Self-Care is Warfare: The Actor and Self-Care, Part One

The Problem

Actors are the foundation of theater. You can take away the lights, costumes, sets, you can even go Original Practices on Cymbeline’s ass and take away the director– but you cannot remove the actor or the audience and still have what we think of, know and love as theater.

Actors are necessary, actors are fundamental, if we want theater we need actors.  If we want bold, brave, exciting, moving theater we need bold, brave, risk-taking and vulnerable actors. An actor’s ability to show up and be seen, to be truly wholehearted and vulnerable in their craft and in their lives, is entirely undermined when they are perpetually struggling for a sense of self-worth and worthiness. The systems of production around us make that struggle for worthiness endemic to the actor’s life. We need to practice better self-care to be better actors and happier people.

Acting is hard on the ego, for sure. On some level, we all know that “abandon feelings of being special or significant all ye who enter here” might as well be posted on the gates of the Inferno that is the acting profession. In an oversubscribed field where there are far more job seekers than jobs, in an absolute buyer’s market for labor, each actor is quite literally replaceable. But if we’re honest with ourselves we also know that on some level, we’re all hoping that Theater will someday love us back as much as we love theater– and then we might finally be Okay.

Actors struggle for worthiness– so do we all, right? But it gets worse. What happens when an actor has beaten the odds and is having a great year working great gigs? Chances are that somewhere in their minds they are thinking about what happens in 3 months, 5 months, 8 months–what happens when they don’t know what the next gig is. Every time I’m with an actor who has a lot to celebrate in terms of recent successes and opportunities, I hear a litany of what is lacking and what is probably going to go wrong or be disappointing: “I probably won’t get the gig, I hear the director is really hard to work with, I will probably suck at the gig, I probably won’t work again all year, I hate the play but I need the money, I’m sure this is the day they find out I have no idea what I’m doing and I’ll never work again, they should be paying me more but that will never happen… etc etc”

So what are we doing? We’re taking our vulnerable, eager urge to make something beautiful and throwing it into a Magical Catastrophic Thinking Machine that spits out sausages made of  “This Is Your Chance” and “I Can’t Fuck Up” and “This Is Gonna Suck!” and “This Better Be Perfect”– or even “I’m A Phony And They’ll See Through Me Any Minute”. Not only is this a totally crazy making cycle of self-abuse, it utterly undermines our creative potential to take risks, be vulnerable, connect with our scene partners and make unexpected discoveries.

The systems of production in our profession work against the qualities that define our craft at its best. Feeling entirely replaceable and permanently at-risk for unemployment, invisibility, obscurity and meaninglessness even while hard at work is crazy making. It’s demoralizing. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking and depressing and sometimes it’s downright humiliating. And it makes so many of us burnout and quit, year after year.

What can we do to stop the burnout, to keep ourselves in love and striving to be better artists? What can each and every actor do to make it more likely that they are still acting– passionately and devotedly and wholeheartedly, and maybe even professionally– in 20 years?

Step One: Have a Full Life Outside

That’s right, I said it. GET A LIFE. Nourish your life outside of theater to have a better life in the theater.

First, ask yourself some difficult questions: are all of my friends theater people? Do I have any hobbies or other work that I find truly meaningful, significant and fulfilling? Something I can turn to to feed my soul when I’m not acting? Do I know who I am outside of theater? Do I like who I am outside of what I do? Do I feel worthy of love and belonging even if I never act in another show ever again?

We live in a society and culture that essentially defines each of us not just by what we do all day, but specifically by what we do to make money. As actors, many of us fall into the trap of taking a series of demoralizing, meaningless day jobs that we won’t feel bad about flaking on when we get an offer for A Good Gig. This puts job-based self-worth and fulfillment out of our control  and in the perhaps distant future. In a culture where we are what we do, who are we when we aren’t doing “what we do?”

I believe that it is our task as actors to work on becoming ourselves first and foremost, before we ever have a chance at honestly understanding, empathizing with and embodying a fictional person. I get a lot of argument about this, but it’s founded on two truths that really are well-founded in a lot of research and experience:
1) You have to love your character and empathize with them to do justice to their story. You cannot sit in judgement of them at a distance and still portray them honestly and convincingly. Maybe after the show you can say, yeah, he’s an asshole, glad that isn’t me. But during the show you have to love and accept them and see their side.

2) It is impossible to love another person more than you love yourself. Acceptance of others requires self-acceptance, non-judgement of others requires non-judgement of self. Loving another person requires loving oneself just as much.

Now, it’s entirely possible that loving a fictional character is easier than loving a real person, but that is because they are two-dimensional and unable to surprise us with shadows that trigger our own shame and self-hatred. But an actor must fill out all the dimensions of a character by loaning it their own soul. If the actor’s relationship to herself is two-dimensional, distant and judgmental, their ability to create a three dimensional person will be profoundly limited.

So, you say, screw being happier! I want to be a better actor. That is what will make me happy!

Okay. I know who you are. Same goes double for you. Here’s an incomplete list of where to start. Please add to it!

For Starters: 

Spend time with people who don’t do theater, talk to people who don’t do theater, value people who don’t do theater and who can do absolutely nothing for your career. Take up another hobby where you can be creative and express yourself but that has nothing to do with your professional stature or ambitions. Write creatively. Write bad poetry, write short stories, write an obscure blog about the psychology of theater! Play with children– if you don’t have any, borrow some. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or women’s shelter or hospital or library. Take long walks in nature. Read a novel that you are not thinking about adapting into a play. Go see other forms of art. Learn to swing dance– but don’t put it on your special skills right away, let it be just for your pleasure and enjoyment. Plant a garden, or just grow a few herbs and learn to cook with them. Buy a vegetable you’ve never heard of and look up a recipe for it and cook it for your friends. Join a book club. Laugh a lot more than you already do. Laugh joyfully. Avoid laughter that denigrates or shames others. Laugh in solidarity with those who struggle.

Feed your soul. Love yourself. Be kind. 

To Dream the Impossible Dream

I find I must apologize for my tone in earlier attempts to limn out some ideas that I think are relevant to the theater world– I was writing in a way more suited to an academic paper than a conversation. And what I’d like to have here is a conversation.

I believe that there are social structures in place in the American theater system, as well as the acting industry at large, which can really pose a threat to an artist’s sense of self-respect, dignity, willingness to take risks, and general wellbeing. A dear friend of mine in the Bay Area theater community who has been at it for several decades told me recently that he feels theater is an addiction, plain and simple. He believes that actors are all essentially taking part in an abusive relationship, that theater cannot and will not ever love them back in the way that they want and need, and yet just one good show is enough to keep them coming back to the well for another decade. I confess I had had similar thoughts about my own relationship with theater, and it was refreshing to hear a local luminary be so up-front about it.

I recently applied for an internship position at a local addiction clinic certified to offer methadone replacement as a treatment for heroin addiction. They work on a “harm reduction” model of treatment, believing that it’s better to help an addict reduce and manage the negative consequences using has had on their lives than to make abstinence the main measure of success.

I can’t help asking myself, if theater IS an addiction, then what might be a harm-reduction way of approaching one’s need to create and perform? I say harm reduction because I believe there is real and lasting harm that comes from an unquestioned, uninterrogated need to act. I see people in their 20’s and 30’s and even beyond working a lot of day jobs they hate, telling themselves that it’ll get better someday, that they’ll get that breakthrough gig and then life will be different. But, as we know, the odds of that have always been low– and given the struggling theatrical ecosystem, lack of public funding, theaters folding left and right, general buyers market for talent, and the intense struggle of just making enough money to survive in our cultural centers which leaves an artist incredibly depleted in psychic resources with which to pursue their craft… it’s not getting any likelier.

This reality isn’t lost on us, on the whole. Younger actors, after a few years out of school, will generally sound very sanguine about the realities of the profession and its limited, dwindling opportunities– it’s frustrations, hardships, insults, and the likelihood of disappointment. Still, they say, “that won’t be me.” And also say “I need it.”

I am honestly truly worried about what will happen to a generation of creative, talented, courageous people who tell themselves the big break is just around the corner until they burn out on the whole thing. I am no less worried about an acting field that takes genuine, sensitive and heartfelt people and seems to use up their psychic resources and willingness in a decade or less, on average. I also see that the frequent if not constant experience of rejection, frustration, directorial tyranny or other misbehavior, and lack of validation for the individual’s essential self (as opposed to their performative self) weeds out the more sensitive and kind souls who might have in time become the most moving and transcendent contributors to the field.

In psychoanalytic therapy, the work of mourning is considered very important to recovery. I think we often get stuck here– not on mourning the things we have lost or walked away from, but the things that never were in the first place, things we needed to believe would be. I recently ended a relationship with a person who was not honest and was often very self-absorbed, gloomy and unkind. Obviously this relationship wasn’t what I needed or wanted, but I’ve been quite heartbroken over it. The hardest part of recovering from the loss has been accepting that he never would be what he had the potential to be, and understanding that my dreams for the future relationship we would have when things magically improved were a delusion. I stayed in the relationship for too long, hoping that eventually the good days would prove the rule and the bad days would magically disappear if I just tried hard enough to be my best most patient and lovable self. I was lying to myself, and spending a lot of energy on the impossible. When an actor tells himself, even secretly, that eventually he’ll reach a point when the good shows are the rule, and the bad ones or the dry spells just don’t happen so often– he is deceiving himself about the nature of the relationship he is in.

The work of mourning for our impossible dreams and longings is the most important step to releasing our creative potential and energies for what is possible. When we fully face and see the impossible dreams for what they are, we can begin to mourn them and let them go. We can be grateful for what those dreams gave us to hold onto in dark times. And we can also admit that in truth they take a lot more out of us than they give back, in terms of energy, vision, creativity, spirit, nurturance, love– resources that are then free to be invested in reality, in manifestation and vision on a concrete plane.

As a field, as a generation of artists and creators and ambitious young minds, we need to witness and accept the hard realities of our field and mourn what is both unlikely and impossible– not just shrug and say “it will be different for me”, or “I’m gonna give it five more years.” We need to face our compulsions and fantasies for what they are, really size up the nature of our relationship with theater, and make adjustments so that we can sustain our artistry and craft for the long haul. This work of mourning our impossible dreams will free up the energy needed to manifest the possible, realizable, awesome potential of our lives– and of our art.

Self-Perfection, Self-Hatred, and the Peter Sellers Effect

I return to the question of the real self Vs. the Idealized Self-Image. A dear contributor to our community and a generous soul Mr. Sam Hurwitt brought up the question of what is the real self, if not a composite of our choices? It’s an excellent question and I believe it deserves serious thought.

Again I return to Karen Horney, whose view of human nature is essentially optimistic. Inherent in the human psyche, she believes, is the ability to grow and evolve. One cannot teach or provoke an acorn to become an oak tree, but given a hospitable environment that acorn will in fact fulfill all of its given potentialities. Similarly, the human psyche is endowed with potentialities unique to each individual which, given a healthy environment, will grow and develop. In her book Neurosis and Human Growth, Horney describes the “unique alive forces” of a person’s real self as:

“the clarity and depth of his own feelings, thoughts, wishes, interests; the ability to tap his own resources, the strength of his willpower; the special capacities or gifts he may have; the faculty to express himself, and to relate himself to others with his spontaneous feelings.” (p. 17).

Like the Big Dipper constellation points to the north star, taken as a whole this list points toward the central inner force of a human being’s life. This force, when allowed to express itself and develop naturally, guides her on a journey toward growth and self-realization, toward developing her own set of moral principles and values and eventually the general aim of her life. Its central tenet is the authentic experience of one’s inner life, which is then expressed outwardly in the development of one’s potential as a human being.

When in early life the environment is not hospitable to the real self, which can happen in any number of ways, the external environment’s rejection of the self is internalized and a potentially lifelong pattern of self-hatred begins. Words fall short of expressing the very real tragedy and waste of human potential this course of events entails. When the real self becomes an object of hostility and shame, the imagination is enlisted to create a better self, one more worthy of love, adoration, respect, fear, power, glory, etc. The process of creating an idealized self-image is long and mostly unconscious. During this process resources available for self-realization are directed toward self-perfection. It is reminiscent in a way of those moments in Star Trek when the ship is under attack by a superior foe and even life support systems are taken offline in order to reinforce the shields. Gradually the idealized self-image and the neurotic pride that supports it takes over the personality, and the real self becomes starved, small, silent. This is motivated further by the self-hatred and pain that began the process: pride in the Idealized Self and hatred for the real self go hand in hand.

Eventually we become so completely identified with our Idealized Image that the real self is a somewhat perplexing and abstract concept rather than an available experience. The real self is in fact terrifying, because it is associated with primary rejection and danger, but we disperse our fear by becoming superior to it. The real self is now something disgusting, something small and pathetic, something containing all the weaknesses fears and vulnerabilities we have worked so hard to eradicate or at least bury out of sight. Sorrowfully, after living for decades under the tyrannical regime of our “Shoulds”, and all the dictates of our desperate quest for self-perfection, the real self can lose almost almost all power and significance in the psyche. In short, just like Peter Sellers, we can have it surgically removed.

At 30secs:

Kermit: Oh you know i just love all your wild characters Peter, but you know backstage here you can just relax and be yourself.

Peter: Mmm, mmm. But that you see my dear Kermit would be altogether impossible. I could never be myself.

Kermit: Never yourself?

Peter: No, you see: there is no Me I do not exist.

Kermit: I beg your pardon?

Peter: There used to be a Me. But I had it surgically removed.

Peter Sellers was an undeniably brilliant talent, a unique comedian and performer, and a person many aspiring actors admire. He was also notoriously “absent”, lacking any stable sense of identity and personality. His fluidity in performance came at a serious cost to his psyche and his relationships. Gradually people stopped working with him because of his instability, mood swings, unpredictable demeanor, self-absorption and occasional terrible treatment of coworkers. His son Michael described Sellers’ mood swings, saying “He would just go. And once his temper had gone he would delight in upsetting as many people as possible. He was like a playground bully – he enjoyed making you cry.” Sellers said of himself, “If you ask me to play myself I will not know what to do. I don’t know who or what I am so I will not be able to help you. I’m not the real Peter Sellers. I’m just a plastic mock-up.” (source)

Peter’s surgical procedure of removing his self is never complete. The real self, though small and starved, remains alive– imprisoned by our inner tyrannies and kept in constant check. The hyper-functional, self-perfecting personality structure feeds off the energies that would otherwise belong to the growth and fulfillment of an authentic human individual. In order to survive it must be constantly vigilant against any assault on its control, from within and without. Yet the real self may make itself known in dreams or in small moments of revelation and peace. I remember once dreaming of myself abandoning an infant I had just given birth to which I knew was also really me. Another time I dreamt of walking into an abandoned room in my house covered in dust and full of items from my childhood; in the dream I quickly locked and barred the door. I dreamed once of myself as the captive of a mean witch who made me do everything she said and told me she would kill me if I weren’t “good”. That dream was actually a turning point in my recovery– for the first time I identified with my real self, the sad little girl just trying to survive, rather than the tall and tyrannical evil witch who knew I was worthless.

Unfortunately we live in a culture that highly encourages surface-level qualities and does little to facilitate a person’s cultivation or recovery of their real self sense. Many would argue that we live in an inherently narcissistic culture, and there’s a tendency for psychological practitioners who have been in the field for several decades to anecdotally observe a marked rise in narcissistic disturbances . I believe this is due to a confluence of factors including increased public awareness of narcissism, which influences practitioners’ perspectives. Studies comparing narcissism across generations are inconclusive–they tend to conflate self-esteem with narcissism, which is dangerous and stigmatizing. Self-esteem and narcissism may look the same on the outside in some ways, but they couldn’t be more different constructs. Narcissism can only thrive in a person suffering from a profound lack of self-worth, self-respect, self-esteem etc. as well as a deeply set self-loathing. Whether or not pathological narcissism is indeed on the rise, I believe it is indisputable that the performing arts and acting in particular create an environment that encourages the development of narcissistic disturbances.

Narcissism is the enemy of authenticity and happiness. It undermines our relationships, and makes us invest all of our energies into mirages and fleeting triumphs. If we want to create great art that speaks from and to the living human soul, theater must address its narcissism problem.

Mr. Theater Makes Good, Hates Everything

First of all, a few words about Mr. Theater.

Mr. Theater isn’t you, but he might be about you and part of you. He is a composite character, a fictionalized case study if you will, made up of bits and pieces of people I have known, loved, observed, and wondered at for many years. Mr. Theater may be an actor, director, writer, painter, poet, dancer, singer. Mr. Theater might even be a doctor, lawyer, psychologist (though this is less likely). There’s even a fair slice of myself in Mr. Theater.

My intention is not to portray a single person, and if at any time you feel you recognize yourself in the portrait, please believe you are probably not alone. Mr. Theater isn’t any one of us but I do see him everywhere. I have been Mr. Theater, dated Mr. Theater, crushed out on Mr. Theater, taken classes from Mr. Theater, looked up to Mr. Theater, pitied and consoled Mr. Theater. I love Mr. Theater and do not mean to mock or understate his very real suffering. I hope that shows in the way I treat him in these pages.

Last week, last month or last year Mr. Theater made good. He had a hit on his hands– critics were raving, audiences flocking, the show was a hot ticket and extended two, three, four times ! Mr. Theater was assailed nightly by a cloying mass of adoring fans there to tell him everything he always wanted to hear: he was brilliant, incandescent, sublime, perfect. Mr. Theater calls his friend or lover or wife to describe the overwhelming praise and recites it in detail, expressing both humility and ecstasy at being bathed in so much appreciation.

Mr. Theater simultaneously spirals into a deep, self-hating despair.

Perhaps this is a coincidence. Perhaps this time of year is an anniversary of a particularly painful time in his life, perhaps his relationship is on the rocks, perhaps all the hard work he put into this triumph left him isolated and lonely, perhaps he doesn’t have another gig booked and is trying to inoculate himself against disappointment with foreboding negative self-talk which instead results in depression and anxiety. But for Mr. Theater this is not an isolated incident based on mere coincidence,  it is a repeating cycle. Why is the experience of artistic triumph so often coupled with profound distress?

The factors involved here are complicated and numerous, but I want to focus on one particular process for now–that of externalization. I believe that many if not most creatives who are suffering from psychological distress are disturbed by a gap between what they experience as their real self, and what Karen Horney describes as an “idealized self-image”. The idealized self-image was created at time in early life when the environment was not at all supportive to the real self, and a solution had to be found within the psyche. So in order to survive a difficult time, Mr. Theater created an internal god-like image of himself to give him a source of pride regardless and in spite of external sources of pain, shame, humiliation, rejection, neglect. This image has little or nothing to do with the real self, since the real self was, in the child’s mind, the reason for the hurtful situation to begin with. When the real self is rejected, the quest for realization of the idealized self begins.

The idealized self-image varies greatly depending on the individual, but it usually contains expressions of unattainable, superhuman perfection in conflicting arenas. For example, Mr. Theater might believe that on the one hand he is utterly magnanimous, generous, kind, compassionate, authentic, giving and available to all his friends and loved ones. He may simultaneously believe that he is solitary, gregarious, thoughtful, poetic, a philosopher, a Don Juan, a brilliant lover, a faithful and devoted husband. On the other hand he might believe that he is utterly devoted to his work, above and beyond all else, and that he lives solely for his art. The inherent conflict in these simultaneous expectations is obscured by his life-or-death need to be all these things at once, and any failure on his part to live up to this idealized self-image is then swept from the field of consciousness by externalization. 

(why this need feels like a life-or-death matter is the subject for another post)

In Our Inner Conflicts (1945, p.115) Karen Horney describes externalization as “the tendency to experience internal processes as if they occurred outside oneself, and, as a rule, to hold these external factors responsible for one’s difficulties”. Externalization differs from projection in that it includes the removal of both positive and negative processes to the external world. When the gap between the actual self and the idealized image becomes unbearable,  Mr. Theater externalizes his perfectionism and self-hatred–two complementary though opposing forces in the psyche– by imagining that the entire world is judging and critiquing his every move as deeply as he is himself. Mr. Theatre externalizes his need for triumph and his willingness to exploit others by imagining the world is made of crooks, climbers and liars. (Mr. Theater may very well be on the receiving end of various kinds of social oppression, but these real social forces are not his concern, believing that he should be able to rise above all such obstacles by sheer dint of his amazing abilities). In its positive aspect, Mr. Theater externalizes pride in his accomplishments or positive self-regard by imagining others are simply being generous and kind to him because that is their nature, and not because he or his efforts deserve it. Mr. Theater externalizes his entire pride system and idealized self-image by enlisting external criticism and praise in the battle of his inner conflicts.

Often Mr. Theater tries to remain immune to praise or criticism, holding himself to a standard that only he can realize or understand. His posture is defensive, ready with a witty self-effacing quip on the one hand or a devastating return-critique of his critic on the other. When he does truly hear praise and temporarily absorbs it, this triggers an equal-and-opposite intrapsychic response to keep the system in balance. Immediately the internal tyrant of his perfectionism declares that he is worthless, arrogant, despicable, that he has wasted his life. That he should have achieved more, done more, or been a completely different person. That the loss of his girlfriend, marriage, day job etc., that any past or present difficulty are the real measure of his worth. And when he hears honest criticism of how his work could be improved in one way or another, or when he doesn’t get the job he really wanted, his pride system declares that they are tasteless, superior, ignorant, prejudiced, or worse. In these ways the external world is used to intensify, reinforce, and balance out his inner battle between self-hatred and neurotic pride in his idealized-self image.

When Mr. Theater makes good, it is in his mind entirely due to factors that are not essentially his own. When people love him, they are truly loving the mask he wears to please them. When they praise him, they are praising his ability to pretend to live up to superhuman standards of god-like gifts which he knows he does not possess. They are not loving him, they are loving an act, a fraud, an impostor. Thus, the experience of artistic and professional triumph is an empty one. The love he has been seeking through achievement and glory was never truly for him, only for his ability to perform and please and charm and entertain. He is not lovable, not worthy, not gifted, not enough– or he never would have had to put on the mask in the first place.

Mr. Theater suffers greatly, most distinctly and completely from an alienation from his true self. The path towards healing is long and hard for Mr. Theater, and for many of us, but it is not impossible. First and foremost, he and we must begin to look realistically at our internal conflicts, at our “shoulds” and “musts”, at our drives for perfection, triumph, consuming devotion, or complete aloofness. Then we must mourn the loss of our idealized self, and the years spent pursuing it as the only means of finally achieving love and safety. Then comes the hardest and most important task: seeing and understanding the reality of our self-hatred and how it has been in control of our lives, our talents, our wishes and dreams, and our despair.