Act Smart!: Sitting in the suck

What I’ve learned to do when I blow it.

I lost my cool in a challenging work situation recently. Without getting into details that might expose the innocent, let us just say I ran out of patience, acting out like the bratty mcbratterson I can revert to when I don’t get my way, hurting some feelings and leaving myself with a gigantic emotional hangover.

Whether I’m sliding into bad behavior on a job or in my “real” life, whether I’m feeling lousy because of something I initiated or something I reacted to, I’ve found that the way back to equilibrium is the same: applying a few simple tools to the best of my ability in the moment.

Not that I always catch myself before I slide into a full-on funk.  Sometimes I can’t even come to an awareness that something has happened until long after I’m feeling the effects of it. (Anyone who resists the reality of an incipient cold until they wind up three days deep in tissues and chicken soup knows whereof I speak.)

But regardless of where in the sequence of events I catch myself, these three things work to set me right again.

1. Naming it

A former acting teacher used to rail against “keeping things vague” as a prime ruination of compelling theater. You cannot play a scene well without making strong choices, and you cannot make those choices without accepting the fixed givens of the scene.

Let us be clear: I am a perfectionist. I so detest the possibility of being wrong, I have developed the dubious skill of obfuscating reality as it’s happening, where necessary. And never does it feel more vital to my survival than when I am heading into a situation where I might be in danger of: (a), feeling shame; or (b), losing control. (The sharp reader will note that pretty much any situation involving other people falls into one or both of these categories.)

It takes some practice, being able to accurately assess what’s happening. Like most new skills, I’ve found that practicing in low-stakes situations helps a lot: “I’m driving too fast” or “Waiting in this line is making me feel cranky”. Even naming simple, obvious stuff like “I’m hungry” or “I’m tired” on regular days helps me to notice things more easily when I’m stressed out. I walk around like my own voiceover a lot of the time, narrating what’s happening—in private, although I’ve been busted doing it in my car, at the grocery store, and so on.

2. Feeling the feelings

Hardest part, bar none. It’s probably why I became an actor: feeling has always been harder for me than thinking.

This is where I that thing I named—I’m tired, I’m anxious, I’m impatient—really sink in. Usually, there’s a bigger feeling underneath (*cough* fear *cough*) that will bubble up if I give myself some room to feel it. Sometimes this takes a moment, sometimes longer; the common thread is that it always, always takes longer than I want it to, because feeling feelings of any kind usually feels terrifying, even when the feeling is love. (Heck, especially then.)

For a simple transaction—say, breaking a mug I don’t much like, in my own kitchen—I can blip from naming to feeling to the following step in order. For gnarlier situations, I may have to circle back to naming, or solicit help from a loving and wise party before moving back to feeling.

3. Do something about it

Sometimes the “something” is just noting it in the moment, and continuing about my business, then acting differently next time. Sometimes there are messes to be cleaned up: apologies or reparations, to myself or someone else. Like all change, it happens for me slowly, and with backsliding. I still blow auditions and  shortchange the occasional scene because of my obstinacy in naming my nervousness. I still open my mouth and say stupid things I cannot take back out of impatience (cf Challenging Work Situation, above), but I do it slightly less often, and when I do, I’m able to make things right far more quickly, which actually shortens the inescapable period of discomfort and anguish.

Is this process fun? Not yet.

But after many decades at this life thing, I’ve finally begun to accept that there is no skipping steps. Even more importantly, I’ve learned that what lies on the other side of willingness to look at the really icky, scary stuff is amazing freedom, growth, and happiness. As Beverly Sills so wisely said, “There are no short cuts to any place worth going.”

* * * * *

Book of the Month

You can learn plenty about the human condition from a thoughtful reading of Dickens, Tolstoy, or Chekhov, but sometimes it’s nice to see our soul sicknesses illuminated not only by our contemporaries, but those who are professionals in the field. I absolutely adored—meaning “devoured, cover to cover”—The Examined Life, stories about and lessons drawn from Stephen Grosz’s decades-long psychoanalysis practice. The writing is so simple and clear, revelations about character float up as you read. And yes, from purely mercenary perspective, you will come away with brilliant ideas, tools, and “tells” for playing all kinds of characters well and truthfully.

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