relaxed woman
In a previous post I announced that I was going to take up classical guitar again with the intention of approaching it as a white belt. I had a restless, nagging urge to do something new and approach it completely unencumbered with the expectation or even hope of competence.

Apparently what I was really searching for was something to help me break a cycle of lifelong perfectionism and self-imposed pressure to perform.

It all started with a lesson in re-stringing a guitar.

I met my guitar teacher at his shop for a hands-on refresher in changing guitar strings. I hadn’t taken a class from him in nearly ten years, so it was fun to catch up on our lives. As we chatted and unspooled strings he explained in his gentle, lilting voice how to ease back into playing classical guitar. He advised me to take things very slowly and be patient as my body relearned the physicality of holding and playing the instrument. My brain and muscles would need some time to get comfortable and familiar with the guitar again–before I even began re-learning how to read music or trying to play more complicated exercises and real pieces.

My teacher likened it to learning the foundations of taekwondo–I had to spend a lot of time on the most basic fundamentals long before I achieved my black belt. Those white belt fundamentals underly everything I do, from large movements to minuscule tweaks that only I notice. Classical guitar is no different.

Then he said something that stopped me in my tracks.

“Are you in less competition with yourself?” my teacher asked with a grin as I was carefully packing up my newly strung guitar.

“I think I am now,” I said with a laugh. “At least for this.” Ten years, a very physically and mentally demanding sport, and a commitment to care less about the small stuff have taught me the power of patience and the gift of grace as I learned (or in this case re-learned) something new.

I kept repeating the question to myself on the short drive home. Am I in less competition with myself? Maybe…yes and no. I suppose I’m in “healthy” competition for certain things that overshadow my life in much larger ways than music–doing a good job at work so I get my money, working very hard on my taekwondo technique so I can advance to higher ranks. I don’t think that kind of personal competition is going to stop, but I can certainly do with finding more moments of not competing with myself and angrily, impatiently demanding perfection. 

A quick internet search will show just as many resources on the benefits of competing with yourself as there are urging you to slow your roll. Since each situation is different, and one can make arguments for both sides, I’ll simply offer some thoughts on when it’s in your best interest to back off…

1. When it stops being fun. I stopped playing classical guitar years ago not only because I was in a time crunch with competing priorities, but also because I was putting too much pressure on myself to be perfect and advance quickly. It wasn’t fun anymore. Even thought no one was listening to me play, I felt embarrassed that I wasn’t “good enough.” The fun was gone, and for a while I just had to walk away. Sometimes we need a short break. Sometimes we need several years.

2. When your self-eseteem takes a nosedive. When healthy competition and pushing yourself a little more each day deteriorates into self-criticism or self-hatred, it’s time to back off.

3. When the aspiration is unrealistic. An unrealistic goal can be pretty de-motivating, and it can hurt even more if you turn the blame on yourself for things that are beyond your control. Maybe it’s time to evaluate your goal based on the time, resources, and effort you have available.

4. When it turns completely ego-driven. I once knew someone who admitted to always wanting to be “the smartest guy in the room.” No surprise that he turned out to be a complete tool. If healthy competition gives you a self-esteem boost and brightens your day, that’s great. But take care not to get so wrapped up in chasing after the approval and admiration of (or domination over) others.

On the flip side of the coin, it may be a good time to pick up a new or old hobby:
When you have nothing to lose. I’m not playing guitar for my money or my health, which is why I respectively work and practice taekwondo. It’s a fun hobby. If you’re a recovering perfectionist like me and you can’t quit cold turkey, then try it with something small. Learn a card game. Write a poem. Cook a meal. Make some mistakes. Stay focused on the process of learning and experiencing rather than how you think you’ll be judged for it. Over time you may be able to loosen the reins a bit on larger and more visible aspects of your life.

The rest of the guitar story…

Early in the morning, before I had to don my alter ego as a Corporate Suit for a long day, I gingerly held my guitar as if I were meeting it for the first time. I slowly, clunkily played notes up and down the fretboard to reacquaint myself with not only the location of the notes, but all the physical intricacies of playing a classical guitar. I thought about my guitar teacher’s urges to patiently work on refiring all the mental and muscular synapses that take place in what is a highly technical art form.

But even that was too much. I slowed down even further and just focused on the physical act of holding down a string with my left hand, stroking the string with my right, and carefully moving the fingers from one note to the next. I noticed the arch of my left hand and the curve of my right. What tiny changes could I make to avoid a dull or buzzing sound? I delighted at how a nearly imperceptible shift could make a huge difference.

I began to pick out the C major scale. Once I’d gotten it down I beamed and did it again, repeating the notes out loud to myself. Without really thinking about it, I started to pick out the beginning of a Villa-Lobos Prelude I used to play, the first major piece I learned, but let myself stop after my memory trailed away. I wasn’t upset that I couldn’t remember or couldn’t quite keep up with naming the notes I was playing. That was more than enough music for now. I wiped my guitar down gently with a soft cloth and carefully placed it back in its case.

That twenty minutes of playing with the guitar–not even playing, just “playing with” as if an unbiased child with no expectations would–put me in a soaring mood for the rest of the day. Those few tentative, exploratory moments with my guitar felt magical.

Am I done proving myself to…well…myself? I don’t think I can confidently say “yes,” but I have found an outlet where I can treat myself with patience and grace with no expectations except to have fun. I hope you can find that for yourselves as well.


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