Maybe it was an embarrassing memory slip. Or one of those runaway train moments, where you knew you were rushing, but just couldn’t stop. Or perhaps it was a super quiet and exposed moment, where your bow started shaking, and doing some crazy involuntary richochet type of thing.
I think we’ve all had certain performances or auditions that we wish we could take back. Where things went so badly, and we were so embarrassed or felt so ashamed, that it still affects us a little bit today. Where we tighten up when we get to a particular section of a tricky excerpt. Or develop a sort of complex about a particular part of the bow or dynamic range. Or become fearful and anxious in certain passages, even if we never have a problem with them in practice or rehearsal.
In the absence of a way to eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind our brains (and I actually can’t remember if that worked out well or not, so maybe it’s just as well that we can’t?), how can we move past these distressing performance moments, and let go of our audition/performance “baggage” so these moments from our past don’t continue to affect our performances in the future?
An international team of researchers (Paersch et al, 2021) were curious about the potential benefits of a particular type of confidence known as self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy is essentially how strongly you believe in your ability to achieve a particular goal or be successful in a specific task. And it’s been linked to all sorts of positive things, like persistence, initiative, better emotional regulation, more effective responses to stress, and even increased performance in sport, academic, and work settings (e.g. Schönfeld et al., 2017).
Given this, the researchers wondered…might it be possible to leverage self-efficacy in some way, to take a bit of the sting out of negative experience from our past?
A distressing negative memory…
The team recruited 50 participants, and had all of them start off by spending 1 minute recalling and imagining a negative memory from their past. A memory that was still “mildly to moderately distressing,” falling somewhere between a 25 and 75, where 0=not at all distressing and 100=extremely distressing.
After visualizing this memory, they were asked to rate various aspects of the memory – like how vivid or distressing the memory was. With questions like “how distressing is the negative memory right now?” (1=not at all; 10=extremely stressful).
They were also hooked up to heart rate monitors, and asked to report on their physiological state during recall. With questions like “during recall, I had heart palpitations…” (1=not at all; 10=extremely).
Memories of self-efficacy vs. feeling positive
Then, the participants were randomly divided into two groups. One group – the self-efficacy group – was asked to recall and imagine three specific events from their past, which demonstrate “strength and self-efficacy where they managed a situation successfully despite potential barriers.” Like doing something well in sports or school, or having handled a difficult emotional situation effectively.
Participants in the positivity group were simply asked to recall “specific events where they felt particularly positive.” Like a “happy encounter with a friend or partner or experiencing nature during holidays.”
Recalling and reappraising the negative memory
Next, participants were asked to recall and imagine the negative memory once again, for 2 minutes.
Then they were asked to describe that memory to the experimenter in as much detail as possible.
And finally, they were asked to reflect on 10 open-ended prompts about their negative memory. Basically, they were presented with 10 questions, and given a minute per question to potentially rethink the negative memory in a gentle way.
Like, to consider what positive aspects of the event there may have been, or what sort of personal changes resulted, or how their emotions have changed over time, or what positive experiences they’ve had since, and so on. Especially in light of the self-efficacy or positive memories they just recalled – though this wasn’t stated in any explicit way.
8 days later…
Eight days later, participants returned to the lab, and were asked one last time to recall and imagine their negative memory for 1 min.
After which they answered the same questions they were asked at the very start of the study. Like how distressing the memory was, whether they felt that their heart was beating faster, etc.
The question being, did the experience of dwelling on self-efficacy memories from the past, and then reappraising the negative memory change how they felt about it?
Well, first off, it’s not like positive thinking is totally useless. Reflecting on positive moments did have some benefits.
For instance, whether participants imagined self-efficacious times or positive times, ratings of self-efficacy went up1.
And sure, a boost in self-efficacy is nice and all, but did any of this change how participants felt about the negative memory?
The short answer is yes. I mean, it didn’t transform the negative memory into a happy memory, or wipe the memory clean. But after visualizing moments from the past when participants had been effective and successful, taking another look at the negative memory, and then letting all of that simmer for a week, something did change – at least for the self-efficacy group.
Specifically, the participants who reimagined memories of self-efficacious moments in their lives rated the negative memory as being less distressing at the end of the study. And they seemed to feel more physically at ease when thinking about the negative memory by the end of the study too. In that their perception of heart palpitations decreased over the course of the study.
Meanwhile, the positive imagery group’s feelings toward the memory was unchanged. And there was no change in their perception of physical responses to the memory either.
So…what can we take away from this?
Before we get to that, it’s important to note that the types of distressing memories that participants recalled were pretty mixed. As in, some participants recalled the death of a loved one, while others recalled having a big argument with a significant other, or failing a big exam, and so on.
These are all very different kinds of distressing memories. So it’s not clear how things would have played out if the study looked only at performance-related negative memories.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the main takeaway for me is that if you’ve had some negative performance experiences in the past that have continued to stick with you, and positive thinking hasn’t helped to ctrl-Z2 the experience, I think it’s worth trying some self-efficacy imagery to see if this might help decrease the distress associated with the memory.
Plus, the authors also note that people higher in self-efficacy “have stronger problem-solving abilities and a higher level of persistence,” and “show changes in brain activation in regions linked to emotional regulation.”
So this may even be the sort of thing that could help when you’re having a frustrating practice day. As in, rather than getting frustrated and spiraling to the bad place, just hit pause on your practicing for a moment, recall a time when you accomplished something that was really challenging, bask in the memory of those self-efficacious feelings for a bit, and then see if you’re in a slightly better headspace as you continue on with what you were doing.
Paersch, C., Schulz, A., Wilhelm, F. H., Brown, A. D., & Kleim, B. (2021). Recalling autobiographical self-efficacy episodes boosts reappraisal-effects on negative emotional memories. Emotion, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000949
- This wasn’t necessarily what they were expecting, but it kind of makes sense in hindsight, and the researchers explain that the positive thinking group very well could have recalled mastery moments in their past, which felt positive, but also represented self-efficacy
- i.e. “undo” – and yes, I do acknowledge that this is a pretty nerdy way of saying this. 😅