No one ever said that teaching the violin is easy, Here is yet another reason why and it’s a biggie.
On my last post I made the comment that “self-delusion is very common among violin students.” I have been called on it – a very thoughtful violin teacher asked my opinion on what causes it. “Perhaps,” he asks, “it’s something other than a self-preservation instinct or limits due to overall maturity?” And then he gets to his real worry, “And it would be interesting to think about whether some self-delusion training is accidentally or inextricably built into early childhood teaching and parenting.”
Wow. I can certainly understand this last concern – I know he is about to become a father and is most likely worried that he might unknowingly scar his child for life – a concern all good parents have, in my experience with lots of them. And good teachers.
The answer is, no, we are not ruining our kids, turning them into self-deluding-head-in-the-sand ostriches. They are doing a nice job of it all by themselves. You see, apparently self delusion, self-deception and avoidance are hardwired into our brains (our hardware) and into our personalities (our software) on many levels. Our brains are deceiving us. So are our egos, AKA, our personalities.
First, let’s define terms. I have been all over the internet trying to find the difference between self-delusion and self-deception. While psychiatrists make some distinctions, psychologists make others, and yet many others say it’s the same thing. So, somewhat perplexed, I decided to go straight to an excellent source, a friend who happens to be a well known psychiatrist* (doesn’t everyone in this profession need a psychiatrist friend?), who concurred that they’re pretty much the same thing. Therefore, for the purposes of clarity, let’s say that self-delusion and self-deception are the same and I will use them interchangeably as do some articles I have read. And for the sake of brevity, let’s just say that self-delusion or self-deception is allowing yourself to believe something that isn’t true.¹
Avoidance is a mechanism we use to avoid pain. In fact Wikipedia (the footnote gives the academic sources) defines avoidance or avoidant coping as:
Students do this all the time: to avoid the pain of admitting they played a wrong or out of tune note, they pretend they don’t hear it, hoping (in vain) that you don’t, so they can also avoid the stress and pain of having to try to fix the problem.
Back to my worried father/teacher. I can see why he would ask if parenting and early education are somehow to blame. In the past, there has been so much worrying about building up children’s self-esteem that it may have given some of our young people the idea that they are God’s gift to the world. Even now much weight is given to the appearance of success, instead of actual accomplishment for the sake of doing something well – or just to be a better person. Instead of precise and specific praise and criticism aimed at helping children improve themselves and be of use to others, it’s often much easier for teachers and parents to praise them, build them up, tell them how intelligent and talented they are without teaching them in a healthy way how to pay attention to their mistakes and thus avoid self-delusion.
But there are those who say that a little self-delusion is a good thing as it helps prevent depression. Constantly facing the awful truth about everything would put all of us in the dumps.
In fact, I read various tracts that the most realistic people are also the most depressed.
Interestingly, the clinically depressed seem less susceptible to these basic cognitive errors. For instance, healthy people can be deluded into greater happiness when granted the mere illusion of control over their environment; the clinically depressed recognize the illusion for what it is. All in all, it’s yet more evidence that unhappy people have the more accurate view of reality — and that learning how to kid ourselves may be a key to mental health.³
The mind can protect itself against anxiety by diminishing awareness. This mechanism produces a blind spot: a zone of blocked attention and self-deception. Such blind spots occur at each major level of behaviour from the psychological to the social. .∞
“Self-deception is a psychological immune system, but instead of attacking germs like the body’s immune system does, it helps us stave off things that cause us to be unsuccessful in life, like depression. We have a built-in way of looking at the world, rose-colored glasses, that ultimately is very helpful.” ¤
Yes, unless you’re a violin student who wants to improve. Or you’re a violin teacher who wants her students to improve…
So here are our students struggling valiantly to be mentally healthy and we have to bring them back to face reality of their peccadilloes and help them to change their ways without driving any of them to despair. A delicate balance, to be sure. What to do?
It looks like the odds are certainly stacked against us. We are teaching perhaps the most difficult thing there is to do on the planet and instead of getting cooperation, every fiber of the student’s mind and body is fighting against us. And they don’t even know it. We think they know better, but the whole thing is just a defense mechanism against what their brains perceive to be unnecessary, and what their personalities perceive to be pain and stress. Like my colleague mentioned above, it is indeed “a self-preservation instinct” in the sense of preserving the status quo and avoiding change or anything the brain or personality perceives to be unpleasant.
Therefore, I don’t think parenting, society in general or even bad teaching is primarily responsible for self-delusion and avoidance, although these can certainly affirm this self-deception in our students, too. We all have two strikes against us from the start: our brains and our personalities. Learning to play the violin well means conquering both of them and convincing them to do our bidding. Teaching the violin well means helping our students do the same, making students aware that these “defense” mechanism of the brain and personality are what stand between them and playing well.
Of course, this also means making our students realize that we are not our brains and we are not our personalities. But this means we have to realize this ourselves…
As one commenter on my last post said, “Awareness is the first step.” How right she is!
So before we all get too depressed by the reality of our students’ biologically and psychologically based eternal optimism, please know that after this first step of awakening our students’ awareness of their defense mechanisms, there are also some specific problems that music students face that can keep them in self-deception and which we can do something about…
Post author: Eloise Hellyer
* I give her a star instead of a footnote because she deserves many of them for her continuing patience with me. Dr. Zipora Dolev (https://www.drdolev.co.il/english/), who has a seminal new book coming out shortly called “Sleep and Women’s Health”. https://www.crcpress.com/Sleep-and-Womens-Health/Dolev/p/book/9780367322144 Cut and paste as I can’t create a hyperlink to an https// for some reason.
²Moshe Zeidner, Norman S. Endler, ed. (1995). Handbook of coping: theory, research, applications. Wiley. p. 514. ISBN 978-0-471-59946-3., Friedman, Howard S.; Silver, Roxane Cohen (2006). Foundations of Health Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 124. ISBN 978-0-19-513959-Pearlin, LI; Schooler, C (1978). “The structure of coping”. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. (1): 2–21. doi:10.2307/2136319. JSTOR 2136319. PMID 649936.
³Quoted from Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert – NY Times Book Review https://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/07/books/review/07stossell.html
∞Vital Lies, Simple Truths, Daniel Goleman, Simon and Schuster, 1986, page 22
¤https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/why-a-little-self-delusion-is-a-good-thing.html, quoting Joseph Hallinan author of “Kidding Ourselves:The Hidden Power or Self-Deception”