A long time ago (don’t ask), one of my favourite teachers told me:

”Don’t just tell the reader what’s happening. Instead, SHOW them that something’s happening!”

This was probably my first introduction to “Show, don’t tell!”

Many years have passed since (blergh, I’m old), but I still use this concept when I write fiction. Not all the time – sometimes, telling can actually make sense, e.g. for brevity (not that I’m generally any good at keeping things short. My typically excessive use of parentheses might give a hint).

But honestly writers, it *is* okay to tell, so don’t get into your head too much (that just as an aside).

However, in this blog post, I want to use a different phrase:

“Sense, don’t talk (too much)!”

The writing principle of “Show, don’t tell” means that you use vivid language and imagery to create a scene in the reader’s mind, rather than simply telling them what is happening outright.

For example, instead of telling the reader that a character is scared, you could describe the character’s physical reactions, such as their racing heart, sweaty palms, or shortness of breath. You could also describe the environment in a way that creates a sense of suspense or danger.

Similarly, instead of telling yourself that you are calm (our brains don’t operate that way, sorry to be the bearer of inconvenient news), you can be curious about the feedback that your senses give you instead:

Notice the way the air feels as it enters and leaves your lungs, and give yourself permission to stop focusing on it if it becomes too much. Pay attention to the sounds around you. Notice the way your body feels, where it wants attention or where it doesn’t, or feel the softness of fabric on your skin.

  • Instead of saying “I am calm,” you could focus on the sensation of sitting in a chair, feeling the weight of your body, or whatever gives you a sensation of comfort.
  • Instead of saying “I am safe,” you could focus on visuals that give you a sense of safety, like the trees that surround you. Or it could be the sensation of warmth, brought on by the sun on your skin.

These are obviously just examples – the kind of focus that is helpful varies greatly from person to person, that’s why I keep on reiterating that there is no “one size fits all”.

Bodies Need to Feel Safe So the Mind Can Follow

Talk therapy, or “telling,” can be a helpful way to process, but it is not always the most effective approach. There are a few reasons why this might be the case:

First, talking about trauma can be triggering. It can bring up difficult memories and emotions, and it can make people feel unsafe or overwhelmed. This can be especially true if the trauma is recent, or if the person did not have time to process, or is pushed into processing. I can’t stress this enough:

You don’t have to process anything before you are ready, no matter what person XYZ tells you on Instagram

Second, it is hard to put trauma into words. The very nature of trauma is that it overwhelms our nervous system (“too much too soon”), and that processing it on a purely intellectual level is hence impaired:

How do you put your bodily sensations into words without bringing them back up again? This can be especially true if the trauma was something that you were ashamed of, or that you feel you should have been able to prevent.

That’s why ”showing” rather than “telling” can be a helpful way to calm the nervous system. It allows us to focus on the present moment and to connect with our senses. It helps us to create a sense of safety and grounding.

And yes: As thinking beings with access to language, we would ideally just be able to tell our nervous systems that we’re safe, but generally speaking, talking about problems isn’t very calming to the nervous system (there are exceptions. That old chestnut about “no one size…” again).

Talking about problems can make us feel vulnerable. We may feel like we are exposing our weaknesses, or that we are being judged. Shame, guilt and embarrassment are not particularly comfortable places to be.

Talking about problems can also make us feel like we are not in control. We may feel like we are reliving a traumatic experience, or that we are powerless to stop it from happening again. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Here Comes a Memo for the (Performing Arts) Teachers…

Some of you might know, by now, that I am an advocate for trauma-informed practice. But it isn’t always about trauma, or mental health concerns. It is also about creating a conducive and supportive learning environment.

When we “show” and let our clients “show”, too, we are inviting them to experience something for themselves rather than simply telling them what to think or feel, and that’s always a more effective way of learning new concepts and skills.

“Showing, not telling” means being a human who respects another human’s agency and innate wisdom, and it paves the way for deeper learning and understanding.

If you find yourself incessantly talking/lecturing during a lesson, or if your student talks a lot (as in: they talk but don’t experience/do), it might not always be the most effective way of learning (again, those pesky exceptions aside, because every so often, it does help).

Let them demonstrate without stepping in.

Let them figure out and sense stuff for themselves.

Give them permission to withdraw from those experiences. If the body says no to something, it says no.

“Show, don’t tell” in teaching means:

  • Letting your client experience things (especially sensations) for themselves instead of hinting at what it should feel like.
  • Asking open-ended questions that encourage your client to share their thoughts, feelings and sensations if they so wish (and being okay with the fact that they aren’t, or that it can vary from session to session).
  • Listening attentively and reflecting back what you have heard, seen or noticed, and letting them do the same. And accepting that sometimes, no words are necessary at all.
  • Offering support and encouragement, but avoiding telling your client what to think or feel.
  • Generally speaking: Talking less and doing more, all the while being mindful of prompts like “what do you feel/think” etc. They can be great, but also triggering for some people. And if they aren’t triggering, they can at least be exhausting – constant focus on interoception is as one-sided as exclusive focus on exteroception. Mix them up.
  • Being on a shared journey instead of subscribing to a master/apprentice model where one asks all the questions and the other has all the answers. Or, even worse: One has all the answers without even listening to the questions…

Btw: If you are interested in a deeper understanding of the idea of “showing, not telling”, somatic approaches to teaching, coaching and therapy might be for you. You might find this course helpful for a quick intro.

© Petra Borzynski 2023

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About Petra Raspel Borzynski

Petra Borzynski is a voice coach and therapist with special expertise in helping (performing) artists and creatives to overcome limiting beliefs and emotional blocks to perform better and without fear. She has helped hundreds of people to prepare for or sustain a singing career, find personal fulfilment through music and overcome limiting beliefs & performance anxiety. Her articles on singing, creativity and performance psychology have been featured in several publications.
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