Like many artists, I’ve struggled all my life with my own self image and with self-defeating behaviors. In the past eight years or so, I’ve been gradually moving myself back into composing and performing, with increasing success—but also with increasing internal resistance to that success.
A few years ago, I started working with Shell Tain as my personal coach. The specific reason for hiring her (she’s a “money coach”) was my emotional baggage in relation to money, but she has always provided tremendous advice around all aspects of life.
One thing she brought up fairly early was the idea of what she calls “the gremlin” inside each of us. It’s that little voice inside that just wants to keep us exactly where we are, without making any positive changes in our lives. Steven Pressfield calls this force “Resistance” in his book The War of Art, and it is a pernicious and tenacious force inside each of us. Whenever you so much as think about doing some activity that will move you forward in life, the gremlin does everything it can to stop you. Any time you feel fear or avoidance when considering a positive action, that is this force. It is always trying to find new ways to sabotage your happiness and success.
An exercise that Shell gave me was to envision and personify what the gremlin looked like, personally to me. I thought about this carefully for some time, and I came up with the mental picture of a little comic book villain, straight out of the old Adam West Batman series. The name “gremlin” has definite “Spielberg” images firmly planted in my brain, so I named my villain “The Meddler!”
I picture The Meddler as a nasty little potbellied critter in a sweat-stained spandex outfit with an M on its chest. I intentionally imagined it as being small, like the size of a big rat, so that when it shows up I can kick it away or just pick it up and toss it out—I even gave it a rat-like tail and a little sneaky-looking burglar mask.
With that image in my head—and with a growing awareness of when I was feeling fear and other negative emotions around moving forward—I started having very good success identifying The Meddler when it would show up, and mentally sending it to sit in a corner and leave me alone.
However, when The Meddler sees success happening, it fights and connives even harder to stop you. I wasn’t prepared for how much The Meddler would push back when I started to experience some real, concrete successes of my own.
Early August 2016 was a very exciting and successful time for me. I traveled to Illinois to conduct the Kankakee Municipal Band in the premier of my first concert march, “Faithful Companion”, at the end of their summer outdoor concert series. This was the first time any large ensemble had performed my music, and the experience was gratifying, electrifying, and also emotionally exhausting. By coincidence, the day between the rehearsal and the performance of that march—a day that also happened to be my 48th birthday—I received a recording of the 77th Army Band performing another march I’d composed—”Per Ardua”, the 44th Air Defense Artillery March—which had been commissioned by Vincent Tedesco, the Honorary Colonel of the US Army’s 44th Air Defense Artillery. So Tuesday I first rehearsed “Faithful Companion” with a full concert band, Wednesday I heard a recording of “Per Ardua”, and Thursday I got to conduct “Faithful Companion” in front of a live audience. Furthermore, that weekend I shared the audio of “Per Ardua” with Paul Hertz who hosts classical music “by request” programs on KHOI in Ames, Iowa. That very next Monday morning, Paul premiered the march on live radio.
Quite a landmark week!
All of this amazingly good stuff happening to me, all at once, was too much for The Meddler. It saw these exciting successes as a potential trend that it had to cut off as soon as possible. So it started plotting how to derail me.
Almost immediately after the performance in Kankakee, I started thinking about (i.e., imagining) how my arranging on “Faithful Companion” didn’t yet match up with top-notch concert band arranging. I started thinking about how both “Faithful Companion” and the 44th ADA March didn’t live up to the standard of John Philip Sousa. (I’m not kidding, I really compared my VERY FIRST TWO concert marches with all the works of the man known as “The American March King”—a man who over his lifetime composed 137 marches!) I started thinking that “real” composers and performers would see how much of an impostor I am, pretending I can compose and arrange.
I remember thinking these things—or maybe feeling them is a better word—but I never verbalized them or brought them up with anybody. Had I done so, perhaps someone with an objective point of view might have noticed The Meddler in the act. As it was, The Meddler convinced me that I was a hack and a fraud masquerading as a “real” composer, and I quietly started putting off any more sharing of the audio and recordings of the two marches, as well as any online or direct marketing and promotion of the works.
Well, there are forces in our lives that are arrayed against The Meddler in each of us. In my case those forces include my own “Muse” (the creative force inside me), my strong sense of responsibility and service, and people like Shell Tain who are fans and supporters. Those forces on my side wouldn’t let this small defeat end the ongoing war against The Meddler.
So about two months later, during my coaching session with Shell, I brought up another success related to the “Per Ardua” march: Colonel Tedesco had arranged for me to be made an honorary member of the 44th Air Defense Artillery. I was stunned by this news, thinking it was an honor that I never expected; while it gave me deep personal pride, it also brought out strong feelings that it was an honor I did not deserve.
In our session, Shell immediately pointed out that this thought was nothing but The Meddler. As we talked about The Meddler having this influence on my, I started to realize how much The Meddler had interfered in my creative work over the past two months. All of the procrastination, “impostor syndrome” feelings, and over analysis of my work, every bit of it was The Meddler and its tricks.
Well, enough of that. I’m back in the fight, and I am thankful for Shell and everyone else in my life who is on my team as I fight against that evil little villain… The Meddler. Remember, no matter how much experience you have, no matter your age, your own Meddler will always, always be trying to stop you. When it does have a victory, don’t let it depress you or discourage you, because those feelings are just more of The Meddler playing its tricks. Rather, get up and get back to work. It’s the only way we win: By doing our positive work, every single day!