.

Sometimes in therapy, despite finding the root cause of distress, soothing underlying feelings, moving through stuckness and fear, these habits don’t just fall away as you might expect them to. They remain tenaciously — just because we have become so very good at doing them!

In this case, new practices might need to be discovered or invented, then cultivated. We need to dedicate ourselves to the skills of finding the helpful aspects of situations, or intentionally doing something else with our mental attention rather than rushing to succeed in the task of filling every second of the day with criticism and worry. These might be mindfulness practices, or they might be focusing on doing something — anything — else. Or it might be learning something new, something that we have wanted to do but felt we ‘just couldn’t’. New mental habits need to be given, at least at the start, the single-minded devotion of the athlete or musician. Your aim may be to be calm, to be happy, to fulfil your talents, to be of service, or all of the above. Intentions are beautiful. But nothing happens without practice.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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