In the early years of my career I worked as a performance consultant and counselor, helping musicians on lighting up an audience, attorneys presenting cases in front of a jury, and CEOs giving speeches or leading boardroom discussions. As my practice grew, several psychologists invited me to come into their practices, first to help with patients who faced performance challenges, like taking tests, or overcoming stage fright, but then to help solve unusual and extreme cases on any matter.
I appreciated the wide range of challenges because the clients’ unique problems and their capabilities to solve them each taught me many facets of human nature. Here are three such cases: a five-year-old boy, a married couple, and a superstar opera singer.
After working on performing issues with me, a professional singer asked if I would help her son, a five-year-old boy. The boy held his bowel movements for days and days until his eyes turned purple. The mother had taken him to psychologists and psychiatrists over the previous year, but had no success. She was at her wit’s end.
I told her I didn’t know what I could do, but I agreed to see the boy and told her to bring him by my office at 7 o’clock the next Tuesday evening.
That evening, she and her son showed up right on time. When I opened the door, the boy stood close to his mother, the area around his eyes dark, appearing as if he had not slept in a long time. I told the mother to come back in twenty minutes.
I let the boy in and the first thing I said was, “You can sit anywhere in the room except right there in that chair,” to which he promptly sat right in that chair. I said, “Okay. You can go anywhere in the room except under the piano.” He promptly sprung out of the chair and dashed under the piano. I said, “Okay, you can go anywhere in the room except right there on the couch.” And he jumped right on the couch. I started again, but, slumping in the couch, he was clearly tired of playing this game.
I stopped in mid-sentence, pulled up a chair, sat right across from him, and said, “I know that you know why your mother brought you here, but before we talk about all that, I’d like find out what you like to do. He looked up at me and I said, “Do you play peewee ball?” He nodded that he did. I asked him if he liked it, and he nodded again. Each time he answered with a nod, I leaned to one side and spoke in a certain tone of voice with a certain expression on my face, and I asked him to describe what he liked about peewee ball. I helped him with my words: does he like how heavy the bat feels in his hands and wrists, and how it pulls on his arms when he swings? Did he like running the bases and aiming where to touch his foot on the base? Wasn’t it interesting the way the helmet felt heavy on his head and bobbed around when he ran? I asked him several other details to take him fully into the experience.
Then I asked him about things he didn’t like. He didn’t like spinach. I leaned to the other side with a different tone of voice and a different expression on my face and we discussed the way spinach can taste bitter, how it piles up in your mouth, gets stuck in your teeth, and can feel even a little slimy when it slides around in your mouth.
I leaned forward and asked, “Now, you know your mom brought you because you won’t go to the bathroom but, you know what? I’m just wondering, because you are five, and have already had your five-year-old birthday, you are older than five, but not yet six, does that mean that your poop is five-year-old poop or six-year-old poop?”
He was wondering. As I spoke, I leaned to the side of things that he liked and talked in the tone of voice of things that he liked and used the expression on my face of things that he liked. I asked him the same question in different ways. “Well, what would it look like if it was five-year-old poop or six-year-old poop? How would it change?” I wondered aloud, very curious about which one he had. And, of course, he was wondering too.
Then I said, “Well, it certainly wouldn’t be adult poop,” and I leaned over to the other side and said in the other tone of voice, “Of course we wouldn’t know because you don’t get to see their poop. Hey!” I exclaimed, full of wonder and perplexity, “Why do they get to look at your poop and you don’t get to look at their poop?” He was wondering. We went back to whether his poop was still five-year-old poop or was already becoming six-year-old poop, with me leaning to the other side. Then there was a knock on the door, and I let him go.
His mother called the next day and asked, “What did you do?” I asked, “Why? What happened?” She said she was in her kitchen and saw her son playing. Then he casually walked into the bathroom, came out and then walked back across the kitchen, but then suddenly rushed back into the bathroom and flushed the toilet. And I said, “Oh, good.”
She called again to report that he had done it again and then again, and he started going to the bathroom regularly.
The simple thing was he had to see. He was curious. What was his poop like? And in order to see, he had to go, and he also had to keep it from his parents, so he had to see it and flush it. We didn’t have to go into why he had the problem. We didn’t have to understand the causes. We didn’t have to do a history of his parents. We just gave him control over something that he was interested in.
In this case, a couple drifted through ten years of an empty marriage. The husband and wife wondered if I might help them, first in their professional lives and then in this private matter of a dismal marriage.
The wife was a professional water color artist. The husband, also an artist, earned his living through painting portraits in oils. I agreed to help them and I arranged to see them three times individually and one time together.
At her first visit, the wife explained that her marriage had difficulties because her husband wasn’t attracted to her. Her accusatory tone suggested that she resented him in this matter, elaborating on this point, insulting him bitterly.
I let her diatribe go on for a little while and then interrupted her when she said he wasn’t attracted to her and asked, “Do you feel attractive?” With a surprised look on her face, she said no. I asked, “How will anyone feel attracted to you if you don’t feel attractive yourself?” Her expression softened as she puzzled over the question.
I asked, “How do you know you aren’t attractive, or how would you know you were attractive?” We began to explore the qualities of attractiveness. We both could think of beautiful women who feel unattractive, and some not very good-looking women who feel very attractive. We thought of examples where two people were obviously attracted to each other, but who didn’t fit a general profile of attractiveness. We continued to explore attractiveness in its many dimensions, softening her own ideas about herself, awakening the possibility that she could think of herself as attractive—especially because attractiveness is inexplicable.
What were qualities she found attractive? If she had those qualities, would she would feel attractive. With a variety of questions and prompts, she found her way to a state where she felt vital, vibrant, alive, alert, wholesome, rich, engaging—all worked out through methods I’ve written about in my books, the same methods I learned from brilliant performers who draw from their inner lives to heighten their own inner state, enabling them to light up an audience.
While bringing into her body each quality she found attractive, she began to light up right in front of me. When she left, she bounced out of my office.
The next week she came in terrified and I asked, “What happened?” She said that she had pulled up to a stop sign and several guys in another car pulled up beside her and started whistling catcalls. She felt part of her begin to flirt with them—spontaneously—and it terrified her. She felt herself crossing boundaries, entering dangerous territory.
I couldn’t help smiling. I said, “Sounds like you’ve gotten some real sizzle going—so, I take it that you have been feeling attractive.” She smiled.
“We can work on how to handle it.” We discussed all the different ways to turn on and off the sizzle so she could have it where and when she wanted it. Working through the fear, she was clearly enjoying the excitement of being a dynamic woman out in the world, feeling big feelings moving through her body and her mind, prompting her to operate in the world with new-found energy and confidence. We discussed ways to bring the passion and strength she was feeling to what she did in the world. Throughout this whole time, she didn’t mention her husband.
Then the third time she came in she was, again, dejected, and I again asked, “What happened?” She said that her husband—in desperation—suddenly confessed to having had an affair with his massage therapist many years before. The affair had ended years before, but he was so lit up by her new radiance that he was afraid he was going to lose her and, feeling guilty, now felt pressure to confess, to be totally honest. We began to work through the issues. She looked at her role and his role in their search for trying to find happiness. We considered all the ways they had been unable to find happiness on both sides for such a long time. She now felt attractive and, if she wanted to, had the power to draw him in, something she hadn’t felt for the last ten years. She felt free to access any and all parts of her personality and to bring them to bear on how she operated in the world, including this issue with her husband. She came to her own decision: She was going to work out this marriage and give it another chance.
In the meantime, I also saw the husband separately, on different days. He brought in one of his portraits, revealing an extraordinary talent for painting portraits that looked as real as photographs. I had never quite seen anything like it. It was hard to imagine the level of detail and realism he achieved with oils, and he apparently had quite a clientele. When I asked how I might help him, he said he wanted to feel resolved about his art and career. Even though his career was successful, internally he felt like he was was not living up to his potential. He didn’t want to paint realistic portraits, which in his mind were inferior to abstract art, which is what he thought he really should be doing. He lived in angst about who he was in the world as an artist, and dragged that angst around all day, into interviews with clients, into his studio when he worked, and into other situations in his life.
And as we explored these issues, he also revealed prejudicial beliefs about rich people, his very clients. He preferred Bohemians, where art was free, not available to just the privileged. With just these conflicting beliefs, he was living a miserable life.
As we began to resolve these conflicts, we found in his personality something akin to a little tyrant barking out commands about what he should be doing. You should be painting more abstractly. You should not have to work for this wealthy man. You should make that nose a little rounder. You should paint freely. You should do this. You should do that. This voice was non-stop, sending him chasing down many different roads.
As we explored this part of his personality, we discovered that it never noticed whether he did or didn’t do the commands. There was no feedback to that part of himself to update the situation. The process moved in one-direction: The Tyrant barked commands, another part rushed around trying to do what was commanded, and then the process fizzled out.
To solve this issue, we had to bring feedback into the system, so it could self-correct. We began by figuring out each step in his current process, and then somehow getting the process loop back on itself, so that the final step would communicate back to the first step, creating an updating system.
In his current process, his initial step, the tyrannical part, was a voice, an audible piece of the process. In the next step, he made a mental movie of doing what the voice said—a visual piece. In his final step, he “jumped” into the movie, trying to do the task—a somatic piece. We inserted a new step after the somatic sensations: audible expressions, such as “Now I tried that,” or “Well, that didn’t work.” We practiced moving the final aural expressions into the same tone of voice as the tyrannical voice, barking them back to the original voice.
We practiced the sequence, step-by-step, until it could complete itself. We started with the barking command; it then became a mental movie; the mental movie then became somatic sensations; the somatic sensations then became aural expressions that barked back to the original, tyrannical voice. After a few practice runs, he began to get it, making the entire process a sequence that updated itself, and he left.
When he returned the next week, he brought a new painting, which had an unusual combination of realistic and abstract art. He was very proud of it and felt that he had had a breakthrough. He talked about going into a new creative space, where he didn’t have to feel compelled to paint one way or the other.
We talked about excellence in artistry, and how I believed he needed to draw from the whole of himself, rather than parts, to create his visions. We discussed how finding those methods and processes for tapping into the recesses of his being, which could take lifetime, was the privilege and excitement of being a creative artist. We further discussed that a split in his personality, with one part of himself believing, for instance, that he was letting down his art because another part of himself was painting portraits, would interfere with reaching his full potential. His work would be to resolve those conflicting beliefs, to evolve as a whole person, until 100 percent of his personality could move in concert in the act of creation.
Under the umbrella attitude of resolving each and every issue, we expanded his ideas about painting portraits, Bohemians and free art, and rich people, mostly by working out the idea that we all share the same nervous systems, and his art came from his nervous system to another, and that he could light up one nervous system as well as another. In other words, people were people and his art was his own expression to serve other people. We also worked on his issue of mastery because he had so mastered the photographic detail of his portraits that it didn’t seem like real art. We discussed how photographic detail was just one aspect of the portrait. We began to probe how to break through his techniques, learning to see deeper levels of expression of personality and capturing the nuances of those expressions in a portrait. What new techniques might he need to render those expressions more richly, more finely, more distinctively? And how much would such an achievement require techniques from abstract art, which he highly prized? And how might the swampy nuances from free Bohemian art move through the photographic detail, enriching the subtler expressions? We discussed how being an artist in the world meant pushing forward toward excellence. Puzzling over the possibilities, he left.
But he didn’t come back for the third session, the period during the time he confessed to his wife that he had had an affair.
Then the time came for the fourth visit when I would see them together. I had them sit across from each other where they could see each other. I told them we would take turns, starting with the husband. I asked him to tell me about his point of view on the marriage. I wondered not that he knew they had a problem, but how he knew there was a problem. I wanted him to tell me anything, even what was obvious to him, since I didn’t know anything about it. What would I hear, see, and feel to know there was a problem the way he did?
He began to describe her. “Well, she’s not interested in me,” he would say. I asked, “How do you know she’s not interested?” He said, “She doesn’t acknowledge me.” I asked, “Well, if I were you, how would I know she doesn’t acknowledge me? What would I see, hear, or feel?” During this time, his wife spoke up, but I asked her to wait a bit, explaining that she would have her turn, too. For each of his descriptions, I asked him how he knew, pressing him for a concrete detail that could be seen, heard, or felt. Couldn’t really see interest. What would you see if you saw interest? Couldn’t really see acknowledgement. Did a tone of voice mean acknowledgement? Was it an expression that could be seen on her face? Finally, he said, “She’s not animated,” and my ears pricked. I asked, “Animated? You mean she’d be moving?”
As it turned out, his wife was very still most of the time, which is a great asset when painting with water color. She could draw little fine lines, her body perfectly still, the tip of the brush appearing to be the only thing moving.
I turned to the wife. “Would you be willing try something? I want you to tell a story. I don’t care what it is about—it could be a story as mundane as going to the grocery store—and while you tell this story simply move your body.” She looked a little confused, so I gave her an example. “Here’s me telling the story with a still body,” and I began to make up a story about getting in my car and driving to the grocery store. And then I backed up and said, “Here it is while I am moving,” and I told the same story, but this time randomly moving my head, my shoulders, rocking my torso back and forth. “As odd as it may be, just try it. We’re exploring here.”
And so she did it, feeling very awkward. But when she moved her body, her husband completely lit up—and she could see it. I said, “Now tell the story being perfectly still,” which she did naturally, her obvious habitual manner. When she became perfectly still and told the story, he sunk like a deflated balloon. I said, “Move again and tell the story” and he lit back up. “Be still again,” and he shrunk back down. I had never seen anything quite like it. And neither had she. She clearly had hit an important button.
I said to her, “You’ve seen that create dramatic changes in him, even if it feels awkward to you, just by moving while you talk to him. You are learning to speak a language that he understands. Whether you feel you should change your style or not, the question is whether it is worth ten years of a miserable marriage or not? Now you know you have the power to help him feel wanted, acknowledged, and that you are interested in him.” The whole idea fascinated her, and he seemed to have smoke coming out of his ears.
Then I said, “It’s your turn. What is your take about what’s going on in your marriage?” She began a new diatribe about what wasn’t attractive about her husband. Her words also began to describe him at the identity level: Instead of “He doesn’t treat me like a real man,” she said, “He is not a real man; he is a wimp . . .”
“Whoa, whoa,” I stopped her immediately, before she could say more damaging words. In the same way I had asked her husband, I asked, “How would you know if he was masculine?” As she gave one answer after another, I persisted in asking what she would specifically see, hear, or feel when she saw masculinity, decisiveness, directness, and all the other qualities that excited her. Finally, after comparing his voice to a famous Hollywood actor’s voice that turned her on, we came to an interesting aural detail: She felt these qualities when she heard the end of sentences drop in pitch. I demonstrated, dramatically lowering the pitch at the end: “You mean you want to hear the pitch drop. So, if I said this sentence you would know that when I reach the end of the sentence that there was going to be a drop?”
Her husband had a habit of lifting the pitch on the final word of the sentence, making every statement sound like question. He would say, “I’m going to go to the store? I love you? I finished a new painting? I like it?” going up in pitch at the end of the sentence, in a sing-song rise, generating a sensation in her that he was unsure of himself, disgusting her.
I turned to him and I said, “Let’s practice dropping the last part of the sentence in pitch. I want you to say ‘I love you,’” emphatically dropping my voice on you. He said, “I love you?” raising the pitch at the end. I asked him to try again, but he could not get the final word you to drop. Then I asked him to sing I love way up high, in falsetto, and then drop to you, down in the deepest part of his range. We had to get that extreme just to get the pitch to go down, but even that was difficult. He was so hard-wired to raise the pitch at the end of a sentence that he struggled, so we pushed the pitches further out to the extremes and continued to rehearse them from different angles until finally he could say I love you with the final the word dropped in pitch.
When he did, his wife lit up, involuntarily. It was extraordinary to see. I had him practice, both raising and lowering the pitch at the end of his sentences, all the while watching her face, which alternately lit up and drained. He had never felt so empowered to make a difference. I talked to him about what dropping the pitch at the end of his sentences would mean in terms of ten years of an empty marriage, and whether it was worth it to learn to do this naturally.
Then I asked them to stand up and face each other. I put them very close to each other, and asked them to close their eyes and remember, both of them, without touching each other yet, what it was like when they were first attracted to each other. I asked them to sway a little bit, to move their bodies, to help access the details of those memories. What time of day was it? How did they feel? What did they see? Was there an expression in the eyes? Was there a certain tone of voice? What hopes did each have? What feelings? What visions? What did they say to themselves? What else was happening in their lives?
I told them, “As soon as you fully feel those sensations of the other one being special, only when you feel those sensations expanding through your body and your mind, then—and only then—open your eyes and look at each other.”
When they both had their eyes open, completely feeling those original feelings of attractiveness, I asked them to reach over and touch each other’s arms, still looking at each other, seeing again in the outlines of their faces these full feelings and visions and words they said to themselves, and to allow them a moment simply to connect and reconnect all of those sensations to what they were seeing and hearing. As they stood in deep intimacy, I reminded them of the possibilities they had just learned: She could move when she tells a story or when she comments on his works or when she invites him to a private moment; he could drop his voice at the end of his sentences when he told her he loved her or when he told her he had decided to take on a new client. While they were rocking in each other’s embrace, I reminded them about the other issues that we worked through in subtle ways and about a future they could build together, how these were the beginnings of who knows what else they could bring to what they were learning today.
And then they left.
Six weeks later they invited me to an art show they were giving. They had decided to put up their home for sale and follow a life-long dream they had had to move to another city, and were selling their artwork to make the move. I attended the show, all of their new and old artwork on their walls, with an impressive number of people milling through. They were excited to embark on their new adventure, and I wished them well on their journey.
Two years later they returned to Dallas and brought me a water color the wife had done, a gift, and they thanked me for helping them. They told me that they were very happy. During our conversation, I was pleased to see how subtly the wife moved while she described what she liked in their new-found life and how many different ways the husband lowered the pitch at the end of his sentences. I thought this was an extraordinary little slice of human nature that I was lucky to observe.
Many years ago I was invited to give a master class to a group of professional singers. The host was a world-class singer who had a superstar career, singing at the Met, the White House, opera houses and symphonies all over the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world, recording multiple CDs, and maintaining a vibrant teaching career herself. The other singers were at various stages in their performing careers, singing with opera houses in the U.S. or with recording contracts.
In a master class, a performer gives a performance and then I get up on stage and teach that performer for the benefit of the audience. My host wanted to perform in the master class so that I would work with her. When she took her turn, I had never seen and heard such a beautiful performance. Her emotions poured through and out of her, as if they were liquid, completely filling the stage, reaching us, stimulating us with many sensations. The hair on the back of our necks stood up and sent chills through us. The emotional contours would flow effortlessly out of her and flood the stage, shimmering into a new emotion on the next note, rising and filling up the melodies, phrase after phrase—all while she sang with a full, rich, and dynamic range as smoothly and easily as I’d ever heard.
When it was over, I stood up from my seat in the audience and stepped out into the aisle to head down to the stage, and I wondered how I might help her. As I walked across the stage to greet her, I could see she was still breathing heavily from the tremendous effort she expended, the energy she commanded and drew from deep within herself to fill the stage and the entire audience hall, electrifying us with her magic and beauty.
I asked her how I could help her, what she wanted from me, specifically. I knew that no matter how well she was performing, she could always set a higher level of excellence to attain, and I knew that she would know what concerned her, which would guide us along the path to her next higher level. And she said, “I would like to perform at my peak more often.” When I asked her to tell me more, she explained that she knew that she could reach transcendent heightened states where she achieved a fullness of being, a union of her entire self, and raise herself to a high pitch, a peak performance—but only maybe six out of every ten times.
I became very interested in why she could reach these peak states sometimes, but not others. Was it simply because the vicissitudes of life interfered on some days, or was there some investment in her personality that held her back?
I asked, “How do you know when you reach this peak performance? What happens inside you?” And she said, “I see angels.” I became very curious, and I leaned in and asked, “What’s it like when you are really performing at peak performance?” And a little twinkle lit up her eyes and she said, “I can hear them singing with me.”
I turned to the audience and asked, “How many of you have as rich an experience as the one she’s describing when you are on stage? It doesn’t need to be angels but, on a scale of one to ten, how beautiful, how emotionally rich, is your inner life while you are performing? Do you have a beautiful experience like the one she is having? Or do you have a critical voice concerned about whether you hit a high note well enough? Or do you have self-consciousness or some other lower quality state?” I had been teaching them that the performer—the person—is the true instrument of the performance and that the state he or she occupies during the performance matters: Audiences reach only as high a quality state as occurs within the performer. And here, with this singer, was a brilliant example of a perfomer occupying high quality state.
I thanked her for sharing what goes on within her while in front of an audience. I had a vision of her walking out in front of 3,000 people, all of them becoming still and quiet while she sings with angels, and the hair on the backs of all of their necks moving, sending chills through them, having emotions that take them out of their ordinary lives and transport them into places they’d never been—the reason they pluck down a $150 for a ticket.
I asked, “How do you know when you are not going to sing at your peak performance? And when do you know it? Is it when you’re on stage or is it when you wake up that morning of the performance? Is it sometime during the day? What is inside you instead of angels?” It turned out that she had a feeling inside her body, a heavy, yet empty feeling in her chest: she just knew. We explored that feeling. What was associated with it? Was there an image? Was there a voice? Was there something she said to herself? Something she heard? What was it?
Through these questions, we finally discovered her grandmother’s voice, a strong, loving voice that admonished her to never give her all. She should always keep a little bit of herself in reserve, because, her grandmother reasoned, if she gave her all and the critics or the naysayers or any of the people that could do harm took up against her, she would have nothing left to build herself back up from.
So I talked to her about the intent of her grandmother and we agreed that she wanted to protect her, to give her a strategy for how to navigate the world of performance where she exposed intimate parts of herself, the depths of her being, in ways that could be harmful. We discussed how well this admonition had served her until today. And now, in the arena of superstardom, she needed to move beyond this admonition. She was ready.
I asked her, “In what way do you actually have more power when you give your all?” And she thought about it and answered, “I’m the one in control of what I give.” I said, “Exactly.”
In our discussions she realized that, by being in control, she’s in control of her own excellence, and when she reaches the pinnacle of her own maximum excellence, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says because she is at her maximum. She will not require rejuvenation from what they might say, because whatever they might say would not be relevant. They cannot describe her interior world. They cannot know what goes on inside of her. They are not privy to how much of her own potential she reaches in any given performance. Only she can know that, and only she controls that. So, whatever comment the world in its various ways could say about her inner world could never be an informed comment. It would always be about something else. But about this, about her own inner life, her own excellence, only she would really know.
I could see that twinkle in her eye reappear, and I smiled. I knew she had made this subtle, yet powerful transformation. I checked with her about those old feelings she had when she knew she was not going to reach a peak performance and I could see she would now glide through them, now with this twinkle in her eye.
I invited her to return to the memory of her grandmother, who had long since passed, and, in her imagination, give her grandmother this whole understanding of being in control of her own excellence, of transcending others, of rising into an arena where she needed to push herself to top form more often. I wanted her to get a sense of what her grandmother would say if she had this understanding, especially when she would feel herself move to a higher level of excellence, especially when she had this twinkle in her eye. When she connected with the memory and presence of her grandmother, she smiled a big, beautiful smile, lighting up the stage just as she had done in performance.
I could see she was going forward with her grandmother’s blessing, understanding that her grandmother’s previous admonition had carried her this far, protecting her, but now she needed to go further into a realm that neither one of them had ever imagined, this arena of superstardom where she needed a new strategy, a new belief, a new understanding for how to work with the complex internals of her own ambition and artistry and the sensations of optimizing herself for excellence.
And when her hand went into my hand I felt the warmth of her whole being, and I smiled. I was so lucky to witness this rarefied distinction in the quest of human excellence.