At the center of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie series is a woman whose life resembles a pressure cooker nearing explosion. As a drug-addicted nurse struggling to survive the demands of a frenetic job at a New York City hospital, she walks a tightrope balancing her way through a nasty divorce, parenthood and being a reliable rock to her friends, colleagues and patients. As if that wasn’t enough, the episode finale finds her managing not one but two existential crises. After witnessing her tyrannical boss trying to unsuccessfully save his son from a drug overdose, she runs upstairs- to find her best friend, Dr. O’Hara, has just given birth to a baby boy. One life ends as another begins. Hats off to the brilliant writers of Nurse Jackie for illustrating so beautifully the roller coaster that is life. Emmy award-winning actress, Edie Falco’s portrayal of Nurse Jackie encompasses strength, struggle, vulnerability, weakness and above all courage to feel it. Nurse Jackie is just trying to survive. Sometimes she makes it and sometimes she just makes mistakes, but she puts one foot in front of the other and keeps going.
Dramas that portray human struggle are valuable, they show us that we are not alone, others have gone down similar paths and survived; knowing this helps us carry on. As actors, you are part of a vital creative process reassuring humankind that we are all in this together. Support and reassurance can ease our way through tough times. If you were lucky, as a child, you can remember the powerful effect of your mother or father saying “Don’t worry everything will be all right.” An old Indian proverb says: – “Joy is doubled by others and sorrow is halved.” We need each other to get through the ups and downs of life. Art helps us through our confusion and it is our community of family and friends that hold us up when life knocks us down.
One way actors can prepare themselves to play deep, complicated roles, like Nurse Jackie, is to have access and control over all their emotions, especially the difficult ones that make them feel vulnerable. Acting class can teach you how to act, but it is your responsibility to know and handle your inner life. As an artist, emotions are the palette you use to breathe life into the characters you are portraying. Knowing and accepting all your emotions gives you an abundant palette to work with. Why limit yourself to black and white when there are so many other colors available? Here are some steps to harness and master your difficult emotions so you can be more comfortable with them and access them for your roles:
Step one: Change your view. Rather than viewing your vulnerability as an emotion you need to get rid of or run from, view it as a treasure that holds important insight about yourself. See difficult emotions as great teachers. Remember, even when you feel powerless in a situation, you always have the power to choose how you want to view it. You can transform an audition that does not pan out into a job as an audition filled with an opportunity to experience growth; the choice is yours. If you view your difficult emotions as something you need to run away from, you will promote fear. If you view them as something you need to get to know better, you will promote strength. Which seeds are you going to water, seeds of fear or seeds of strength? Remember views are powerful, so be aware of yours and know that you can always change them to your benefit.
Step two: Learn how to feel your feelings without getting lost in them. Feelings are sensations in the body, that come and go just like the weather. They shift and change moment to moment. What you feel now will change in five minutes, 30 minutes, an hour or a day. Knowing this can help you build tolerance for uncomfortable feelings when they arrive and enjoy the good feelings before they leave. Reminding yourself that feelings are not facts lessens the power you unconsciously give them. Get tools to relax your body when you feel strong emotions. Add exercise, yoga, meditation or Tai Chi to your daily routine to get into the habit of calming your body down. Some simple methods to gain control when anxiety strikes are:
- Breathe a little more slowly and deeply. This sends a message from your lungs and your heart to your brain that you are not in danger. Your brain then turns off the chemicals that were stimulating your body’s fear response.
- Relax your tongue and your mouth. By relaxing your tongue and jaw, this also sends a message to the brain that you are okay and it engages the parasympathetic nervous system (part of the nervous system which calms us down) to work by soothing you.
- Imagine increased warmth in your hands. When you are stressed, your sympathetic nervous system directs blood flow to your legs for the fight or flight response. This directs blood flow away from less important areas, like your hands and fingers. Visualizing warmth in your hands sends another signal to your sympathetic nervous system to relax and take it easy.
Step three: Stop self-critical thoughts.
Having self-critical thoughts while you’re going through a tough time is like pouring salt on a wound. It’s painful enough to go through difficult emotions; you don’t need to make it worse by beating yourself up for having them. Instead, give yourself a break, by learning to accept whatever it is that you are feeling without any judgment. Don’t see yourself as flawed, but full of potential no matter what you are feeling. Create friendliness towards yourself by softening the harsh inner-critic, this will help you to be with yourself in a genuine way. Stop exaggerating your thoughts by catastrophizing. Remember the mind believes what you tell it. If you want to control your anxiety, become aware when you are exaggerating your thoughts by making little things bigger than they need to be.
An important goal of an actor is to stay open to life experiences without shutting down. When you learn to navigate through and tolerate difficult emotions, then those emotions no longer have control over you and you have more access to your emotions for your art. The experience of staying open in difficult times creates the strength one needs in order to be with whatever emotions show up. You can only take an audience as far as you have been in your own life. Every week we are right on the edge of our seats with Edie Falco’s Nurse Jackie as she jumps through every obstacle thrown on her path, triumphs through her heartaches, addictions and mistakes to come out of the storm in one piece. No doubt Nurse Jackie is a heroine, but underneath it all, Edie Falco is the courageous one. She has the courage as an actress to bring the depths of all of her emotions to her role.
“Our aim is to create the life of a human spirit and then to express it in a beautiful artistic form.” -Stanislavski
Bonnie Katz is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. One of her specialties is working with artists in the Entertainment Industry. Her skills and training as a psychotherapist and mindful meditator enable her to work with clients in an atmosphere of warmth and understanding. For more information on Bonnie’s psychotherapy practice, visit her website.Follow her on Twitter and Facebook
Conscious Actor articles are not a substitution for professional psychotherapy.