You Are What You Practice
The idea of practice has been on my mind a lot over the past few years. As a person on converging sobriety, gender, and mental health journeys, there’s much I’ve had to reframe for myself lately about the way I walk through the world. How to stay afloat in social situations without alcohol, for instance. Or how to feel confident and safe leaving my house in the clothes I want to wear.
And a mantra I often come back to in the midst of the shifting is: “it’s all just practice.”
As in: all I am ever doing, at any given moment, is evolving into the person I am meant to become.
It’s a freeing idea!
I’ve always been a very results-oriented person, which, as an artist, I think, is unhelpful. As a young actor I was habitually impatient in rehearsals, resenting their tedious repetitiveness and yearning for the dopamine flood I’d grown conditioned to expect in front of an applauding opening night crowd. I also struggled as a young musician, often too restless to dedicate the many hours of practice it would take to become a really great saxophonist or pianist.
(I can now easily pinpoint my neurodivergence as the culprit in these early life scenarios. Attentional dysregulation FTW!)
These achievement-oriented tendencies, of course, carried over into adulthood, perhaps with even grander implications. For instance, as a writer, I’ve often found myself operating in an “It’s-Not-Worth-It-If-It’s-Not-My-Pulitzer” mindset. (So there are also arguments to be made for internalized capitalism and/or white supremacy: the perfectionism / individualism / either/or thinking / I’m-the-only-one of it all.)
In adulthood, however, it has been critical to my work, my relationships, and my day-to-day life that I slow down, strive for presence in the moment, and resist the urge to catapult myself to some triumphant conclusion. It’s been no easy feat, and it’s had everything to do with the aforementioned sobriety, gender, and mental health journeys.
But it’s also had a lot to do with this idea of practice.
A year or so ago, I found myself in an interpersonal situation at work that was causing me significant distress. After it had come up a few times in my weekly therapy sessions, I admitted one day that I didn’t feel like I had the courage to address the situation.
“Would you be interested in practicing the courage skill?” my therapist asked.
This idea hit me like a ton of bricks. Practice the courage skill? Courage is a skill?! Courage isn’t just something you’re lucky enough to be born with…or not? I was a Cowardly Lion for the modern era. Truly! Surely courage wasn’t something I could just decide to pick up, like juggling or Spanish or unicycling (only one of which, I should clarify, is a skill I actually possess – I’ll let you guess which one).
My therapist assured me it was possible. After discussing a little further, using Dialectical Behavioral Therapy tools, we devised concrete, actionable steps toward using courage in an intimidating situation:
- Consider the context
- Consider your personal goal within the context
- Acknowledge barriers to the goal
- Allow desires
- Turn your mind toward the goal
- Envision a positive outcome
- Invite the “f*ck-it” mentality
- Observe your breath & pace breathing if heart rate is quick
- Mindfully do as rehearsed
Here was the key, though: before applying them to my stressful interpersonal situation, my therapist said I was to practice using these steps in less stressful situations, first.
There’s science behind this that I won’t purport to understand or teach. But the idea, in a nutshell, is that with practice, we can re-train our neural pathways. If I’m coming up against real-life situations causing me significant distress, I can actually train my system not to default to its fight-or-flight response. But – and this is the kicker – my fight-or-flight response is deeply ingrained, so this re-training cannot and does not happen overnight.
“I want you to practice using these steps in a mildly or even barely stressful situation, something just stressful enough that you avoid doing it. Think: cleaning the toilet, or doing the dishes.”
It seemed a bit tedious, but I did it, making an appointment to get a cavity filled. And then I did it again, applying for a big artist residency I felt underqualified for. I practiced courage in all sorts of different life events, until one day, I felt ready to apply this newly burnished skill to my stressful interpersonal situation.
Which I did. And I absolutely nailed it.
A few months later, another stressful situation came up. This time I felt prepared to tackle it head-on. I nailed that one, too. Despite my (mild!) skepticism at the beginning, courage was now another tool I had in my Mindfulness Toolkit, like paced breathing or Radical Acceptance.
My therapist reminded me that you are what you practice. In the past – admittedly, without knowing any better – I have practiced impatience and dissatisfaction. So…I was impatient and dissatisfied. I’ve spent significant energy – again, without really knowing it – practicing self-doubt or self-criticism. Meaning I was…well, you get the picture.
With this little turn of the mind, I’ve been able to make some subtle but powerful shifts in my thinking. Now I practice being a better listener, working to ensure I’m fully participating in a conversation without letting my mind wander down whatever anxious path it would rather take in that moment. (It’s done wonders for my relationships.)
Sometimes I’m just practicing being content with where I am today. Or practicing breathing when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Practicing being okay in social situations involving more than one other person. Practicing showing up.
The old adage is that “practice makes perfect”. But “perfect” (again, white supremacy!) is a myth! And, perhaps even more importantly, “perfect” is not the goal. The journey is the goal. The things I learn about myself, the relationships I’m so fortunate to nurture, the roses I stop and smell.
I’m grateful to be on this journey. I’m grateful to be awake to every moment of it – or, at least, to many more moments of it than I used to be. And I’m grateful to know that when I stumble (which, to be clear, is ALL. The Time.), all I have to expect of myself is that I will practice doing a little better tomorrow.