Have you ever come across this phrase?  It used to be very popular in the UK. The full version goes “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”

47 devil pic2

It usually means that someone would rather put up with the existing circumstances, even if they are pretty devilish, than risk trying something different.  The particular devil I want to talk about today is this one.


And a tricky little devil it is, too.

People normally think of being comfortable as A GOOD THING.  We choose a new bed or a new pair of shoes(*) to be comfortable.  And that’s fine.

Students often tell me that’s what they want out of a lesson; to sit more comfortably, to stand comfortably, to play the clarinet more comfortably and so on.    But when it comes to being comfortable in how we move and go about doing things, we hit a snag.

The name of that snag is FAMILIARITY.

Put those two things together, and you’ve got the potential for trouble.  FM Alexander said this(**):-

“it is possible for (someone) to become so familiar with seriously harmful conditions of misuse of himself that these malconditions will feel right and comfortable.”

He’s not mincing his words on this.  Once something becomes familiar, it feels right.  Once something feels right, it becomes comfortable.

Even when it gives you a pain in the neck.  Even when it leaves you very tired.  Even when you don’t actually want to be like that.

At some level there is a comfort that comes with ‘how I always do it’.

Which means that if you do it differently, you may not feel comfortable.  Even if it hurts less.  Even if it leaves you less tired.  Even if it brings you the success you’re after.  Simply because it is unfamiliar.

Which does create a dilemma for the students who are seeking greater comfort.   Which are you going to choose, the uncomfortable that you know and love – and have persuaded yourself is comfortable after all – or the uncomfortable that is new and exciting?

(*) unless, of course, it’s that killer pair with the 4-inch heels, which is understandable                      
(**) FM Alexander, The Use of The Self, IRDEAT edition p.455


CNHC and ITM registered Alexander Technique teacher.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in familiar, habit
  1. I had an Alexander Technique student who once wisely remarked, “I am comfortable in my uncomfortableness.” – seems to speak to exactly what you are saying in this blog. I also think there are two meanings of comfort going on – comfort in terms of what is actually more natural, balanced, less painful, etc. – and comfort in terms of what is familiar. What you gain from Alexander is comfort in terms of meaning #1, though to get there we must go through the discomfort of meaning #2! I guess I try and explain to my students that once we get through those unfamiliar, “uncomfortable” stages, we may even experience comfort in both senses! It just doesn’t feel like it in the beginning. Thanks for the great blog, Karen. Comfort can be so seductive, so useful to determine what we really mean and want from it!

    • Imogen,I love your student’s quote. I totally agree, it’s actually quite a complex issue, and any (or all) of the various meanings could turn up in the same Alexander lesson. And it’s definitely seductive! thanks for such a great comment. Karen

  2. Sonia says:

    I think an additional (pernicious) dimension of ‘better the devil you know …’ is its pessimism about change. It implies ‘you may think you are uncomfortable now but you will probably feel worse if you abandon the familiar for the unfamiliar’. So it undermines the belief that Imogen’s meaning #1 will triumph through experimenting. Is there a good counter phrase we could be using?

  3. Sonia says:

    Having thought some more how about ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’? This is normally seen as the opposite of ‘look before you leap’ but probably Alexander would say that was a good idea too?!

    • Sonia, I think Alexander would definitely have been in favour of looking before you leap! More seriously, yes, there is a basic element of being prepared to take a risk, and to let go of old ways of thinking, which is necessary if anyone is going to get the most out of the Alexander Technique. For some students this is a delight, for others it’s a big obstacle. I’ve been trying to think of alternatives to nothing ventured, nothing gained, and so far haven’t come up with anything. Karen

  4. […] started thinking more about this dilemma after reading Karen Evans’ blog, Better the Devil You Know, last […]

  5. This New Yorker, yours truly, loves this saying! Is it retro old fashioned? I am going to adopt it to remind me to always do the opposite, as I am in the process of of reaching out to “the devil that I do not know!” One must get over fear to embrace what will turn out to be positive and benefical change. Thanks so much for this post!

  6. Hi Rena Anya, glad you enjoyed the post. This saying is definitely old-fashioned. I associate it with the books of Enid Blyton (for some unknown reason!), and the things my parents and grandparents would say when I was little. I’m now (whispers) 46, and I haven’t heard anyone use it in a long time, but it captures the sense of extreme cautiousness I associate with where and when I grew up. Karen.

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