Doubt


Part of life in any group is occasionally overhearing disparaging comments about yourself. I get that. Part of life as a human is learning to keep those comments from getting to you. I get that, too, but like everyone I’m not always good at it.

I’ve been reflecting on this particular thing, because one of the things that bothers me about myself is how very much things people say sometimes bother me (but only sometimes).

Or … well. Not so much when people say things to me. It’s when someone says something about me, but not to me, in a setting in which it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’ll overhear it.

When someone criticizes me directly, I see it as an opportunity.

At best, it’s an opportunity to learn something.

This is undoubtedly one of the best lessons you learn in the ballet studio: criticism gives you room to grow (and means that your instructor or director hasn’t completely given up on you ^-^’). Ideally, it should be offered constructively, but even if it’s excessively blunt, it’s still useful information.

I mean, sure, sometimes it’s mortifying to realize that you’ve been doing something wrong for, like, six years. But it’s still useful. You can’t really improve ballet technique—or, for that matter, anything else—unless someone helps you identify your mistakes. Or, well, you probably can improve, but it’ll probably also take a lot longer.

At worst, direct criticism reflects a misunderstanding. If someone says to me, “Jeez, why don’t you pay attention?” I can tell them, “I have trouble processing language, and sometimes when I’m trying to understand what someone just said I pretty much literally don’t hear anything else for a while.” Or I can say, “Oh, yeah, I totally zoned out, didn’t I? Ack! Sorry about that.” (True story: I caught myself zoning out during barre this morning. It was a rough morning, brain-wise.)

When I was in sixth grade, a kid in my class stopped me in the hallway and asked, “Why are you so stuck up?” It was blunt and awkward as hell, but it was also useful information. I was, in fact, horribly shy (I still am), not to mention stiff and formal (both of which were partly neurology and partly social inexperience). I didn’t realize that I came across as stuck up.

I was so flummoxed that I basically answered, “Um?”

The same year, another classmate told me I talked like a robot.

Neither was exactly subtle, and I initially found both pretty confusing: but those comments helped me realize that what I felt on the inside wasn’t what people saw on the outside (which, admittedly, took a long time). They were blunt, but they weren’t meant to be mean.

Even as the least socially-savvy kid in my class, I’d seen enough of intentional meanness to know what it looked like. It was pretty clear in both cases that the classmates in question were just trying to figure stuff out; trying to put things into words. As someone who struggles with spoken language, I also knew how hard putting things into words could be, and how sometimes that can make you sound pretty blunt.

In short, even if it’s blunt, direct criticism can be helpful (if it couldn’t, nobody would ever survive growing up in New England in the first place).

Sometimes even when people do intend their words to be mean and hurtful, they still manage to say something helpful in the process.

If someone says to me, “Oh my G-d, you’re such a fuck-up. How are you so bad at petit allegro?!”[1] I could potentially still say, “I know, I suck at it, don’t I? I’m not entirely sure what’s up with that, like it gets worse sometimes and then gets better sometimes, but I’m working on it. If you notice anything specific, could you let me know?”

  1. I don’t think anybody has actually ever said this to me, though it’s entirely possible that people have said it about me because I have definitely said it about myself. But this is definitely not a real-life example of something someone has lobbed at me in an excessively blunt way or of something I’ve overheard.

Criticism overheard is something else.

It suggests to me that the person doing the criticizing either doesn’t think it’s worth their time of day to speak to me directly, is just one of those people who says things without really thinking, or maybe just isn’t particularly brave about criticizing people.

Either way, it doesn’t offer the same opportunities. Like, yes, if someone makes a specific comment (“OMG, why doesn’t Asher ever pay attention?”), I can take it as a reminder: Hey, you might’ve blinked out for a sec there; you might want to make sure you are paying attention. But it also rankles.

Moreover, sometimes people say things in ways that are mean, and that you can’t do anything about, and they do so in contexts in which you can’t defend yourself without either being a giant jerk or possibly making things worse, and then you’re just stuck with it.

I don’t know if it bothers me more when I suspect that I’m intended to overhear such comments or when I suspect that I’m not intended to.

I don’t know if it really matters.

I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to discuss someone’s shortcomings with a third person. Sometimes you have to, in order either to figure out how to talk to the person you’re criticising or, if you’re in a position that makes talking to that person impossible, to blow off steam.

It is not, however, in particularly good taste to do so where the person in question is likely to overhear you. And it’s just plain rude to do so intentionally.

But that alone doesn’t explain why sometimes that kind of comment really, really stings.

But this, for me, does: it occurred to me recently that comments I overhear only really bother me when they concern some area in which I already feel unsure of myself.

So that brings us back to doubt.

I don’t imagine that I’ll reach a point in my life at which I don’t wrestle with doubt. I’m not sure that I—or anyone—should.

But there’s reasonable, healthy doubt—the doubt that keeps us humble—and the kind of soul-sucking doubt that grinds down on us and makes it so, so much harder to do the things we’re trying to do.

I’ve spent a lot of this year wrestling my doubt. Sometimes, that’s made it much harder for me to learn: nothing blocks your brain like a good dose of nerves, and nothing makes you nervous like doubt.

I don’t have any groundbreaking insights to add, here.

Doubt is hard. It’s particularly hard when it’s at least partially grounded in reality: when you know how much ground you have to make up, and you’re not really sure if you’re succeeding in that respect.

I can say this, though: pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away. It doesn’t even make it easier to grit your teeth and get through it.

The best response I’ve found for my doubt is to give voice to it: to talk to someone who has a clearer head, and who knows both my weaknesses and my strengths, and who can help me discern how much of my doubt is justified and how much isn’t.

Some days, it’s better. Some days, it’s worse. Some days, despite all the things that should move it towards the “better” end of the spectrum, someone says something—about me, but not to me—that just shoots it right back to the Consuming Doubt end of the spectrum.

One of the firmest tenets of my upbringing was this: if you can’t bring yourself to say something to someone’s face, you don’t say it where they can hear you. Ever.

Its corollary goes, “…And if you are going to say something to someone’s face, at least try to say it the way you’d want to hear it, because sooner or later you’re going to be the one on the receiving end.”

The corollary is easy enough to understand.

I don’t know that I’ve given a lot of thought in the past to the first bit: it was just something that got built into my personal code of ethics. I never gave much thought to the why.

So maybe this is the why: everyone has doubts. Everyone has weak spots.

As for me, I will continue to sit with mine, even when it’s hard; to talk to people whose reliable good sense helps keep my compass from spinning off magnetic north; and to try to keep my big mouth shut.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Getting along pretty well with bipolar disorder. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2019/03/08, in ballet lessons, life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hey Ash-Man: Thanks for your posts. WIth your encouragement I am doing better in my classes and feeling better about how i am doing, even with my snail paced progress. Your balance and pas de bourree comments were especially helpful to my over-thinking mind. Last week we hit on changement, and OMG was that a revelation. With either working leg in a demi-degege (is that what you call it?) neither of my standing legs is strong enough yet (arches? thights/calfs?) to lift my bodyweight off the ground. At the barre i am able to at least get into a releve, but dang. It sure makes me appreciate the strength and coordination you probably take for granted. Since your comments on pas de bourree and balance were so helpful to me, maybe some day you can think WAYYYY back to when you began and share some thoughts on how to help encourage the hips and lower back to loosen up a bit so someday i can get my ankle in a grand battement past the height of my knees! Cheers. Matt

    • Thank you, Matt! And don’t worry, slow and steady wins the race for sure where ballet is concerned!

      Strengthening the feet is definitely something we continue to work on as dancers 😅 You’ve pinpointed all the parts involved! There are some simple exercises you can do with a resistance band (like a Theraband or its equivalent) that can really help–I’ll stick a link to a good video up here. You’ll want to start with a lighter level of resistance because a lot of it involves strengthening tiny intrinsic muscles in the foot and ankle.

      You can also do calf-raises, using your hands on the barre or a chair back or railing to help, which can also help you learn to feel the placement of your weight, which just is as important to getting onto relevé as strength is. You can start with both feet, using both hands for extra support, and as you grow stronger you can progress to one foot at a time and eventually one hand and then no hands. You basically just stand with your feet together in parallel and rise up and down without a plié, so your larger muscles aren’t helping. Focusing on coming down with control will give you the most benefit. Even eight reps per day will help.

      For reasons I only partially understand, my feet and ankles are ridiculously strong. That said, actually learning to sustain a static demi-pointe balance on one foot has been my biggest challenge in ballet.

      I have a ton of extra range of motion in my feet and ankles, so learning to stabilize all that in exactly the right place has been hard … with great mobility comes great frustration 😁 It probably won’t take you anywhere near as long as it’s taken me to get solid relevé balances on one foot. In short, I definitely take the strength of my feet for granted, but coordination is an ongoing battle for me 😅

      With regard to grand battement, you’ll get there! It’s as much technique and, surprisingly, strength (especially core strength) as about flexibility. That said, I have insanely mobile hips and have never really had to work for a high grand battement, so that’s one area in which my own experience probably won’t be particularly useful. I have had to work on sustaining high extensions, though, because that’s all about placement and technique (and because my legs are freaking heavvvvvvyyyyyyyyy 😁😁😁).

      I can, however, tell you that almost everyone I’ve trained with in aerials has been more flexible than they thought they were in the hips. A lot of it is just unfamiliar biomechanics ( which is also true of ballet in general). I’ll poke around and look for some good resources, but probably your best bet would be to find a good mat Pilates or yoga class (just your basic yoga; you don’t have to go to one of the places where it’s 105 degrees in the room or anything) or ask your ballet instructor if it’s possible to add a barre stretch to class. Any of those options will give you some individual feedback in real time on how to activate and relax the right muscles during flexibility exercises. Once you’ve got that info, you can work on flexibility anywhere.

      Also, just getting up and walking around regularly if you have to sit for a long time (especially if you have a desk job) does wonders 😊

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