Exploring failure, fear, and the speed of fun is an engaging way to introduce the concept of vulnerability, one of my core values on and off the stage. In fact, we might rename the fear of failure the fear of being vulnerable. Often it isn’t the failure itself that we are afraid of, as much as the perceived consequences of that failure (i.e. vulnerability).
There are two definitions of vulnerability. The first definition is “weakness.” The second is “an openness to experience.” I am all about the second definition because we should not suffer when creating art. I want my art to give me life, not take it away. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be challenged or upset by the process – some of my most profound moments have emerged simply by sharing, listening to, or experiencing an uncomfortable truth – but I always hold that truth telling should be cathartic and not traumatizing. To be a successful improviser we must keep ourselves tethered to the joy of creating, to the mischief of improvising. Similarly, in the real world, I want my life to be happy. I want to follow my bliss. That’s just not possible if I am paralyzed by fear, depression, embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, or shame when I step into a vulnerable position.
I was once sexually assaulted. What that means is that a sexual act was performed on me without my explicit consent. In fact, I explicitly said “no.” For a long time, I felt incapable of sharing that truth because I was afraid of being vulnerable. I wanted to ignore it, justify it, or downplay the experience. Thoughts like “I’m okay now, so it’s not a big deal,” “I’m partly to blame,” and “other people have it worse” frequently popped into my mind. In judging my own experience as “lesser than,” rather than acknowledging my hurt as legitimate, I decreased my sense of self and lessened my ability to connect with others.
After I was assaulted, I thought that I was wrong for feeling the feelings that I felt. Years later, I learned that there are no wrong feelings. That’s the thing about vulnerability: any feeling is the right feeling as long as we allow ourselves to feel it. Any and everything you feel is valid. Actions might be wrong, especially when they hurt others, but feelings are always okay. If we can express those feelings, then we are better able to process them and hopefully take action that is positive and constructive. If we bury those feelings, then we tend to self-sabotage.
Today, I feel comfortable sharing most of my truths. I see them as facts of my existence. By deemphasizing trauma’s power over me, I’ve deepened my self respect and my compassion for others.
In her TedTalk on vulnerability, Dr. Brene Brown explains the psychological and social importance of living with compassion, courage, connection and vulnerability. She explains that vulnerability is “the core of shame and fear, and our struggle for worthiness,” and also “the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” She notes that vulnerability enables us to feel the full spectrum of human emotion, the good and the bad. Both must be experienced, and to ignore one is to ignore both. She believes:
You cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, “Here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability. Here’s grief. Here’s shame. Here’s fear. Here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these…” When we numb those [negative feelings] we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness, and then we are miserable. (Brown)
Dr. Brown suggests that we “let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts,” to practice compassion and gratitude.
I share Dr. Brown’s TedTalk with all of my students in the hopes that they see the utility of being vulnerable, not only onstage, but in their daily life. Dr. Brown concludes her presentation, proposing that to feel vulnerable is to feel alive. Her advice is reflected by one of my favorite improv teachers, Liz Allen. Liz says,“If you want to be funny, you need to be real. If you want to be real, you need to be vulnerable.”
Get Therapy Before I continue, I’d like to take a brief commercial break to advertise therapy. I firmly believe that therapy is a must for every single person on the planet. A therapist is someone who can listen to your experiences non-judgmentally, help you process, offer tools for self assessment, and strategies for personal growth. They can help you increase your self awareness, emotional intelligence, and communication skills. Therapy is about so much more than healing from trauma and coping with loss. It’s about appreciating your experiences. It’s about self reflection, learning who you are, what you value, and how to make choices that are right for you.
Some people use improv as a substitute for counseling. I’ve even heard students say “improv is my therapy.” While improv, and the arts in general, can be therapeutic, most teaching artists are not licensed therapists or experienced healers. Your teacher might be wise and caring, but that does not mean they are well equipped to counsel you. Unless your teacher has thorough experience in a healing art, you should not be approaching your improv class as a therapy. Unless the objective of the class you are taking is to use drama as a healing art, then you should not be approaching your improv class as a therapy. It is an unfair expectation to place on yourself, your classmates, and your teacher. Furthermore, it might be harmful to you. You could re-traumatize yourself, especially without a professional to help guide you. You could also traumatize or re-traumatize a classmate by placing them in a precarious situation onstage.
No art form in isolation is a substitute for therapy. Yes, improv can be an integral part of a therapeutic process, but without guidance and facilitation by an experienced professional, you are liable to hurt yourself and others.
I was improvising long before I sought therapy. After working with a counselor, not only did my sense of self increase, but my improv got much better. My sense of freedom onstage magnified. My listening improved.
A teacher of mine once said, “get therapy or don’t take improv.” I absolutely agree.
p.s. Find the therapist and style of therapy that is right for you. It may take a while, and that’s okay. It took me several tries. My current therapist is a queer person who practices Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) in partnership with an LGBT resource center. Turns out, they were the right fit for me. They make me feel safe, familiar, and respected. They listen without judgment. They offer me insight and help me process.