What’s Your Story?
Great stories help us make sense of the complex world we live in, and invite us to expand our understanding of it. Actors have been an integral part of storytelling for hundreds of years. A good story performed well, has the power to heal our pain by revealing the universality of our difficulties. Knowing that everyone has problems helps us feel less isolated and ashamed. A good film or play can give us the courage to open up and explore unknown territories within ourselves. Storytelling is a a miraculous phenomena that shows us a range of possibilities while making us feel more connected to each other.
Actors are an essential part of storytelling. If they are not 100% convincing in their roles, the audience won’t believe the story, and the magic cannot unfold. In order to fulfill this important task, actors must have access to a full palette of emotions within themselves. It requires courage and faith in oneself to reach down deep into murky, messy, vulnerable feelings and reveal them to the public. Edgy, moving performances do not come from playing it safe. Greatness is born out of risk-taking and valuing truth over vanity.
As actors, you may have come across teachers or coaches who have observed blocks in your ability to express certain emotions in your acting. You may have also noticed that particular roles are difficult for you. The correlation between how you respond in your personal life to certain situations inevitably shows up in your acting. You are an artist and your canvas is your mind and body. Acting can be a vehicle to explore your difficulties, or it can be a place where you shut down and close the door.
Jessica Chastain shared how she handles going to the difficult places when acting with Vogue Magazine. Acting for her is about, “Exploring things I don’t understand in myself, maybe that I’m afraid of within myself. In order to take on the enormity of this task, one must be more curious than afraid. “ That sounds like a good plan, but how can you find your curiosity when you’re knee deep in discomfort? Answer: you make it a practice.
When you sign up for an acting class and work on scenes, you are practicing your acting skills. The more you practice, the better you get. When you want to get better at handling your emotions it requires the same discipline and practice. Change doesn’t happen over night. You can’t will it to happen. It takes motivation and practice to break old reactive, behavioral habits. But it can be done. You can learn to choose a fresh alternative when you are battling with your anxiety, stress, or any negative emotions. There is a way of handling your discomfort with intelligence and wisdom. Fear and discomfort never goes away completely, but it doesn’t have to have the same power over you anymore. Before I go any further, you need to know something very important. This technique should not be applied to any past traumas. Trauma is in a special category and if it was never processed with a mental health professional DO NOT USE IT IN YOUR ACTING. I don’t care what your acting coaches tell you, they are not mental health professionals. Be kind to yourself and get help to work through any childhood trauma or life threatening events that you have experienced.
Next time you feel dis-ease, stay open and curious with these 4 tips:
Take 3 deep breaths. This sounds so easy yet it can give you some space between what has happened to you and your reactions. In that space is an enormous amount of power. It will help stop you from going into a reactive mode where you will say something or do something that will only make you feel worse. The breath will relax you and prevent you from repressing or denying your feelings. It stops that tape running in your head telling you lies like, “Oh I’m not angry, that doesn’t bother me. I’m okay, don’t worry about me, do you need anything?” You end up being dishonest with yourself and that’s not good self-care.
2. DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.
Something someone says gets you upset. A situation has arisen that is causing you to feel anxious. Stop running from the discomfort you feel inside. Instead, do something different, acknowledge what you feel, don’t struggle against it. Get curious. Hold on to the idea that difficult feelings are usable, workable and are the path to wisdom and self control. Begin to use everything that happens to you as a means to waking up. Valuing rather than avoiding your uncomfortable feelings will give you more courage to meet your daily challenges. Remember, when you run or self-medicate from bad feelings like panic or anxiety, they just get bigger. When you move toward difficult feelings rather than backing away from them, they dissolve faster. Remember the children’s book, “There’s A Nightmare In My Closet” by Mercer Mayer? Each night this little boy had night terrors because he thought there was a monster in the closet. When he was brave enough to open the closet door and confront his fear, he found a monster that was just as afraid as he was. The little boy and the monster ended up comforting each other. Lesson: When we embrace our fears, get to know them, invite them in for a cup of tea, we reduce the power they have over us.
3. LET GO OF YOUR STORIES.
When that negative self-talk is let loose it only fuels your bad feelings and keeps you stuck longer. Instead, notice when it begins to happen, let go of the thoughts and come back to the felt sense of what is occurring. By doing this, you are not feeding the fire and making it bigger than it is. Your mind will tend to exaggerate what is happening to you. “Oh I’ll never be hired again.” “That mistake just ended my career.” These are just feelings not facts, but the mind will believe whatever you tell it. Remember your feelings will just pass through you if you let them. Negative self-talk will make them hang around longer than they need to. Get grounded in your body and feel the aliveness of the present moment, not the virtual reality going on in your head. Try the body-scan to help ground you when you get lost in thoughts.
4. MAKE IT A HABIT.
This method is not a quick fix. It takes practice. You’ve got the power to change how you relate to the difficult stuff that happens to you throughout life. Anything of value takes hard work and effort, especially when it comes to personal growth. When you become more intelligent about handling your difficulties, you will suffer less and feel more freedom. Control the busyness in your head so that you can stay in the reality of what is happening to you, not just your take on it. Wisdom needs a quiet mind to emerge. Meditation is a useful tool to help calm your mind and body and tolerate the uncomfortableness. Get a free guide to meditation here. Take advantage of helpful references that will promote inner strength here.
Utilize your storytelling skills in your acting, not in your mind. When you start spinning a story in your head remember to see that you just got hooked, pause, breath deeply, and allow yourself to relax, knowing that this is impermanent and if you don’t feed it with your stories, it will pass.
Bonnie Katz, MFT is a licensed therapist in private practice. With experience, training and intuition she gently listens between the lines to her clients and helps them discover the obstacles blocking them from fulfilling their full potential. For more information on Bonnie’s therapy practice, visit her website. Like The Conscious Actor on Facebook
I’ve created The Conscious Actor Inspiration Journal; to help actors develop awareness of what inspires them. Beautiful pages filled with inspirational quotes to help keep you strong minded. For New York actors, the journal is available at Drama Book Shop Los Angeles actors may pick up the journal at Samuel French Bookshop
Conscious Actor articles are not a substitution for professional psychotherapy.