We Repeat What We Practice

It is a true psychological principle that we repeat the things we practice.  A helpful question when you are stuck or experiencing something negative in life is to ask your self “What am I practicing?”  The difficulty in answering the question is that most of the mental or cognitive things we practice we have long since ceased being conscious of.  People practice all sorts of things that are not beneficial: irritation, anger, depression, sadness, indignation, pessimism, over-eating, not-standing up for yourself.  The list is long. 

Most of these behaviors we acquire at a time when they may make sense, but then we keep mentally practicing them long after they have stopped accomplishing anything worthwhile (this is the principle of adaptive behavior:  what is adaptive and beneficial in one context may be maladaptive in another or when the original context has ceased to exist).

I am a French Horn player, and I remember the beginning stages of learning.  I remember memorizing fingering charts and having to consciously make my fingers press the right valves in order to get the right notes. I remember making my self associate fingerings with written notes on a page.  When you play this way, you cannot play fast or musically, you can only play by rote.  As you improve, you no longer need to think of the finger combinations for particular notes, you simply see the note, and your fingers press the right keys, and you don’t think about it.  But even though you don’t think about it, every time you play you are still practicing those key combinations, increasing the likelihood that you will press them again.

Of course, if you practice the wrong combinations you will repeat those too, and it will be difficult to correct.  Some notes on the French Horn have multiple fingerings; the alternatives are easier to produce with your lips but are not as in tune. If you “cheat” with these alternatives you’ll have an easier time when you’re starting to play, but you won’t progress well and will have to un-learn the fingerings in the future in order to improve your musicianship.

Most people who play the French Horn learn on what is called a single horn.  A single horn has three valves that when used in combinations supply every note on the scale.  As you advance you acquire a double horn, which has four valves.  The fourth valve, operated by your thumb shifts the entire instrument to a different key/register (from the Key of F to the Key of Bb if you’re curious).  In order to realize the advantages of playing a double horn, you have to learn new key combinations.  The old ones still work, and there are times you will need them, but if you want to improve tone, flexibility, control, speed, volume etc., you have to learn how and when to use that thumb key. And you have to retrain your lips and lungs to work correctly with the new combinations.  It takes time.  It’s not as simple as having one more key to press; you have to unlearn a certain amount of what has now become automatic.

These days when I play my horn, and sit next to a novice and am asked “what’s the fingering for a C#” I have to stop and think about it, because I don’t think about it while I’m playing; I’m thinking about the music. The fingering has been practiced for so long that it’s now just a part of me.  I am still practicing those fingerings but I am practicing them without conscious thought.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, here’s the point:  You have all kinds of behaviors that you mentally practice without awareness.  Because you have practiced them you will do those behaviors without conscious thought.  The behaviors are so automatic that it feels like you have no choice or that it’s beyond your ability to influence or that you were just “born that way.”  But in truth, you are initiating those repetitive behaviors without awareness. The most common problematic behaviors have to do with anger or irritation, or being quick to take offense.  Here’s the sequence:  Someone does something, it triggers your emotional association, you respond with irritation.  Now you have just practiced the cycle, increasing the likelihood you’ll repeat it the next time somebody does the same thing.  Once the behavior is practiced and becomes automatic, you believe that the other guy has made you angry or irritable, or outraged or whatever. But really you have been practicing this behavior so much that you just do it, and the more you just do it, the more you are practicing it; increasing the likelihood that you will repeat the behavior.    When I see a C# on the page of music, my fingers press the thumb valve and the second and third valves automatically, and my lips squeeze to just the right tension and my lungs blow just the right pressure and I get a C# note out of my horn.  But I can tell you, I never believe that printed note on the page caused the whole thing.

We have rehearsed most of our emotional responses in our heads but we may not be aware of it.  If you find yourself dwelling on angry thoughts, or carrying on imaginary conversations you are practicing your reactions. You may not say out loud the things you say in your head, but you will certainly feel the negative feelings that go along with the words, and because you are practicing those feelings you will most likely have them over and over again.  We practice feelings just like every other behavior, we just don’t admit it to ourselves.  We kind of like the idea that we aren't responsible for our feelings.

But you can turn this same practicing phenomena to your advantage.  You can mentally practice positive outcomes, thoughts, hopes, and interactions.  The Apostle Paul says it this way,

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:15)

And he continues:

“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”   (Galatians 5:19-23)

You can be intentional about practicing healthy behaviors, emotions and reactions.  The more you practice them the more likely you will be to repeat them, and the more in-control of yourself you will feel in social situations.  When you are less likely to repeat strong and automatic emotional reactions it will be much harder for others to manipulate you because you have not rehearsed the response or behavior they are trying to elicit.  So ask yourself what results are you getting in your life and what are you practicing that is producing those results.  And do you like the results you’re getting?