Misuse – that which is not good use – consists of those actions which are detrimental to the individual’s health and wellbeing. Like use, misuse are those activities which the individual has, or potentially has, choice over.

The origin and causes of misuse are complex as it deals with fundamental human behaviour such as the development of habits (good and bad), and the mental and physical processes involved in adapting behaviour according to changing circumstances (or rather the lack of adapting existing habits to new circumstances).

General explanations

General explanations suggested by Alexander in his writings include:

  • That the pace of civilisation is outstripping our unconscious capacity for adaptation and until we develop conscious use our reaction will be ‘instinctive’ (habitual), which often includes some misuse.
  • That endgaining, i.e. not attending to the means-whereby in obtaining a goal, is misuse or develops misuse.
  • That use and misuse is due to the manner of how the organism is reacting to stimuli.

Origins of misuse

The origin(s) of misuse is not known but there is general agreement that it starts early and can continue throughout life. A number of explanations have been suggested which can be divided into the following categories:

  1. imitating parents and other carers and role models in childhood and early adulthood;
  2. physical ergonomic (bio mechanical) reasons such as unsuitable furniture and work environment;
  3. startle pattern (affecting both children and adults);
  4. fight or flight reaction;
  5. fear;
  6. stress (work stress, emotional stress), trauma, suppression of emotions; and
  7. our body image, our construct of our self, our body map.

Categories 3., 4. and 5. may be connected as the startle pattern is associated with both fear and the flight reaction.

Although most would agree that it is a combination of factors (including some we may not know), see below (Other writers on the causes of misuse) for specific suggestions.

F. M. Alexander on the causes of misuse

F. M. Alexander’s writings are scattered with potential causes of misuse. Criticising physical exercises in MSI, Alexander lists a number of problems involved in carrying out exercises in a way which does not cause misuse in the long run. These reasons can also be read as a list of contributing factors to misuse in general:

  1. A defective kinæsthetic system.
  2. Erroneous preconceived ideas.
  3. Defective sense-registration and delusions.
  4. Defective mental and physical control.
  5. Defective inhibition.
  6. Self-hypnotism.
  7. Cultivated apprehension.
  8. Prejudiced arguments and attempted self-defence.[1]

Alexander suggests imitation as a cause of misuse in children:

The vast majority of wrong habits acquired by children result from their imitation of the imperfect models confronting them. But how many parents attempt to put a right model before their children? How many learn to eradicate their own defects of pose and carriage so that they may be better examples to the child? How many in choosing a nurse will take the trouble to select a girl whom they would like their children to imitate?[2]

He also suggests that diet is an indirect cause of misuse (‘there is a loss of activity in the processes of respiration, with consequent maladjustments of those parts of the muscular mechanism more nearly concerned’).[3]

An example of a child receiving instructions which encouraged misuse is found in Alexander’ story of a six year old girl who had been taught ‘free expression’ dancing, encouraged to perform movements according to her feelings and in such unguided state developed serious misuse of herself.[4]

An example of self-cultivated misuse can be found in Alexander’s story of ‘An attempt to hide a thin neck’ where a man ‘deliberately cultivated [the] habit of shortening his neck until the under part of the jaw rested on the top of the collar, while the head was pulled back until the lower part of the back of the head pressed on the back of the collar.’[5]

Alexander himself experienced receiving an instruction – ‘take hold of the floor with your feet’ – which he later realised ‘was exerting a most harmful general influence upon the use of myself throughout my organism’.[6]

Alexander in the ‘Bedford Physical Training College Lecture’ (1934) said in answer to the question ‘Why do we go wrong?’:

Do you know that the postural mechanisms of the human creature are the most uncertain and untrustworthy of all the mechanisms? You have that on the authority of [Sir Charles] Sherrington, and it must be so. If it were not so, then where would we get improvement? It is because the postural mechanisms are the most uncertain and therefore capable of change and improvement. If it is true that mankind has gradually come to the upright position, you can imagine what a difficult problem of adjustment it has meant.[7]

Wilfred Barlow on the causes of misuse

Wilfred Barlow has probably written more on the causes of misuse than most other teachers. He makes the point that what Alexander first discovered was ‘wrong use’.[8] He refers to many factors, but a common factor in his writings is anxiety.[9]

In his ‘The meaning of misuse’[10] Wilfred Barlow considers the many forms misuse can take and how complex misuse is, as it is a result of many intermingling factors. He distinguishes between four different kinds of misuse: 1. misuse happening mechanically during activity; 2. misuse as a result of positioning (sitting, standing, lying); 3. misuse during communication (in its widest sense), talking, gesturing, grimacing; and 4. misuse during basic human functioning like breathing, eating, excreting, and sex.[11]

Elsewhere Barlow suggests that a major cause of misuse is our sedentary lifestyle.[12]

Other writers on the causes of misuse

Lulie Westfeldt quotes Dr Millard Smith (a pupil of Alexander) for suggesting that ‘man went wrong’ because ‘his position in the uterus causes him to be equipped for a four-legged position because all his flexor muscles are flexed during pregnancy and when he is born they are shortened (in contrast to the extensor muscles of the trunk and pelvis). When man stands erect he is under the continuous strain of shortened flexor muscles’.[13]

F. P. Jones writes that ‘Two of the most powerful stimuli for producing malposture are a book and a pencil.’[14]

In the section ‘Formation of bad habits’ in Jack Fenton’s Choice of Habit, he writes:

Bad habits are all too often acquired in childhood if an action is repeatedly performed in the wrong way, and no correction is given. A child may imitate the bad habit of an adult. We may become tense through anxiety, and both illness and injury can cause poor posture or movement.[15]

Michael Gelb writes that ‘the most fundamental form of misuse is the failure to make choices’ (his italics).[16]

John Gray writes that there are many reasons for misuse:

One is that modern diet encourages greater strength and growth, but modern lifestyles produce less physical stimulation than in previous years – and often the wrong sort of stimulation, in that we tend either to rush around leading madly busy lives, or sit for hours at desks or cooped up in cars. At the same time we are being over-stimulated mentally by sophisticated modern urban living, so that there is a lack of harmony between brain and body.[17]

Richard Craze suggests that why we tense up and why we hold tension ‘is all to do with fear. We are frightened most, if not all, of the time.’[18]

Elizabeth Langford in her Mind and Muscle regards fear and the startle pattern as a major contributing factor to misuse.[19]

Missy Vineyard in her How you Stand, How you Move, How you Live suggests that misuse is partly caused by our adaptation (or lack thereof) to our upright, bipedal posture.[20]

Noël Kingsley in a chapter ‘Developing bad habits’ suggests that most bad postural habits are developed in childhood and adolescence.[21]

Richard Brennan points to furniture as a cause of misuse in a chapter titled ‘The effects of furniture on posture’ in his Change Your Posture, Change Your Life.[22]

How early does misuse start?

Some teachers suggest that misuse start between the ages of three and five (and no later), but some suggest that it can start soon after birth and, indeed, before birth.

Alexander indicated that children may go ‘wrong’ at the age of three in the ‘Bedford Physical Training College Lecture’ (1934):

I have been asked two questions that are important. One is, ‘Why do we go wrong?’ and the other, ‘At what age do we go wrong?’ I will answer the second in the words of Sir Charles Sherrington, when he said to me, ‘Mr Alexander, when we realize that children of three today have perverted respiratory processes, it is about time that we began to have our way.’[23]

Whether misuse is solely learned behaviour or not is debatable, or in other words, whether we are born ‘perfect’ and only acquire bad habits later on, or whether we are born already with some misuse, is questioned.

‘Alexander’s preterm birth’ by Jennifer Kellow writes that infants who are born prematurely have lungs which are not fully developed and hence their respiratory capacity is hampered. Kellow speculates that Alexander, would have had typical respiratory problems of being born prematurely, and that he solved it through his Technique. Hence, the Technique has much to offer other people who have been born prematurely.[24]

Other teachers suggest that the meaning of Alexander being quoted as having said: ‘You are quite perfect except for what you are doing.’ (Marjory Barlow[25]), and that ‘The right thing does itself’ (Walter Carrington[26] [27]), is that inhibition is all that is needed to regain an original state of being which was free of any misuse.

Don Weed, for example, follows up on this with his concept of ‘well-madeness’; that we are well made (except possibly for injury) and therefore prevention is all that is needed to return to this well-made state. He quotes Margaret Goldie for having said: ‘F. M. used to say, “You don’t have to ‘do’ anything. All you have to do is stop the wrong thing from taking place and the thing you want to happen will take place because you are perfectly made.”’[28]

Referring to misuse in teaching

Whereas Alexander (and Dr Barlow) would sometimes point out to his pupils their misuse (see Diagnosis), Walter Carrington did not recommend it.[29]


‘The value of misuse’ by Dorothea Wallis argues that terms such as ‘misuse’ or ‘bad use’ are misleading and unnecessarily depressing; ‘misuse’ contains a wealth of information about ourselves and how we use ourselves as a whole.[30]

See also Use, Startle pattern, Diagnosis, Ergonomics, Fear.


[1] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), pp. 14–16.
[2] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 69.
[3] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 69.
[4] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), pp. 77–78.
[5] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 162.
[6] The Use of the Self by F. Matthias Alexander (Methuen, 1939), p. 18.
[7] ‘Bedford Physical Training College Lecture’ (1934) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), p. 180.
[8] The Alexander Principle by Wilfred Barlow (Gollancz, 1973), p. 20.
[9] See for example ‘Anxiety and muscle tension’ (1947) and ‘Anxiety and muscle-tension pain’ (1959) in Postural Homeostasis by Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2014), pp. 27–42, 164–172.
[10] This is a revised and expanded version of ‘Some varieties of misuse’ by Wilfred Barlow in The Alexander Journal no. 2 edited by Edward H. Owen (STAT, 1963), pp. 15–20.
[11] ‘The meaning of misuse’ by Wilfred Barlow in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005 [1978]), pp. 46–60.
[12] The Alexander Principle by Wilfred Barlow (Gollancz, 1973), p. 23.
[13] F. Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work by Lulie Westfeldt (Mouritz, 1998 [1964]), p. 149.
[14] Freedom to Change [Body Awareness in Action] by Frank Pierce Jones (Mouritz, 1997 [1976]), p. 33.
[15] Choice of Habit by Jack Vinten Fenton (Mouritz, 2010 [1973]), p. 4.
[16] Body Learning by Michael Gelb (Delilah Books, 1981), p. 35.
[17] Your Guide to the Alexander Technique by John Gray (Gollancz, 1990), p. 15.
[18] Alexander Technique – Teach Yourself by Richard Craze (Hodder Headline, 1996), p. 35.
[19] Mind and Muscle by Elizabeth Langford (Garant, 1999), pp. 229–39.
[20] How you Stand, How you Move, How you Live by Missy Vineyard (Marlowe & Co, 2007), pp. 35–40.
[21] Free Yourself from Back Pain by Noel Kingsley (Kyle Cathie, 2011), pp. 38–41.
[22] Change Your Posture, Change Your Life by Richard Brennan (Watkins Publishing, 2012), pp. 85–99.
[23] ‘Bedford Physical Training College Lecture’ (1934) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), p. 180.
[24] ‘Alexander’s preterm birth’ by Jennifer Kellow in The Congress Papers 2008, From Generation to Generation Vol. 1 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (STATBooks, 2009), pp. 247–61.
[25] ‘Rough notes from Marjory Barlow’s workshop’ by Bob Britton (April 1995). Unpublished MS.
[26] ‘Back in the Beginning – Reminiscences of F. M. Alexander’ by Walter Carrington in An Evolution of the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington, Dilys Carrington (Sheildrake Press, 2017), p. 147.
[27] ‘Notes for an Alexander Teacher’ by Walter Carrington in An Evolution of the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington, Dilys Carrington (Sheildrake Press, 2017), p. 152.
[28] Escape From the Monkey Hatch by Donald L. Weed (1445 Publications, 1997), p. 172.
[29] Explaining the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington, Seán Carey, (Mouritz, 2004), p. 140.
[30] ‘The value of misuse’ by Dorothea Wallis in The Alexander Journal no. 8 edited by Wilfred Barlow (STAT, 1978), pp. 22–25.