Oliver came to my office and complained of being at an impasse in his career as a sound engineer. He had made a name for himself as an established producer with excellent skills in analog recording in the 80s. He would shy away from clients requesting a digital sound and, though he knew the basics, his expertise in analog recording far surpassed his knowledge of digital production. As years went by, he developed a kind of phobic reaction to the idea of challenging himself technically and creatively. He decided that he wanted to confront his feelings and to overcome his fear of adjusting to the new world of music production.
The overall theme in my work with Oliver was captured by the following phrase: push yourself just the right amount. The idea is that once you gain insight about what it is you are avoiding, and given that you recognize the value in overcoming this fear, it is important to set goals that will challenge you, yet will not push too much. Oliver knew that what he needed on a technical level was more than just counseling sessions. He needed training and experience with new software. However, despite knowing this on an intellectual level, he did not feel ready to face the possibility of failing at something new. This fear had little to do with the real or perceived difficulty of digital recording and a lot to do with his tendency to be very critical of himself.
The goal of the sessions was to uncover the underlying issues and to begin a process of identifying feared situations that trigger them. For example, the first feared situation was having to learn new software programs. Oliver saw two versions: one in which he knew just the basics and one in which he was perfect at it. The first version, though emotionally comfortable, discouraged him. The second version scared him. A question we explored during a few sessions was whether there something he felt he could do that would push his comfort level just a little, but would not be a source of intolerable and intense anxiety. He reported that the one thing he could see himself doing was to watch a YouTube video with a tutorial on how to use a software program. Over the course of the next few weeks, he was still apprehensive about it and postponed beginning the video. We realized that this may still cause too much anxiety, thus eliciting avoidance on his part. We agreed to push his comfort level a little bit less by agreeing to have him watch the first 5 minutes of the video with no expectation that he ought to watch it entirely or to be ready to implement what he learned right away. He agreed to this.
Over then next few weeks, he was able to push his comfort level more and more until he had watched the entire video. Though far from being at the point where he would feel competent in recording and mixing using the new software, he was able to see the progress he had made compared to a few months back. We continued using the same idea of "pushing himself just the right amount" until the end of our work together.
This approach can be used and practiced with many artists and creative individuals. With the help of a structured counseling setting it can be easier to identify the psychological roots of progress hinderance. Then, it's important to actively work towards making space for small movement toward the desired direction without tackling goals that cause more anxiety than what's tolerable.