Monthly Archives: May 2012

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Been meaning to write about choking under pressure – why it’s good to stay out of your head. This blog aptly states that.

The Boiling Point: A Journey in Comedy

Previously, I’ve written about why you should stop caring.  But it seems that’s harder than we’d like.

Our brains – the very things that come up with all those great improv ideas – are out to sabotage us.  In this Psychology Today article, researchers tried to figure out why we choke.

Big show, big audition, important audience member, you name it.  The pressure’s on.  And it crushes some of us.  The article says when our potential reward is low, our performance is better.  Raise the reward and we start to suck.  Think of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  As the potential payday increases, people get more tentative.  Hesitancy in an improv show will kill you.

There’s a stupid part of our stupid brains – the ventral striatum.  It lights on fire when we hear about a great opportunity.  Nothing wrong with that.  But when it comes to…

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Say what you mean

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Here’s a bit of Del Close wisdom:

Nothing we say to each other is innocent of emotional manipulation. Everything that we do on stage is to affect each other in some way… Sometimes I suggest we perform on stage as though we are a whole bunch of raving paranoids.  With these paranoid adjustments, nothing I hear is going to be simple. Nothing you say to me is going to be accepted at face value. Ohh? It always means something else.

We are all a bunch of raving paranoids, if you think about it, on stage and off.  We never accept what someone else tells us at face-value; we always expect that there’s more to it, some underlying meaning.

Why? Because we’ve come to understand that we have to read sub-text because people never fully say what they mean.  There’s so much more going on inside that black box of our mind that never fully gets out.  Now given the variability of the accuracy with which we mentally simulate about others, it would make sense if we were just more explicit with each other.  Why aren’t we?  I have no idea.  Maybe we think we are?

I watched the movie Adam the other day.  It’s about the romantic relationship of this guy with Asperger’s syndrome.  It’s  a really great watch; I highly recommend.  But one symptom of Asperger’s is trouble decoding social cues.  His girlfriend was upset one night and he said to her, “I know you’re upset, but I do not know what I should do.”  She said, “It’d be nice if you could give me a hug.”  But with Adam, she had to be even more explicit.  “Adam.  I’d like you to give me a hug now.”

In improv, we have to say what we mean.  For some reason, even on stage, we hide behind metaphors and subtext.  But there, it’s the most crucial that we’re communicating with each other.  If we’re in an opener and we want everyone to start doing the same thing as us, why don’t we just tell them?  The openers are for the improvisers, not the audience.  They’re for us to get on the same page and to generate content for our shows.  And why should that only be true for openings?  I was in a scene a few weeks ago where I thought the other woman on stage was my lesbian lover, and she thought she was my roommate.  Hey, either one worked in the scene, but we were not behaving in a cohesive manner because  neither of us ever clarified.  Would it really have been that difficult for me to say, “Oh, baby, blahblahblah” and put my hand on her arm?  That would work, no?  Or couldn’t she have said “You know, as your roommate, I feel obliged to tell you that blahblahblah”? Both are subtle, but say exactly what we mean.

Now just because someone does not have Asperger’s does not know that they understand what you want.  If you really want someone to know what you mean, you need to say it.  Be explicit.  My friend E upset me a bit the other day.  She knew why – I had misunderstood her intent.  It forced her to be explicit (“I don’t want to upset you. If something is important to you, it is important to me. I had thought that doing x was not a good idea because y.”) but it also forced me to be upfront with my own emotions. (“Yes, but I think x is good because z.  And I am glad that you told me that you didn’t mean to upset me and that you knew why you had, because I was afraid that we were out of touch or that I was overreacting.”)  One of my strongest relationships is with E because we’re able to talk to each other about what is really important, and tell each other what we need, rather than getting bogged down in subtleties.  We confront each other if something is wrong because it’s better to talk about it than let it simmer.

The other day, I finally took a page out of my own book and was upfront with myself about what I want.  It felt awesome.  Let’s see if I can do that in my improv class tonight.

“And I will try to fix you.”

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Please, don’t, Coldplay.

Sometimes people don’t want to be fixed.  It negates the validity of how they’re feeling.  I’m really shitty at not-fixing people – the eternal optimist in me wants to make everything okay, to find the silver lining, the light in a bad situation.

But my teacher made a really good point.

If someone goes on stage and says that they think they’re too overweight, you can’t tell them, “Oh, no really, you’re fine.”  That was their gift to themselves and you – this character either has low self-esteem or is incredibly blunt and comfortable pointing out his own defects.  And you’ve just deprived him of that character trait and yourself of the opportunity to play with that character.  You’ve essentially negated what he’s said.  And where will the scene go from here?  “Oh, yes I am.” “No, really, you’re not. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” “But I am.”  Someone will have to win, and although I’m sure we’ve all had those conversations in real life, they’re better off-stage than on.

If a fellow improviser goes on stage and says that she thinks her husband is going to file for divorce, you can’t say “Oh, I’m sure you’re overreacting.”  Sure, you are endowing this character with a trait they possibly didn’t know that they had, a gift.  But you’re also saying “no.”  You’re denying them the chance to see how this would play out to affect their character and their character’s relationship with yours.

I know it’s our tendency in life to try to make things better – we’re actually a very pro-social species.  But sometimes, people just need to wallow.  Sometimes, they don’t want to tell you what’s bothering them – they just want you to hug them.  That will make it better.  Or perhaps they need to work through their issues on their own and you’re depriving them of some agency.  The best way to fix something is just to let the person know that you’re there should they want your help.

And thank God for the things that are not fixed.  We’d be so boring if we were all perfect.

 

Dig deep into relationships.

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That’s the rule for the month of May.  According to my improv teacher:

“If you don’t enjoy people, if you don’t want to find out about people, then this is not for you.”

She meant improv. I mean life.  She had a really good point.  If the other person on stage doesn’t mean anything to you, then why are you there?  Why wouldn’t you just get up and walk away?  If you don’t want to find out about them, and find out about yourself in the process, what are you doing?  In improv, you need to need the other people on stage.

Thank you (so sincerely) to the people who are my people in life.  The people who I need and who need me.  Thank you.

Also, um, the writers at Grey’s Anatomy and I should team up.  Seriously:

“At the end of the day, when it comes down to it, all we really want is to be close to somebody. So, this thing where we all keep our distance and pretend not to care about each other, it’s usually a load of bull. So we pick and choose who we want to remain close to, and once we’ve chosen those people we tend to stick close by. No matter how much we hurt them, the people that are still with you at the end of the day, those are the ones worth keeping, and sure sometimes close can be too close, but sometimes that invasion of personal space, it can be exactly what you need.”

Carpe-ing the Diem

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It’s a really grand idea, in theory, to live in the present; to stay out of one’s head.

In practicality, though, it’s awfully hard.  And maybe not the best mantra.  Everything in moderation.

Like most of the rules that I’ve tried thus far, I’ve realized essentially that “the rules” are not meant to be hard-fast rules.  “The rules” are training wheels – you tell them to beginning improvisers (like myself) to get them on the right track.  But eventually, in order to become more talented, more comfortable and automatic in your play, one has to learn when it’s okay to bend/break the rules.  The rules, while initially helpful, can be sort of limiting.

Take, for instance, my current profession: graduate student.  If we were all living by my rule for the month of April (“Be present”), no one would go to graduate school.  Or medical school.  Or commit to long-term romantic relationships. Or start their own companies. Or run for office. Or become parents. Or do ANYTHING at all that is even REMOTELY difficult.  Our ids would take over completely (please forgive the expression, fellow psychologists).  The world would be in a state of disarray.  The thing is, there’s more to life than the present, and if we don’t plan for the future, then we will be lost when we get to it.  My “staying out of my head” rule actually started to backfire on me during April.

At first, it was amazing.  I made all of these discoveries that I didn’t know that I was going to make.  On stage: I made a discovery that my character was a divorcee who had a fascination with ensuring that she died in an intriguing way.  It was such an exciting discovery to make, and one that I am not sure taht I would have made had I not been very attuned to what I was saying and the gifts my scene partner was giving me.  I went into the scene (a Home Depot) knowing only that I really desperately wanted to paint my kitchen red.  Everything else evolved from within the scene!  There are actually countless other less salient examples of this that I’ll refrain from detailing in depth here.  The point is, it (“being present/staying out of my head”) worked.  Off stage: I let go of the guardrail I had on my emotions, and as a result, I had some really amazing experiences when I just flung myself wholeheartedly into my relationship.  With Y moving in a few months, there’s no certain promise of a future – that really forces me to appreciate the now.  I stopped stressing about whether I was balancing my life the “right” way (it’s so difficult to strike a balance between family, friends, a relationship, work/school, personal, etc.  Those of you who know my 5 S theory have heard me gripe about this).  I just decided that there is no objective “right”.  What is “right” is what feels “right” in this moment.  You can’t beat yourself up over your decisions or behaviors; they shape who you are as a person.  I even worried a little bit less about what others thought of me and my decisions, because when you’re trying to really live in the moment, there’s no thought of the future social implications of your behaviors.  It’s freeing, really.

But then, the backfire.  On stage: I found myself going up to perform without anything at all in my head.  That is a terrifying feeling.  I tricked myself, thinking, “Aha! Look at me! I’m so awesome-  I’ve stayed out of my head!”  But without even a something there to grab hold of if I needed it, I was insecure.  And frankly, did not have a lot of gifts to offer to my partners.  I understand that the whole “stay out of your head” thing is meant to keep people from analyzing their choices while they’re still in the scene.  It’s supposed to get them to listen to what’s happening, to respond from their gut, to respond naturally.  But sometimes, you need to get in your head in a scene.  You need to identify a pattern that is occurring, in order to figure out what that says about you and your character.  You need to know your characters, and their relationship, and that’s hard to do without analyzing trends in the way that they’re interacting.  As I’ve heard in improv classes many a times, “play to the top of your intelligence.”   Off stage: I found myself dragging my feet to do work that wasn’t absolutely necessary.  “Sure, it would be a good career move to stay in and write this manuscript tonight, but it will be there tomorrow.”  I found myself looking heartache in the face as I realized that I don’t know what is going to happen, and I have been a little bit reckless.  I found myself thinking, “Wow, you live so close to your family; what if something happened to them tomorrow and you hadn’t visited in a while.  How would you feel then?”

Yet, here’s the problem with planning for the future: it’s so uncertain.  You know that saying. that the only thing that won’t change is change itself?  TRUE. A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy (love that show) spoke well to this point:

“We spend our whole lives worrying about the future. Planning for the future. Trying to predict the future. As if figuring it out will somehow cushion the blow. But the future is always changing. The future is the home of our deepest fears… and our wildest hopes. But one thing is certain, when it finally reveals itself, the future is never the way we imagined it.”

In fact, one of the reasons why the future isn’t the way that we imagine it is because we, as humans, have a variety of cognitive biases.  In psychology, thinking about the future is called affective forecasting, and we are notoriously bad at it.  When we consider events in the future, we ascribe them greater intentionality and greater value than events in the past.  We forget that humans adapt (to both positive and negative events) and we exaggerate how much influence unique events will have on our future happiness and well-being.  It’s hard to plan for the future with any sense of accuracy because we are biased when we consider it, which means it makes even more sense to live in the present and stay out of our heads.  Chances are, when we get to the future that we’ve been thinking about (or the scene on stage that we’ve been planning in our heads), it will be different anyhow.  What’s the point?  Why not carpe diem?

My middle-of-the-road statement is that it’s wise to be conscious of the future (all behavior is driven by our goals and motivations, and what are those if not future-oriented?).  But we should also be aware that our opinions of the future are biased, and as such, that we can only control it to a certain extent.  It’s just as important to embrace today, too.

So, yes, understandably I’m a bit disillusioned with the concept of carpe-diem, of getting out of my head.  But I can appreciate its merits, of which there are many.  Do I regret my living in the moment? Nope, not for a second.  I’m a person who fully disbelieves in regrets.  Especially given the seeming futility in trying to map out what happens next (in life or on stage), it seems that, like all things in life, the advice to “be present” and “stay out of one’s head” is best when balanced.