New Year, Same You, Different Improv

Last night I went to an improv show and was asked to write down a suggestion of a New Year’s resolution. I racked my brains. After ten minutes of sitting painfully trying to think of something, a question occurred to me: are New Year’s Resolutions supposed to be fun?

I wrote down: to wear more hats.

But the question persisted inside me, a marble knocking about in a wooden box. Because seasonally speaking, surely midwinter is pretty much the worst time of year to be putting effort into anything new and at high risk of failing. Our instincts are telling us to bed down, and hibernate, to conserve energy, keep it familiar, keep it safe, survive.

But instead relentlessly the start of a fresh sparkly new year comes with it the inevitable questions involving resolutions. What will your goals be? What are you striving for this year? What new pattern or process or product are you looking to position on your horizon?

Truth be told, resolutions make me uncomfortable. Maybe that’s because statistically the majority of them are doomed to fail. Or maybe because I used to approach them like an action learning set (a labour intensive method of education), trying to rally all the disparate parts of me and unite them for the common goal of improving. I’d make a list of all my accomplishments from the previous year. Then I’d create a list of all the ways I could do better during the following one. I called it ‘The Annual Review’ like I was trying to justify my position in my own life. Would I get to continue in my role? I really hoped so.

Yeah, pretty intense. Pressure. Incredibly high stakes. That kind of striving is going to wear anybody out. In recent years I’ve looked back on it and thought God, that was a weird thing I used to do, but interestingly my dogged attempts at self-improvement aren’t so unusual historically.

To early Christians the first day of January was traditionally when they considered the mistakes of the previous year and would resolve to do better in the future. It is worth acknowledging, they probably didn’t write over 4 pages of A4 to do it (front and back) – most of them were likely illiterate – but they paved the way for my Annual Review.

The looking-back-to-look-forward concept wasn’t exactly fresh then either. To the Ancient Romans, January was dedicated to Janus, a two-faced God, with one face looking back into the past, and the other, ahead, into the future. Janus was also a God whose spirit inhabited doorways and arches which also seems fitting and kind of lurky.

But resolutions go back further still, to when the beginning of the new year was in March. 4000 years ago, in the same season they were sewing their seeds, Ancient Babylonians made promises to their Gods; ones they would keep, hoping to gain the Gods’ favour. Following suit, most resolutions throughout history have been spiritual or religious in some way, hoping to impress the dieties and earn their blessings. It’s only in recent years we’ve started to make resolutions as promises to ourselves.


“I’ve never had much luck with New Year’s resolutions. Last year I only lasted three days before realizing I couldn’t survive without junk food. And the year before that, when my sister and I promised not to argue anymore, we didn’t even make it to the end of my dad’s New Year’s Eve party. I’ll spare you the gory details, but fruit punch and guacamole were involved. So was dry cleaning.”

James Ponti, Blue Moon

I was brought up by atheists but some of this historical resolving must have been embedded in me as I annually made out my dissertation length list of all the ways I could improve myself. I have to confess that on occasion, I’d ‘forget’ to do the Annual Review at the start of January. In my defence it did take a long time and sometimes I was busy doing other things… like having a life. When I delayed, I’d get disappointed with myself.

Yes, that’s right… I’d get disappointed I hadn’t set my New Year’s resolutions in a timely manner. I hadn’t even started working on them yet! I was already failing.

Failure is one reason I’m apprehensive about making resolutions that matter to me. ‘Wear more hats’ is the kind of throw away resolution I can claim to be behind but forget about it pretty quickly when it doesn’t come to fruition and I remember I do not have the hair for hats. But why then bother to resolve at all?

“The more specific you are about your resolution, the better your chance of sticking with it. Don’t just say, “I want to lose weight.” Say, “When my arm jiggles, I want it to look less like a pelican’s throat-pouch choking down a bass.”

Colin Nissan

A few years ago, with a group of friends, we tried a different way to beat the system by playing the system. To boss resolutions, we set ourselves some SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for creating goals that are more likely to set you up for success. So we have to ask is the goal Specific? Measurable? Achievable? Relevant? Time-Bound?

So let’s use the example: Get better at improv.

It’s not specific because improv is a wide field. What kind of improv? What exercises, games, scenes or structures? What aspect of improv? Are we talking a particular skill within the practise of improvisation?

How can we measure when ‘getting better at improv’ has been achieved? This is particularly difficult with a subjective art form to know for sure. One of the most controversial performers we ever had at out community variety night divided the room. Some people loved it which was baffling to those that did not. Who is to say what is better? Who is to say what is worse?

Is it even achievable to get better at improv? Well, partaking in courses, classes, practice and rehearsals would suggest that it is. Often it is very obvious the acts that rehearse and those that don’t. But it’s not easy to achieve a constant quality. Impossible even. Over time our ‘bad’ improv becomes better so we are more likely to produce a decent improv but still these things fluctuate. Sometimes you’re riding high at the top of your game. Sometimes you’re blocking like you’re playing Minecraft. Sometimes you’re forgetting the name you just a second ago called your scene partner. Sometimes you’re cracking a line out that gets the biggest laugh of the night.

How relevant even is it to be striving to get better at improv? Now that’s an interesting question. Does it matter if you’re not getting better? Are you having fun? If you’re having fun and practicing , you’re giving yourself a good chance of getting better.

When do you need to get better by? Next year? Next month? Next show?

So to get smart about it, you want to try to hit the SMART criteria. So instead of ‘get better at improv’, you might want to try: ‘use three new edits successfully by March’, for example. It’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. You’ll either nail it or you won’t.

My friends and I all felt quite smug about our SMART resolutions. Until it dawned on us we’d actually have to work on them. If we didn’t, there would be nowhere to hide. A couple of our friends didn’t quite nail the time-bound bit so are still publicly rolling over their SMART resolutions now. It reminds me of in Galaxy Quest where the characters fly through a magnetic minefield and the spaceship comes out trailing mines. When we trail resolutions, that’s going to take some explosive chunks out of our self-worth.

I trailed ‘lose weight’ on my list of resolutions for years. It didn’t matter what I weighed during any given year, society said I must be always striving to lose more. Talk about way to crush your self-esteem.

I suppose it’s remembering that process, and the ways I’d fail at it, which, in part, makes me uncomfortable with setting resolutions now. Even when I do succeed at sticking to something, I feel like surely that can’t be a win. Could it ever be that easy? My work here can’t be done already? Where’s my list?

But my list is gone. And now I’m trying a new thing. It’s called: I am enough.

“You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”

Louise Hay

Striving to do better is exhausting when we’re working from a deficit. I made long lists of ways I didn’t feel enough, thinking if I could only achieve these things I’d finally be deserving, worthy, enough.

I now know I can be enough without satisfying a list of shortcomings. So if your New Year’s Resolution is going, or has gone, array, know that you are not out for the count. This was one goal. There will be others. And if this is something you still really want to make happen. Pick it up again now. And do so knowing that whether you succeed or not, you will be enough for yourself.

Oh yeah it’s much easier said than done. For sure. Feeling enough for yourself is, for many of us, a struggle in itself, but one that could get you off the hamster wheel of self-improvement.

Resolve, goal, strive, struggle, slip, fail, feel unworthy, experience shame, sulk, despair, rally, resolve, goal, strive…

Enough! I am enough.

For me, I feel New Year’s Resolutions don’t work. A bright public spotlight gets shone on performance; the pressure is on. Too much of my worth can get attached to an outcome. It makes me want to go for very easy wins or things I don’t really care about. Thus paving the way for: wear more hats.

The way our society is set up is geared towards the capitalist myth of constant progress. And I can’t help but feel resolutions have got caught up in that. Constant progress is in need of constant striving. However, these constants are not present in nature. They are human constructs created to prop up a failing system. So being a forever-apprentice is to the benefit of the system. But not to you.

This is one of the things I love about improv. It feels like rebellion. It defies the nonsense society is peddling. It scoffs in the face of legacies, of permenance, of constant progress. What would improv think about New Year’s resolutions? Would it wave a middle finger in the face of them and run onto the stage as a gibbering iguna? Probably.

What would the improv Gods like to hear you promise? What do they want from you? More improv? Or maybe to just do what brings you joy in the moment. Follow your fun. That might not even be improv as it looks on a stage. Embrace the Hell Yeses! Hug them in. ‘Yes, And’ the things that bring you excitment, adventure, love and delight this year.

And if it all goes to Hell in a hand cart again, just improvise.

Perfectionism V.S. Perfectly Imperfect Improv

Agh my mind, my mind! Why is it replaying that cringy moment when I almost fell off the stage? Why is it remembering that stupid thing I said about wrists? Why is it ruminating on when I couldn’t think of the word weasel?

Why is it torturing me?

Several months ago, I was in a perfectly fine show that I felt perfectly unfine about. What happened to me? Afterward, people said very nice things. No one said, ‘What were you doing up there?’

One friend even did a hand gesture for ‘nailed it’ at me as I came off stage. So not only did I think I sucked, now I was really confused. It was evident from the feedback I received that I was not in tune with everybody else in the room. Regardless of how many positive observations were being made, I seemed to find it hard to hear them. Instead I was sucked into a spiral of cringing over my perceived mistakes and feeling foolish for doing so.

What was happening to me?

The pressures of performance can sometimes make it hard to hold onto objective reality, especially when it feels like there is so much at stake. Plus some days we’re just more sensitive to our miscues than others. No big deal, right?

It’s great if we manage to remember that miscues can be magic gifts onstage, and the times they are not, they can help us learn to make different choices. But what about when we struggle? When our miscues flood our minds, we can start holding ourselves to impossible standards, feeling we are not enough, striving for the perfect words to perfectly play the perfect set.

That ‘perfect’ talk is dangerous. It can lead us to stray unwittingly into territory littered with threateningly noisy self-doubting egg shells; where a beast was, until very recently, lightly slumbering.

An ominous eye opens.

Cue some periodic earth tremors, a close up of rippling liquid in a glass and a mournful judgey roar. Enter stage right: a well-turned out creature of magnificent proportions.

And that beast’s name is Perfectionism.

RUN… and not for the rickety toilet cubicle. RUN fast and far!

Perfectionism is an illogical creature all things considered. It’s not reasonable. It’s not realistic. It’s a wonder it exists at all. But exist it does, if only as a construct of our imagination.

Does perfect exist? Hell no.

“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception – we want to be perceived as perfect. Again, this is unattainable – there is no way to control perception, regardless of how much time and energy we spend trying.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

We humans have invented a lot of methods that attempt to control how we’re perceived and aren’t they largely a whole lot of nonsense? We know it really but it’s also very hard to let them go once we’ve got a taste. Social media feeds the beast of perfectionism prime rib. It gets stronger. It gets bigger. It gets more ferocious, more demanding, more carnivorous. Ultimately perfectionism sells because there’s a very dangerous myth that goes along with it: that in order to belong, to be accepted, to be loved, you must be perfect. You must appear to be perfect.

“Perfectionism is not about self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – What will they think?”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

We can too easily get caught up in the trap of feeling that as long as we do everything perfectly we will belong, be accepted, be loved. But notice what happens when we flip it: who expects the people they love to be perfect?

When my friends do a dud scene, a suspect show, a less than exceptional performance – and it has been known to happen (sorry, guys) – I don’t stop loving them. That would be ridiculous. Everyone makes mistakes, right? Yeah. Even you.

The shattering truth is, people don’t love us for what we do or even how well we do it. They don’t love us because we are perfect. If you need someone to be perfect, you’re missing the point of love. We can’t love perfect because perfect is blank. It’s empty. It’s nothing. Perfect is the unmade thing. Perfect is lifeless, formless and futile. Perfect doesn’t get it. Perfect hasn’t had to live.

We love the people we do with all their imperfect. We love people who have lived. Imagine all the many parts of a person we miss out on if they want us to only see the ‘perfect’.

“In a mega fake world full of hustlers and filters, authenticity is what we crave. Perfection is boring and ultimately an illusion. Your goofy laugh is what makes you you, so embrace it and don’t apologise for your contribution.”

Liz Peters, Own It!

One of the most revelatory moments I had in learning improv was when trying to sing a hoedown. You may know this one if you’ve seen Whose Line Is It Anyway? There’s a very fast-paced tune requiring a structure and ‘perfect’ rhymes. I was at the end of the row so I’d had the longest time to think about the suggestion. When it came to my turn to sing though, I got all my rhymes in the wrong order and totally lost the rhythm. I made a big mess and slumped over in hopeless humorous defeat. Teacher Heather Urquhart said, “Look at this; this is how you fail. How much do we love Lela right now?”

I had not realised I could be loved for failing. It was revelatory. I’d attempted to plan my perfect rhymes, my perfect words, my perfect rhythm. And that was where I’d gone wrong. It was in letting go and showing my fallibility that I made a connection.

One great gift of improv is it gives us the opportunity to practice being imperfect, to practice being seen in our imperfect, to practice sitting with our imperfect moments. In improv, an ‘imperfect’ thing can also become an offer. In an improvised comedy horror act I recently directed, ‘The Shed in the Thicket’, an extremely talented improviser tripped up getting onto the high stage. She chose to make it something that was happening to her character and created an inspired way forward for the scene and the show.

“Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Creativity and perfectionism aren’t the best of friends. While creativity is about process. Perfectionism is concerned with product. Creating requires us to be able to take a risk and let go. Perfectionism says, “Stay in control and get it right, right now.” Creativity requires experimentation and curiosity. Perfectionism says, “You should know this by now. Stop messing about.”

If we get so caught up in the need for something to be absolutely exactly what we think it should be, it can stop us from making anything at all. And even if it doesn’t stop us, it can at least take all the joy out of creating. If you want to see someone plagued by perfectionism and a preconception concerning how he’s being perceived, watch Sam Rockwell playing Bob Fosse in Fosse/Vernon. It’s an extraordinary portrayal of someone whose joy in creating is utterly stamped out by a pressure to be perfect, by competition and by striving for approval under the spotlight.

“There is a white whale out there in the vast ocean of our imagination called The Great Show. The Great Show is perfection. We know full well that perfection is an unatttainable goal, but that’s where we’re aiming. We know in each show, we won’t get there in at least one of a variety of ways… We inevitably will fall short. That is the nature of being mortal.”

T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, Improvisation at the Speed of Life

While I was writing this article, Liz Peters wrote a post for The Maydays blog which referred to the feeling of ruminating on all the brilliant choices you could have made on stage as l’esprit de l’escalier – the spirit of the staircase. This is where you think of all the things you could have said once you hit the bottom step and the moment has well and truly gone, left behind at the top of the flight.

What I love about this analogy is it’s a reminder that being in the moment itself is the highest point. When you’re flying high, you don’t always think of the best things to say but you’re up there and that’s the greatest thing. You’re not hiding under the stairs. You’re being seen.

What the spirit of the staircase tells us, is that rueing what you said on stage after the curtain has fallen, after you’ve stepped back down onto the ground, can really be quite a natural part of the process of improv. That’s what I failed to remember on the night after the perfectly fine performance. I flapped about, being annoyed at myself, holding myself to account, and ruminating on how I wasn’t perfect enough.

“The point is, improv is inherently risky. Sometimes our onstage choices fall flat, or a scene never really finds its feet. The fact that those come more easily to mind can skew your own impression of your success and ability towards the “I suck” side of the scale. But that’s not the objective reality, that’s just our old friend negativity. Remember that the next time you feel like you had a stinker of a show.”

Ryan Miller, Take It EasyTM

In his book Take It EasyTM, Ryan Miller suggests negativity bias – remembering our miscues more easily than our brilliant choices – is responsible for some of our ruminating. But it is only by remembering our miscues that we can can learn to do better. As Kaci Beeler puts it: “Every aspect of this art form needs you to fuck up to learn.”

We might want to appear carefree and breezy about our improv in the eyes of others, but admitting you sometimes worry about having said or done the wrong thing isn’t weakness. Sometimes saying it out loud to a trusted person can be enough to release it from knocking about inside. You can recognise that no one else saw it the same way you did or you can even swap experiences of ‘the improviser’s regret’.

“In general, stew a little, shed a lot. Everyone (except you) will forget about your off-moments either within an hour or a day. Because when all’s said and done, it isn’t about you. Just do what you can. Let the rest go.”

Ryan Miller, Take It EasyTM

Just because improv is such an imperfect art form, does not mean it is not the art form for the recovering perfectionist. You might ask: but why the earth would improv attract people who struggle with perfectionism? And it is a valid question. Are we seeking the utmost external approval by chasing the impossible? Maybe. Ultimately that is what perfectionism pushes us to do.

If that is so, it is just possible though that improv gets the last laugh. Because it is through the practice of improv that we can learn the lessons of loving imperfections. The process is where we find the joy. We can’t control the outcome. All the good stuff, like collaboration, creativity and learning happens during the in-between times. So let us acknowledge that nothing about this art form requires us to be perfect. That we are not perfect. That we will not be perfect. The art form is challenging, this journey is challenging, and we won’t always get it ‘right’. Not only is perfect in improv impossible to achieve, improv needs mistakes to thrive.

So know that regardless of whether you have moments of struggling with perfectionism, this process is for you. You are enough. Imperfection in improv is your invitation to creativity, to growth and to the practice of self-compassion. If your performance isn’t everything you want it to be, if you say something ‘silly’, if you ‘mess up’, you are still at the top of the flight of stairs. You are still flying. And isn’t that something to celebrate?

Perfect isn’t at the top of the staircase. Perfect has no journey to take. It has no room to move. Perfect is a shimmery mirage. It is sitting stock still on a platform to nowhere, hoping no one gets too close to notice it’s not perfect…

It’s not even there.

Energy Saving on the Run Up to an Intensive Improv Experience

Today I am pottering about. I’ve done some easy admin; I’ve sorted through a box; I’ve had a good breakfast. I’m hydrating. I’m half way through my rest time – a space I’ve set aside to stop, to get cosy and to nourish myself.

It’s easy to assume because improv is so fun it is not energy consuming. Often the practise seems to even give us energy. Improv can wake us up, ignite all our senses, get us pumped. But improv is still an activity and those all come with an energy equation.

Don’t ask me what it is. Maths was not something with which I ever felt an affinity. Unless it was algebra, which is kind of cheating on Maths, for those of us that feel safer with the letters of the alphabet.

When I get depleted though, I even lose a grasp on words. They don’t flow easily out of me. They get stuck somewhere. They become ghosts. Floating word ghosts, they whirl around each other, such slippery fellas, on which it’s hard to get a grip. They come out in the wrong order or mashed up. It’s one of my tired tells.

Maybe you already know yours. Maybe you have to think. Maybe you are too busy now imagining me a toddler who’s struggling to keep their eyes open, grisly, sniffling, talking nonsense and still adamant they are not tired. You wouldn’t be far off when it comes to me depleted and still attempting to improvise.

I had rather a weird childhood, so it has taken me a considerable length of time to acknowledge that if I exhaust the energy equation I don’t have anything left to give. I’m a car running on fumes, a dry well, a squirrel in the depths of winter who is too confused now to remember where they’ve buried the nuts.

“Maybe we’d feel better, and achieve more, if we think more about the best times to be truly on and truly off, and free ourselves from the tyranny of floundering in some uncomfortable middle ground.”

Sophie Williamson, ‘Month On Month Off’, Mslexia

Previously, before my last improv intensive ‘retreat’, a person I was staying with told me they’d come into contact with a confirmed Covid-19 case. I panicked. It was the style at the time.

Within the space of a few hours I was panic packed and on my way to a Travel Lodge outside Burgess Hill. After a brief stop over there, I fled further as if the infamous Coronavirus was tailing me and I could shake it off if only I took a few more quick turns on my way to an Air B&B.

I spent several days on my own in Elridge, going for long walks through ancient rock formations, cooking myself stuffed peppers on the fire pit and watching Disenchanted. Happily, in my haste to keep myself healthy for the improv intensive, I’d stumbled on just what I needed: a restorative few days. By the time I arrived to improvise, I was recharged and raring to go. I was. excited for people too, eager to share my adventures. And the thought dawned on me; this is just good practice. Making space for a time of solitude before four frenzied days of full on engaging seems sensible, right?

So this year, in my run up to an intensive improv experience, I’ve carved myself out a chunk of time to just be on my own. I’ve been for a run, I’ve cooked myself some decent food from a favourite recipe. And I’ve caught up on my comfort watching. Someone asked me to do them a favour that would have been stressful and I said, “No.” I’m checking in with what I need to be on good form for an intense experience and to feel I’ve got some inspiration stored up inside me.

“Improvisation draws on a wide range of sources – in fact it draws on anything that might be out and around your brain and bag of experiences… And that’s why you should get an offstage life if you don’t have one. Now that you have improv it’s easy to make it the focus of your life. Cool. That’s a great idea. But remember that every little thing you do can become part of your improv life, whether it’s a precise character choice based on a driving instructor you once had, or an anecdote from visiting an estranged cousin, or adding detail to a film noir scene based on your extensive knowledge of Raymond Chandler novels.”

Ryan Miller, Take It EasyTM

Half-way through my restorative time, and already I’m feeling chipper. I’m excited about this space I’ve carved out for me to wallow in the calm before the storm. An exciting storm but one that still may feature flying chairs, houses or cows. In the past I would have berated myself for being boring and having ‘downtime’. I would have been annoyed I wasn’t out painting the town, helping someone else or being productive.

It’s so easy to forget that part of productivity is downtime. The other day I read an article written by author Sophie Williamson concerning her creative method. She spends a month writing intensively and then a month not writing at all. She talks about how the time she spends not physically writing is just as important to the process of creating. Sometimes she has to be very strict with herself because she wants to write but no, this is her non-writing time.

“Not writing at all in December had been just as powerful as writing nonstop in November. Not only had it physically and mentally rejuvenated me and let me catch up on other things, but it’d allowed ideas for the book to percolate in my head and reinvigorated my passion for the project.”

Sophie Williamson, ‘Month On Month Off’, Mslexia

I can get so excited about creating I just want to do it constantly. But now I can acknowledge the consequences. The fallout is I become listless. I lose enthusiasm. I get resentful and grumpy. I long for other things. And I start to wonder why I’m even doing this pursuit I love in the first place. Sometimes I even fall out of love with it completely.

I don’t want things to get that far. Never again.

So here are my top self-care recharge activities based on what I’m doing at the moment to get myself in good condition for an intensive improv experience. And you may think some of them seem pretty basic. If that’s the case, I salute you for being a self-care wizard. But this list is for those of us who need a little reminder, a nudge, some boxes to tick to give you permission to take care of your most important asset – you!

  1. Carve out some alone time. Approaching, on the horizon, are many words which will flow in and out of you, so can you find some space now where you don’t have to listen and respond? A sensory deprivation tank perhaps. Or just an old fashioned closed door with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. Failing that, a blanket over the head, accompanied by growling as a stay away warning.
  2. Give yourself permission to let go. Let others be responsible for themselves for a while (maybe even their whole future lives). Don’t take on stressful favours; don’t try to control anyone; don’t try to fix things that aren’t your things to fix. Have some time taking care of you. Obviously if you do have dependents, like exuberant small people bouncing off the walls, sure I see, you can’t just ignore them. But is there a small window of time you can focus on what feels good for you? This is your permission. One carefully selected act of self-care can go a long way.
  3. Check in with your beautiful body. What does it need from you? Do a body scan. If you’ve never done one of these before, it can feel weird. That’s okay. You’re going to be doing a lot of weird over the intensive improv experience. May as well get a head start.
  4. Do some exercise you enjoy. It may seem counterintuitive but there are times when spending energy can help increase your energy. And that is when you close down stress cycles that might be still playing out inside your body by doing some cardiovascular activity. I like going for a run while listening to Zombies, Run! Some people might not find that relaxing but I turn off the sprinting chase function and get quite absorbed in the story. Yesterday evening, when I was updated that jumping a six foot gap between two buildings was all for nothing because the zombies could also jump now, I laughed out loud in the street and a woman coming around the corner gave me a very weird look. Note to self: not everyone is running away from zombies and enjoying it.
  5. Give your body a good stretch. In her book Own It! Liz Peters refers to the wonders of embodiment and how an effective stretch can have us feeling all kinds of yummy emotions. I’m practicing a little Qigong sequence I learned in an acting movement class recently. It isn’t very long but it has really helped release some tension and improve my posture. Standing tall can also increase our confidence levels. For the science, check out Liz Peter’s super book. During the last retreat I went on, I was completing 100 days of Yoga with Adrienne. It helped me feel so stable. 100 sessions is rather a lot though and I haven’t been doing that so much this year. But even one turn on the mat can have you feeling ready for the world. I’m doing this one today: Yoga for Creativity.
  6. Get grounded. Try some meditation and focus on your breath or if sitting still isn’t your thing, why not try a walking meditation. I did a class on this once and it was pretty cool. You walk deliberately, noticing every muscle in your foot. The main thing I took away was to be really present wherever I am walking. Sometimes I do the five senses grounding technique identifying 5 sights I can see, 4 things I can touch, 3 sounds I can hear, 2 smells I can smell, and 1 taste on my tongue. The exercise helps me to pay attention to what’s around me and to be there instead of inside my own head. I love a walk amongst the trees. Their size and peaceful confidence is just the tonic to have me feeling more relaxed and stable. You will likely be shortly spending a lot of time improvising inside, so it may even feel sage-like to get out and about with nature while you can.
  7. Nourish yourself with some food groups. Doing some cooking where you follow a recipe so you don’t have to make a lot of choices, can be restorative. I find chopping vegetables quite relaxing but I often don’t remember that until I’m doing it. Rustle up some old favourites and feed yourself. If you are staying away in a residential setting for your improv, the food may be quite different where you are going. There may be a lot of bread, for example. Don’t get me wrong, I love bread. But everyone has their bread limits. Get some familiar foods and nutrients in you now while you have the opportunity.
  8. Get cosy. Blankets, candles, thick socks, a Nordic jumper: whatever your cosy jam is, get it going on. My time spent with my Air B&B fire pit, reminded me of the feel good factor of staring into some flames. Obviously in a properly designated safe space… and with some marshmallows.
  9. Get in some snuggly sleeping. Nothing like some shut eye at appropriate times to get your mind and body raring to go. It will help you feel better about the sleeping time you may sacrifice to improv, if you’ve stocked up on your shut eye beforehand.
  10. Get things in order. Pay it forward to your future self and have a little tidy up. Maybe even a declutter. Make some room. You’ll be thankful when you return from the mayhem and your living space is looking ready for you to take up residency again. I just had a tidy of my jewellery box. I discovered so many things I forgot I had. Some I didn’t want anymore. Out with the old, in with the new experiences.
  11. Consume inspiring stuff. Seek out some stories, comedies or dramas. Do some reading (fiction or non-fiction) or watch your favourite film or series. You’re going to be doing a lot of creating so it’s so useful to feel full up with inspiration and ideas.
  12. Avoid improvising (if possible). I’ve got a class the night before I go on retreat this year that I really don’t want to miss, so I’m going to have to cheat a bit but it can really help to have a break so you don’t improv burnout. We do need to say no sometimes.

Burnout isn’t fun. It’s crappy. And having experienced full-on burnout after my father died I would say it is one of the worst things for your creativity. It also takes a ridiculous length of time to recover from. If you think you’ve experienced something similar, the book Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski is very good. It helped me understand how important it is to listen to our bodies. The silver lining with burnout is that you finally learn, even if that has to be the hard way.

Noticing your signs when you’re feeling drained and then doing something to recharge yourself is really important. It’s great for self-trust too. It has taken me a really long time to learn how to notice my tells, to know what to do to look after myself, and to know where to draw the line. And sometimes drawing a line in the sand and doing a dramatic “This shall not pass!” Gandalf style is the only way to ward off the time burglars and keep yourself well.

Everyone has different limits. It is also worth noting that some people can be very forward at asking for what they need, others are very quick to find someone else to take responsibility for them and their business. It does not have to be you that picks up that challenge. Sure, if it isn’t you, it might be someone else but that someone else is also responsibile for themselves and for saying “No.” when they need to.

You’re going to be doing a lot of saying “Yes!” over the next few days. It’s what we do, right? So do yourself a favour and at least a few times in the run up, say “No.” The universe needs balance after all. Say “No.” now so you can say “Yes!” later.

So the observant amongst you may be thinking by now, but Lela, you are writing a blog post during your downtime. Is that really switching off? Well, it’s a fair point. What can I say? I’m a work in progress.

Bring a Brick

In an improv exercise last week, I talked for a minute about Lego Masters. It wasn’t long enough! I hadn’t mentioned technic bricks. Nor had I referred to unique-parts-usage? And I was only part way through fumbling an explanation of SNOT when the timer rudely interrupted me.

Studs Not On Top, in case you were wondering.

Whether it is with clay, cake, fabric or tiny doll’s house furnishings, I am a sucker for a creative competition reality show. There’s something so delicious to me in witnessing people who are passionate about their pursuit, sharing the joy of creating, and caring so much about it they could burst into tears… and often do.

One of the things I find fascinating about these television programmes, is how they have evolved. When they first started out, they aimed to increase the drama of craft by making it highly competitive. Rivalry was encouraged. Cameras zoomed in on disgruntled faces hoping there would be a punch up over custard.

Then the vibe changed. Show makers got wise to how watchable the contestants are when they care about each other. Now the lens is more likely to focus on the helping that takes place in an hour of need, to capture the hand holding at judgement time, or to witness the widespread welling up when someone has to inevitably wave goodbye.

Whoever wins the contest, these people who love doing this thing so very much, have found other people who also love doing this thing so very much, and because of that, their lives will never be the same again.

It reminds us that regardless of who in your troupe is the best at object work or who gets the loudest laughs in class or with who the audience most often falls in love, you guys found each other to share in this niche art form and that is pretty special.

But for me, Lego Masters isn’t just any creative reality show. It is true enthusiasts do compete for the top prize by exercising their passion – in this case for building with brightly coloured bricks – but unlike most other shows, it is a masterclass in the sharing of creative responsibility.

In Lego Masters they come as a team and they stay as a team. It’s a team of two so there’s little space to hide. If they don’t get along, they have to find a way to make it work. In the first series of Lego Masters USA, one team got off to a very rocky start. They hadn’t built together before and you could tell. Without that previous time negotiating how to share creation, they didn’t understand one another. They were disconnected. They weren’t hearing one another because they hadn’t yet figured out how. It was a steep learning curve, but after a pep talk from Will Arnett, they started to look for the ways they could celebrate each other’s style, instead of running each other down.

It really had me thinking about how building a connection is so vital to creative collaboration. There’s a reason we rehearse improvisation. The time we put into understanding how each other creates can pay such dividends down the line. We also need the ability to create under pressure. If you work with someone a lot, you come to understand their methods, you see where their soft spots are and where they can wobble. You have time to figure out how to support them.

There’s something very satisfying to me in seeing people rallying a flailing team mate, looking for the ways their partner can shine, and forgiving them when they knock over a spaceship that took four hours to construct. Often Lego Masters contestants have been building together for many years, some since childhood. The dynamics are fascinating, many lovable, but a few have made me wince.

No pair had me squirming more than Bilsy and Kale from Lego Masters Australia. On the first challenge, to build a mega-city block, Kale and Bilsy got criticised for not working as a team by judge Brickman. Unfortunately, Kale did not seem to be able to take the feedback on board. He rarely used the term ‘we’ when talking about builds and challenges. He also dominated the creative choices. It was as if Bilsy’s ideas just didn’t feature on his radar. And as Kale didn’t seem to be able to hear him, time and time again we’d witness Bilsy just give up, resolving to dutifully support whatever misguided idea Kale was set on for that episode.

This reminded me so much of the old improv adage: “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.” If a person is going to bring a completely formed idea and make no space for anyone else’s input, they might as well be creating alone. And there are many ways to do that, that won’t involve devaluing someone else.

Across the many episodes of Lego Masters, it’s intriguing to observe how often building separately scuppers a team’s efforts. It can lead to differences in scale, disconnect with the storytelling, or weakness in the strength of a creation. Sound familiar?

In one challenge, teams had to frantically create a tall tower to withstand a vibrating base: a shake plate. They didn’t have much time so quick decisions were needed regarding how to divide their efforts. Many teams chose to work on building up the tower together. One team built a half each and then assembled the two sections as the timer ticked down.

The tower fell at the weakest point. The join.

How we build a scene together in improv is everything. And it’s hard to argue against the brick by brick method. It can be so obvious when it’s not being implemented effectively. Balance is off. We feel askew. We’re not getting the full picture.

I once did an improvised mockumentary style scene in a class. My scene partner and I sat side by side, talking out to the audience, as if to a camera. The exercise was to reminisce together on a past experience we had shared. Maybe my scene partner was nervous but they only used phrases such as: “That thing happened didn’t it? You tell them..” And “Go on, you explain it better.” And “You say what I did.”

All the details ended up being my own creation and I felt sad about that. It might seem like generosity in storytelling to keep surrendering the narrative but, to be on the receiving end, it can also feel like passing the buck. Sometimes we want our scene partners to make all the big decisions so we don’t have to. I’ve definitely done this. Other times, we want to drive everything so we can say we’ve got it. I’ve done this too. However, all the fun lies in the no man’s land between each scenario.

When I first fell in love with improv I was on my beginners course and our lesson was being covered by Maydays founding legend John Cremer. He had us doing longform scenes where we were tasked to do some ongoing object work. Crucially, we weren’t allowed to talk about what we were doing. I stood at an imaginary sink washing up. My scene partner entered and said, “You missed a bit.”

John sent him off immediately to come back in and try again. When the scene finally got going my scene partner must have been doing a lot of the talking. John again stopped the scene. He said, “For every line you say, she has to say a line.” What me, I thought? Yes, me. I was she.

What came out of me next shook me to my core. With the space that opened up, thanks to John’s side-coaching, I was able to build a character, a world and find an emotional truth to tie everything together. I was able to dig deep and locate relevant experiences from my own life to develop the relationship. We built the scene. One brick from me. One brick from my scene partner. It was a defining moment, when I realised what this art form had to offer. You never know what you will awaken in someone else, or yourself, when given the space.

An exercise in practicing balance in scenes is to take turns in saying a line. Try also restricting the word count each person has with which to play. You can experiment with the number of words but make sure you each have the same number. This can really help you focus, inspire you to make every word matter and encourage a level playing field. Getting a feel for the balancing act can then become muscle memory.

Not every scene will be about sharing words precisely between you. Some offers will be physical and emotional. Words can be a starting point for levelling things out. You might then try adding in more choices. Instead of using a turn for words, a player might make a strong physical offer or move somewhere else in the space. How does this effect the balance?

At the heart of sharing, is also taking joint responsibility. If we are building something equally together, it is our responsibility to make it everything we jointly want it to be. It’s easy to find yourself leaning out when things feel risky or getting caught in the blame game.

I was involved in creating a show where confidence in our creation started to wane. I’m not sure who lost faith first but I noticed a fellow player leaning out and it made me want to. It felt easier to blame that person, instead of looking honestly at my part in proceedings. But blaming them was far less constructive than looking at how I could do differently.

“John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.”

Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success

In Lego Masters Australia, Kale and Bilsy built the scene from the movie Titanic where Jack and Rose are at the front of the ship ‘flying’. Because they were building separately their scale was wrong. The figures of Jack and Rose were enormous compared to the boat and in Kale’s mind the blame sat squarely with the ship. And most particularly, Bilsy, who’d built it.

Struggling to accept failures can be due to a fixed mindset and we can all have fixed mindsets over different things. In her fascinating book Mindset, Carol Dweck suggests that those who are open to even unflattering information about their current abilities, have the potential to learn and develop because they have a growth mindset. They acknowledge that talent takes time and practice and there are lessons to be found when not everything goes perfectly to plan.

Whether it’s a scene or a song, I now know I’d rather be all in with my fellow collaborators than be leaning out planning my escape route. I have learned this through experiencing how it feels to do both. I recognise that as hard as it might be, I’d rather go down with our ship – the one we built together, each of us in equal parts. I’d rather be part of our collective orchestra, squeaking out those final wet notes as an ensemble. Much more so, than clinging to a wardrobe in the icy waves alone.

One thing it helps me to always keep in mind when practising in improv is that this thing we are creating belongs to both of us, to all of us. It’s our scene. It’s our show. If it works as it should, you can’t take any of us out of it because our ideas are so enmeshed. We make space for each other. It might feel like being helpful but it just isn’t as fun when we bring our own cathedral we made earlier and plonk it down expecting others to pay worship.

Improv is a sharing game. It’s a team sport and practicing it gives us the opportunity to become better team players. In the best scenes it is hard to see the join between each person’s ideas. We build strong together in improv by each placing creative bricks. We recognise and grow each other’s ideas. We build them up.

We will only be able to construct the tallest improv towers by doing it together. Brick by brick by brick by brick…

Getting Lost

Have you been feeling weird recently? Like the world doesn’t seem to fit anymore? Is it you? Is it the world? And what is up with everyone else?

I’ve been looking around at the chaos, confusion, conflict and sporadic commitment and wondering: are our hearts really in this anymore?

In what? In anything? Or is there a collective panic we’re trying to keep under wraps? Because I have a sneaking suspicion, I am not alone.

I’m not really sure what I was doing before the pandemic; I do know I was busy. I remember that much. Too busy to notice, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had invested everything in a cultural myth that progress is of paramount importance. It’s a priority. More, more, more, please. Forward momentum.

As long as I was going onward, I was getting there. That I didn’t know where there was or whether it was worth arriving at, was beyond me, and so I bumbled on, assuming the pay-off would eventually come if I kept at it long enough.

I suppose it’s like an improv scene where we just keep adding more and more, cramming it full of stuff, until the scenario is so unrealistic we’ve lost any sense of grounding.

And yet somehow we hope with more, we can do whatever it is we need to do. What was it that we needed to do again? Progress.

But this chaotic controlling scene really started thousands of years ago, when an old Ancient Greek guy with a beard initiated by deciding we should care more about our minds than our bodies. Talking heads, we call it in improv when two improvisers stand facing each other thinking and speaking with their mouth-holes.

And so thousands of years ago that rotten seed was planted: we should be logical and rational over being intuitive. Ever since, other thinking guys have chimed in too, to suggest man must command nature and use the resources around him for his own ends. And that all other living things to man must be thought of as a resource.

It is a sobering thought how our most seemingly fundamental sounding modern-day myths in the West, leading us down the sliding slope to mass extinction, are based on the musings of a handful of dead dudes like Plato and Descartes who had deluded ideas about how it all ‘should’ work for the ‘benefit’ of man.

This is our inheritance. And for some reason that seems mindless, we’ve continued to accept it, even though we know deep down it’s no good. It’s rotten to the core.

Plato? He wishes.

I’ve been feeling for a long while something is wrong. I thought it was me because the myth of individualization taught me to do so. I have been throwing everything I have at putting myself right. The thing is, the more and more processing I have done to heal myself, I have still not been able to shift the feeling of being off-kilter. And if anything, my need for progress has slowed to a crawl.

And then it dawned on me what is happening… I am waking up.

“In every generation there are people who fall out of the dominant cultural myth, but today it seems that there are more than ever before. And that’s because our cultural myths are dying. If we cast aside the veil we habitually wear to shield us from our unendurable everydays, and look around with clear and wide-open eyes, it’s not a thriving, vibrant Western civilisation that we’ll see, but rather the consequences of the increasingly rapid disintegration of a morally degenerate guiding mythology. We might be richer but we’re certainly not happier, and the world around us is rapidly going to hell in a hand-basket.”

Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life

During Lockdown One, I started taking long walks in the woods. And it was time with trees that began to change me. The magnitude of them helped me feel small. Because we need that. We need to have that individualization awed right out of us. It was like coming home to the world. I felt like one of the doughy people in WALL-E, tipped out of my floaty chair. There was a big, wide expanse I didn’t see. Why didn’t I remember it was here?

By the time Lockdown Three rolled around, I wasn’t allowed to go so far as the woods, so instead, I ran around the streets in a tight radius of my home until I ended up in a large graveyard. This was the closest I could get to a wild space. Squirrels and birds and even foxes scampered about the tombstones. There were some beautiful old trees. Maybe I couldn’t feel as small as when in the woods but I could feel alive. And that was what I craved most of all.

I stood under the fir trees as it snowed. I saw the first of the crocuses. I met robins. And a thought dawned on me: maybe to feel alive isn’t a big exuberant feeling, after all. Maybe to feel alive is to feel small; maybe it is a quiet acceptance. Maybe it is to feel at peace with one’s nature. To feel truly with nature.

“Change begins with individuals, and it begins with imagination. It begins with a different story which succeeds in capturing the imagination more effectively than the now-crumbling old story.”

Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life

Around this time, a friend sent me a link to a new course that Katy Schutte was starting: The Mythic Improv Journey. Three words that felt close to my heart. My friend knew that I, like many people during lockdowns, had been finding solace in nature. And this course aimed to harness that. She also knew I’d been feeling lost.

During the year ahead, the course met every six to eight weeks or so to coincide with the agricultural festivals and equinoxes. Katy would tell us about the mythology and traditions surrounding that time of year; we’d share observations of nature and we’d set intentions. We’d also connect through pair work using intuition, and we’d improvise as a whole group inspired by the imagery and stories for that season.

I really came to look forward to the sessions. They were magical to me. I enjoyed check-in much more than I did with other classes as we had more time to devote to it and I enjoyed making meaningful observations about where I was at. It was hard to shake the idea of progress but as time went on I realised that each of us ebbed and flowed. There were seasons where we’d be struggling, like when I shared I’d been having trouble with fatigue, and other times when we could celebrate our joy, like when I was excited to discuss my daily yoga routine.

It all helped me acknowledge, like the moon, how we too waxed and waned. And that comparisons at any given time were futile because we all had a different tide chart to our lives. Constant progress came to seem ridiculous. Of course, it couldn’t work. It doesn’t exist in nature. And we are nature. We are not an exception to the rules, however much we strive to be. We are not machines. We are life.

“It’s the people who I think of as the ‘mythical misfits’, then , who kickstart the transformation of the world, and who begin to imagine more sustainable and meaningful ways of living. Today’s mythical misfits… are rejecting a culture which values neither intuition or imagination, which values neither the living land nor its non-human inhabitants. They’re deserting the stagnant institutions, and creating communities which celebrate life rather than destroying it. When the great blazing bonfire of a culture goes out, what remains are a few individual flames. When those individual flames come together, we can kindle a new fire.”

Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life

Reading Sharon Blackie’s The Enchanted Life inspired me in lots of ways but this particular section really made me think about how we come together to improvise, how we bring our own creative spark to meet with the sparks of fellow improvisers. How we honour intuition and imagination. For me, improv has really helped me rekindle these quashed parts of myself.

The Mythic Improv Journey gave us the opportunity to celebrate nature – something more expansive – nature in ourselves but it also gave us the chance to celebrate each other, ritual, and community.

And it is still going on. Now in its second year. We create improv sets that are supportive and that celebrate life and its many stages and cycles. For me, the quality of the improv isn’t a priority here. It is about having fun with storytelling, transforming folklore, and finding light and dark in every season.

I do believe modern myths about individualization, constant progress and continuous growth are crumbling. They are unsustainable. What we have been through in recent years has shone a light on the cracks. How we live is no longer working – not for the whole, not for each of us. We have lost our way.

I am no stranger to losing my way. Even last week I tried to take a train to meet a friend but it was cancelled. So then, was the following one. I realised I’d have to walk. I didn’t know the streets as well as I thought I did. I took a wrong turn and ended up journeying a substantial distance in the opposite direction. It took a while to accept I was lost. I didn’t want to admit it, didn’t want to observe how much ground I’d have to recover, didn’t want to lose face.

Eventually, though, I had to acknowledge it was the only way to get to where I needed to be. I took a turn along another path. It led me to a road I recognised and I then had to walk back. I was frustrated and tired and cold. A man appeared on the pavement ahead who also seemed lost. Was everyone now lost? Had I stumbled into a land of the lost? I became frightened. How long would it take me to find my way?

But the closer I got to where I needed to be, I realised that all I’d really lost was a bit of time and that bit of face that I didn’t know my way as well as I thought I did.

Getting lost takes a toll but it is part of the journey.

We get lost sometimes in scenes, in shows, in life. It’s okay to admit when we are lost, it’s crucial in fact to finding our way. We cannot take a turn if we can’t admit we are lost.

There are times in improv scenes when there’s so much going on, that you can feel your head spin. We can lose sight of what this is really about or why it matters. I used to ignore that instinct and bumble along, hoping we’d eventually find our way. I didn’t want to admit to being lost. But now I just call it out or I accept it and let myself take the turn.

I recently did a scene in rehearsal where my scene partner and I were not only in conflict but also strangers in a transactional scenario. The two characters both had strong points of view and it was hard to see how they’d ever meet in the middle. They had such opposing life philosophies and I knew my character wasn’t going to back down because she was trying to protect her child. It seemed we had a stalemate situation.

Suddenly I had the urge to hug my scene partner and so without further ado, I did. It gave my scene partner the opportunity to present a change in their character’s emotional state too and we instantly knew why this scene mattered. We knew why these two characters were meeting here together. And we knew why they needed each other.

Both characters were lost. Mine was lost in desperation to keep her son from becoming the lost grown-up child in front of her. My scene partner’s character had lost all connection with where he came from, absorbed in a technology that told him what to do so he’d lost touch with his own instincts.

Although the scene ended shortly after the hug, I knew that my character was going to invite my scene partner’s character into her life and they would both find their way because they’d got through the hardest part: admitting they were lost. Their conflict was a cover-up for their fear.

I’ve been lost. I was lost. And I still get lost now.

What I have loved about the Mythic Improv Journey with Katy Schutte is it provides a space where we don’t judge being scared or lost, sometimes in pretty dark places. Instead, we ask: Where are you now? Where do you want to go?

Where are we now? Where do we want to go?

And what stories must we tell to get there?

Don’t Let Anyone Steal Your Crown: Self-deprecation and Comedy

Last night I witnessed a performer utterly annihilate themselves on stage. They talked so much trash about their dear sweet self it was upsetting. It looked painful. And it was all in the name of comedy.

I was relieved I was hiding at the back, low down on a sofa, staring at the back of a lot of heads. I wouldn’t have been able to handle looking anyone in the eye. Waiting to go on later in the comedy variety show, I tried to not let the tension in the room affect me. You could have cut it with a chainsaw. Because I’m an improviser I was sitting on that sofa waiting with a duo partner and so I knew I wouldn’t be up there alone. I knew she’d have my back. We were there to celebrate ourselves which remains one of the things I love so very much about improv. It’s an energy that pulls upwards and not a weight dragging anyone down.

There’s still a sacrifice being made for a lot of comedy – ‘I’m going to punch myself until I bleed and you, my audience, are going to watch me.’ It seems to happen a substantial amount in stand-up still. This culture has prevailed even years after Hannah Gadsby’s infamous genius show Nanette.

If you have not watched Nanette, you should. It’s a raw, authentic, dark show that addresses how comedy often shares a very close relationship with tragedy. Gadsby illustrates highly effectively how stand-up comedy is not therapy for the simple reason that comedy pulls the punch. It turns it into a punch line that tickles, instead of telling the truth about the pain.

“And at that point I’d realised that I’d been telling my stories for laughs. I’d been trimming away the darkness, cutting away the pain and holding onto the trauma for the comfort of my audience.”

Hannah Gadsby

Holding onto your trauma can become a hostage situation if you are hell-bent on keeping other people comfortable. Once upon a time, I also used to put myself down a lot for laughs. When I started telling the truth about my personal tragedies, I found I stopped needing to chase approval through self-deprecating humour. I stopped being a punchline myself and I started being a human.

I have, on numerous occasions, given my characters in improv my real-life struggles. It can feel very cathartic and it is often surprising to see how others react. Mostly they respond with empathy and understanding. During a workshop on telling your truth in improv, I spoke about my dad’s death through a character. Afterward, I got approached by another participant who could understand my experiences of grief and we became good friends.

Instead of alienating us from our audience, the truth has the power to draw the audience towards us. I often find that my characters who contain my own truths tend to be my most memorable. They’re the ones I get approached about after a show by audience members.

This may not be as strange as it sounds. We can isolate ourselves with our pain and shame but Gadsby suggests that telling our truth, brings us closer to the world and in doing so actually does connect us to our audience. Through the guise of a character, the truth can still give us the power to connect. I also believe it gives us some power to let go. We can imagine the character takes those struggles away with them when we call “Scene!”

Gadsby talks about how she was holding onto her trauma for the comfort of the audience. She was even holding onto that pain to create laughter for others.

“I was connecting other people through laughs but I remained profoundly disconnected. What was the purpose of my human?”

Hannah Gadsby

Gadsby reminds us that the purpose of humans is so much bigger than all of us so we get to make up our own minds about what we do while we are here. And what we do with the complexity of our one precious life.

Will you spend your life beating yourself up for breadcrumbs or would you be better off celebrating yourself?

I’m familiar with the voice of the self-loathing gremlin. I heard it for many years. And I can’t stand listening to it anymore: not in myself or in others. You’re you – unique and flawed and finding your way. Like all of us, you have eccentricity; your thoughts work differently from the next person; you are alive and you get to decide your purpose and what you’re going to do about it.

I did a stand-up comedy course myself a few years ago. I felt I needed to be brave. Looking back, it was more a form of punishment for what I considered my shortcomings. On the course, we were taught how to metaphorically punch ourselves. For one exercise, I did a set of jokes based on my hair which is big and curly and has been known to collect debris in its wake. Sometimes crumbs or couscous. Mostly fluff.

I dutifully told these musings about my hair on stage. Some peers in the back row produced loud groans of disgust. I was mortified. I cried inconsolably all the way home on the train.

I think perhaps I thought stand-up comedy could toughen me up, that it might help take the edge off my sensitivities. Although in hindsight, why the earth would I want to do that?

In improv, our sensitivity is a super-power but here, in stand-up, I had abandoned a prominent feature and a big part of my identity for the prospect of a laugh. And it felt horrible.

When it came to the stand-up course final showcase I stood on stage and told three jokes. And then I stopped. I had more jokes to say but something had just occurred to me: I didn’t have to do this. There was no gun to my head.

“Why did I stay and suffer? The door wasn’t even locked.”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed: Stop Pleasing, Start Living

My next joke was to be about my traumatic birth when my head got stuck and I nearly didn’t make it through. I’d been telling this one for years. I knew it back to front. I looked out into the darkness, my vision obscured by the bright stage lights, and I realised – it wasn’t worth it.

I wasn’t going to abandon myself for another laugh at my expense.

Not anymore.

“Thank you. Goodnight.” I said firmly and I put that microphone back in its cradle. There it could stay for the next sensitive soul to wield as they saw fit.

Not once over these years since have I regretted that decision. It was an act of self-love. Not the first, but one of the most memorable because it opened a flood gate to recognising how I could be more compassionate towards myself. After that experience, I made a decision. Not only was I no longer going to abandon myself for a laugh; I became determined to not abandon myself, full stop.

It occurred to me that there were lots of jokes I’d been telling for many years which were highly unkind towards my sweet self. Why was I doing it? What was I trying to say? Was this even my real authentic voice? I’d started to suspect it was far from it.

I realised I’d been creating an armour. I was trying to beat the bullies to the punch. I had in doing so internalised my bullies. I’d installed them inside myself and even bought them popcorn. They could sit inside me on their laurels, laughing along, as I continued their misguided cruel work.

“I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour… and I don’t want to do that anymore. Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.”

Hannah Gadsby

Are you seeking permission to speak through self-deprecating humour? Can you give yourself the permission to be heard without being the butt of a joke?

The question of who identifies with you is a really important one when it comes to comedy. An early lesson I remember from stand-up, was when you are creating consider who it is you want to be connecting with. I learned this when a wannabe comedian kept getting on stage and telling jokes about sexual abuse. Our teacher told him that when you do that there are two people you speak to in the audience: the person for whom that was the worst day of their lives and the person who would commit such an act. Is that really what you want from your comedy?

This is also a really interesting reflection when it comes to self-deprecating humor. Who in the audience are you trying to connect with by putting yourself down? The bullies? The mean and ruthless and intolerant? It may not feel like it, but I think when you stand on stage and rip yourself apart for what you perceive as your failings and people don’t laugh, that’s a win. Your audience doesn’t want to laugh at you being mean to yourself. That’s a decent audience in my view.

When we have invited the unkind voices in to take up residence within us, it’s easy to assume the audience is also mean. To become part of the gang, we might try to get the biggest blows in before they can. Wheezing and winded from our own crippling self-critique it’s hard to notice that no one is there to bully us anymore. We are no longer in school. We can walk away from mean behaviour.

But when that behaviour is inside your head, it’s harder. As we go through life, we can collect the ghosts of so many ‘mean girls’ in our minds that we project them outwards. We see ‘mean girls’ all around; we see bullies where none exist.

I didn’t watch Mean Girls, the movie, until a couple of years ago. I came late to that party. I watched it as research for an improv show I was part of creating. I took notes on the Plastics, a group of privileged, entitled, petty, school girls. I wanted to play one but I continuously struggled. I tried to connect to the emotion of the mean girl and yet it evaded me. What was my motivation?

I realised I really didn’t understand the mean girl type. Maybe they are mean because when it comes to emotions they don’t even go there. Their power is in numbers and in imitation which is why they misunderstand the independent thinker, the authentic eccentric, the curious creative. Maybe the ‘mean girls’ deep down hidden motivation is actually fear.

Many of us in comedy have been bullied at least a bit at some point in our lives – maybe at school, at work, or even in our family of origin – and if that becomes a pattern it can be hard to break. But it’s worth working at changing those voices. You don’t have to be your own bully. You deserve better than that.

As Kesha sings, ‘Don’t let the mean girls steal your crown’. And if those mean girls are inside you, do you really want to give them a megaphone? Centre stage? The mic? Or would you rather get them the heck out of there?

Many have said that the best way to deal with a bully is to ignore them and hope they bore quickly. I suggest instead to try noticing how those inner voices sound. Notice how the voices are not you. Catch yourself when you speak unkindly. Replace the script with your own positive improvised vibes. Find ways to celebrate yourself. Connect. Collaborate. Create. Restore your faith in other creatures.

Find the joyful purpose of your human. And if that is the pursuit of comedy, can you do it without beating yourself down? How could you change the script to build yourself up? And keep hold of your own shiny-ass crown.

How Improv Can Help the Very Helpful

Are you a clown, a caretaker or a ninja? This was the question posed.

I pondered it as I put down the pumpkin cheesecake I’d baked for rehearsal in case anyone got hungry.

If I could just have a sign…

I already knew I wanted to be a ninja; it sounded the coolest. But the truth be told, I’d never been particularly cool. I wasn’t really sure how.

“Am I a caretaker?” I asked around the room tentatively.

Was everyone else okay with that?

Some years later and I now realise this original question, of what kind of improviser are you, had confused two theories of improv styles. Ninja had sneaked in stealth-like from Bill Merritt’s theory of Pirate, Robot, Ninja into the types of Clown, Thinker, Caretaker from Katy Schutte’s The Improviser’s Way.

Still, whichever theory was being used, my answer would have been the same: “I want to be the best, so which one’s that?”

What I actually wanted was for everyone to think I was the best to play with. And that is at the fundamental core of what made me a caretaker in the first place. Because once upon a time how other people felt about the experience they were having, how they felt about themselves, and how they felt about me, most specifically, mattered more to me than anything else.

“Caretakers avoid freedom. On paper they are the perfect improviser, doing whatever is needed. And though you’ll get a good solid show every time from a Caretaker, it won’t be a life-changer. Caretakers avoid just fucking around. They want to know what is needed and how they should do it. They don’t take enough risks or ever really surprise themselves.”

Katy Schutte, The Improviser’s Way

I took a risk in improvising. I still surprise myself for doing it at all. But when it came to the improv itself, I craved rules and structure. I wanted someone to tell me: do it like this and you’ll be safe.

And no one could, because it doesn’t work that way. Nothing really does.

If I had stayed embedded in my caretaking ways, I don’t think I would ever really have been able to push into the territory I have with my improv. I would have undoubtedly stayed in groups where I wasn’t happy. Improvising would have felt too much like work.

Caretakers really do have some great skills to offer improv. They are flexible, adaptable, generous and as Katy Schutte puts it, “They see what a show needs and they step in selflessly”.

‘Selfless’ stepping in might sound saint-like. It may really serve the show. But caretakers can get rather caught up in service and forget to express themselves.

Caretakers tend to look after things. Extreme ones look after everything. They may not initiate as much or drive things forward. Instead, they say: “I see what’s going on here and by hook or by crook, I’m going to look after it.”

“Bad caretakers do too much. They see a scene going on and they want to get in there, as a walk-on, as a scene-paint, as another character. Sometimes scenes need it of course, but bad Caretakers overdo it.”

Katy Schutte, The Improviser’s Way

The truth is that when I found out I was a caretaker, I was disappointed because there was a part of me who didn’t want to look after others anymore. A part of me didn’t want to be taming or tame. A part of me resented the implication.

I’d grown rather bored with how well I could take care of things. All the things. Everybody else’s things.

For a long time, I couldn’t help myself… because I was too busy helping other people. Or I thought I was. All the other people.

What I know now is that when you are a person who can already take care of yourself, it’s actually pretty annoying when someone else keeps trying to anticipate your every need and take care of you. Caretaking looks kind. It looks thoughtful. But I say this with all the love in my heart for my past and recovering caretaking self: caretaking can be controlling.

“Caretaking looks like a much friendlier act than it is. It requires incompetency on the part of the person being taken care of. We rescue “victims” – people who we believe are not capable of being responsible for themselves. The victims actually are capable of taking care of themselves, even though we and they don’t admit it.”

Melody Beattie, Codependent No More

I’ve had to train myself quite hard at acknowledging other people’s capabilities. When I feel I might be being invited to a rescue, I remind myself that the person in question is a grown-ass grown-up and they’ve been on Earth long enough now to know how to handle themselves.

Beyond the beacons of distress, in improv, we caretakers can find the people we are drawn to help most are the clowns. Their wild, carefree showboating sets our nerves a tingle. We can feel we have to interpret them or harness their chaotic energy. We can feel the instinct to tame them. And when that doesn’t work, there’s another instinct; the one to follow behind their most destructive behaviour with a mop.

When we really lose ourselves in rescuer roles, we see clowns everywhere, like we’ve stepped into an exhausting haunted fairground where it is our assignment to exorcise every damn tent.

That is not our job. Let the clowns be clowns. Let them be.

Some clowns doing their clown thing. Just look at them being all clown.

But it’s not just clowning that can set us off. Anything that feels dangerously uncomfortable can, including deep dives into emotional territory, unsettling power dynamics or intense relationships. If it feels out of control, extreme caretaking says – reign it in.

The clown says: let me be wild. The caretaker says: careful now. And the thinker says: don’t forget, my massive brain is also here.

Improv has really helped me to understand how I caretake, how I reach out to help even when it isn’t asked for, and how I hustle. And improv has helped me to start to change those habits in scenes and also in real life. Improv is a safe space to practice doing things differently.

“How wild it was to let it be.”

Cheryl Strayed, Wild

When you close your eyes and think of a helpful person, what do you see? What about a nice person? A kind person? A good person? A worthy person? A caring person?

Trying to live up to those ridiculous ideals in our heads will more often than not lead to failure. You might even be forced to go around sacrificing every darn part of you in order to uphold this image that validates your existence. So do yourself a favour and start telling a different story about yourself. It probably won’t happen overnight. It didn’t for me. But I started making a conscious effort to catch myself whenever I thought of myself as a ‘helpful’ person. I would catch myself and replace the thought with a more firm: I am a person. Sometimes I am helpful. Sometimes I am not. Sometimes I am good. Sometimes now, because of my new story, I am a frickin’ badass.

Sometimes I’m even a ninja in improv. Foremost now I’m an improviser. Sometimes I caretake. Sometimes I clown. Sometimes I think.

Sometimes I’m even quite good at it.

Improv has taught me I am not responsible for everything, that I must trust my own instincts and resist the urge to caretake consistently. I love to watch typical caretaker types mess about or play mean. There’s so much power to be found in being carefree.

I was once given this advice in improv as an antidote to my helpful improvising… from time to time, go wild.

In The Improviser’s Way, the wonderful creative force that is Katy Schutte lists some other experiments for type caretaker improvisers. Here are some of my favourites of her notes:

  • Fuck around.
  • Strike an unusual pose.
  • Be an object or animal that can’t speak.
  • Make your scene partner laugh.
  • Say a line that has no reference to anything.
  • Do a scene with noises instead of words.
  • Break the rules.
  • Be selfish.

I think one of the funniest, most fun and most memorable things I’ve done in improv was to lead a chorus of operatic chickens. It was gibberish. It broke the brief we’d been given, and came out of a hive-mind move to all sink to the floor and play chickens during a story song. I saw my chance to lead the chorus this way and took it before anyone else could. It did feel selfish. It almost felt like cheating too. It was so easy to do. But I loved doing it and it became an infamous hit.

In her wholehearted book Untamed: Stop People Pleasing, Start Living, Glennon Doyle tells us the story of Tabitha, a cheetah at the zoo trained to chase a toy and then return to her cage.

“Tabitha. She was born into captivity. The only visible order she’s ever known includes cages and dirty pink bunnies and weak, bored applause. Tabitha never knew the wild. Yet Tabitha knew the wild. It was in her. She sensed the pressing of the unseen order like a relentless hunch. Perhaps for us, as for Tabitha, the deepest truth is not what we can see but what we can imagine. Perhaps imagination is not where we go to escape reality but where we go to remember it. Perhaps when we want to know the original plan for our lives, families, world, we should consult not what’s in front of us but what’s inside us. Imagination is how personal and worldwide revolutions begin.”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed: Stop People Pleasing, Start Living

Those who have been trained to take care of others really have so much to offer the world and also the world of improv: our acute awareness, our sensitivity, our mix of bird’s eye view and attention to detail POV, our honed listening skills, our ability to identify the needs of a show and to give our scene partners the gifts they need to shine.

And our imagination.

Perhaps clowns are as bothersome to us because sometimes we’d like to be more like them. Perhaps we’d like to wear the bright clashing colours with abandon and let ourselves be random and run free. Perhaps we’d like to wear noisy shoes and express our emotions decidedly on our faces. Perhaps we’d even like a red nose every now and again or to be crammed into a tiny clown car.

Here’s the secret, dear helpful improviser, you can. And you can start today.

You know that voice you get leaping up inside you sometimes telling you what to say, the one you suspect is ridiculous; yeah, that one – try saying it out loud. Yes, it’s dangerous I know, sometimes that voice will get it wrong but practice in a safe space with improvisers you trust and in time you might even notice that voice is onto something. I think a big difference between caretakers and clowns is clowns don’t police that voice so hard, sometimes they don’t at all. I think that as a caretaker, that can make us a bit grumpy on occasion. But I think those grumps can tell us a lot about how we really feel. As much as we’d like to deny it, we have a clown inside us too and it wants to play big time.

In my early improv days, the ultra-talented Jen Rowe from The Maydays gave me a secret note that read, “Make yourself big and bold. Big characters. Big choices. Big reactions.” I still have that note. I’ve popped it into a box with other special things and looking at it now makes me smile.

I knew she’d seen me. I was rumbled. I was playing it small. For me, caretaking was hiding. I wasn’t really following my fun. I wasn’t yet free.

One way Doyle suggests we get out of the cage of control, out of caretaking and people-pleasing, is to stop using the language of indoctrination. Drop the ‘good’, the ‘should’, the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’. When you’re inside a show or act, you haven’t got sight of those judgments anyway. You’re biased.

“We are all bilingual. We speak the language of indoctrination, but our native tongue is the language of imagination. When we use the language of indoctrination – with its should and shouldn’t, right and wrong, good and bad – we are activating our minds. That’s not what we’re going for here. Because our minds are polluted by our training. In order to get beyond our training, we need to activate our imaginations. Our minds are excuse makers; our imaginations are storytellers. So instead of asking ourselves what’s right or wrong, we must ask ourselves: What is true and beautiful?”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed: Stop Pleasing, Start Living

What is true and beautiful in improv? What is true and beautiful in your improv? What is true and beautiful in you?

I’d bet money on it being a lot more than you think.

What to Do When Things Turn Toxic

In My Little Pony the Movie, the ponies were plagued by a weird enemy. It was a purple goo that seemed to be unstoppable. Slimy, relentless, ruthless, with no sense of boundaries, it was unclear whether the purple goo killed the My Little Ponies or just took them out of action for a while. During the movie, both were suggested. Maybe it was vague because the writers made it so, or maybe it was vague to a five-year-old’s mind because, well, that purple goo was shit-scary. And at an age I didn’t even know the word shit… maybe.

Even getting a bit of the purple goo on the colourful ponies’ bodies was corrosive. It was to be avoided at all costs. But the goo wasn’t getting the message that it needed to leave the ponies alone. If anything it took the My Little Ponies’ protestations to respect their space as an invitation to dial up its gooey efforts.

They must have defeated it somehow but I don’t remember how. To be honest, I don’t really remember if they did. But what a downer of a movie if they didn’t!

There’s only one line I can recall from that film:

“Home is where you hang your hat.”

My Little Pony the Movie, 1986

I liked that line. I think it was spoken by a gnome. Considering the My Little Ponies’ homes were being flooded with purple goo, he was probably giving sage advice. But also, a touch dismissive of the large-scale emotional trauma watching their homes and friends being destroyed was bound to have been causing the My Little Ponies.

The image of toxic slime also stuck in my impressionable mind, as it did to the My Little Ponies, like a limpet to the bottom of a boat. It had a feeling attached. You might know that feeling. It’s kind of like ‘ick.’

The My Little Ponies could see the toxic purple goo cresting the hills on the horizon but what do we do when the toxicity oozing into our spaces is not as easy to see?

It can be hard to identify there’s a problem. Sometimes it’s just an uncomfortable feeling that something isn’t quite all it seems with a situation. Trust that! You have instincts for a reason. Your body has honed them over a long time to keep you safe.

I would like to practice kindness and generosity towards everyone but to get to the nub of it, that was probably how I’ve got into the messiest toxic situations in the first place – by believing I had to be nice. I’ve come to recognise, that in order to effectively deal with sticky messes caused by toxic dynamics, it is self-compassion that is key. It seems counter-intuitive in some ways, but exercising kindness and understanding towards yourself really does have the power to reduce the impact of toxicity in your life, keep you out of resentment, and encourage you to communicate more clearly with all parties involved.

I’ve been in more than my fair share of toxic situations and my biggest takeaway involves believing wholeheartedly that the only person any of us have any control over is ourselves. Those My Little Ponies weren’t asking for that toxic goo all up in their castles. They did have to find the best way to manage the ick.

The best place to start with toxicity detecting is with how you feel. In my experience, it is the first thing I notice. I get an icky feeling arise in my stomach and I have learned I must pay attention to that. Like a herd animal who suddenly hears a crack in the woods, I have to lift my head and observe what’s going on. What am I doing? What is someone else doing? What is being said?

Sometimes an environment can feel toxic. With one troupe, we used to rehearse in the back room of a pub. There were times guests wouldn’t want to join us because it was so crappy in there. The walls were peeling, the floor warped and it was damp and badly ventilated. It was weird too; it had random pictures on the walls, some cellophane wrapped, and a wide assortment of disregarded stained furniture.

Eventually, one member of our troupe said, “Hey, this place has icky vibes.”

We all agreed it did and had to wonder why it had taken so long for one of us to say it out loud. And we’re talking years!

If places can be hard to call out, it’s surely so much harder with people. Looking honestly at a person can be really tough to do, especially when people deploy evasive tactics. There may be masks involved. There could be a personality clash. There might be a variety of factors.

“Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you as deeply as they’ve met themselves.”

Matt Kahn

The reasons someone is a challenge to connect with can keep us searching for excuses for a long time. And these excuses can blindsight us. A helpful tip I picked up from Lisa A. Romano, a life coach specialising in recovery after narcissistic abuse, is a bit of a language hack but it can help with justifying thoughts. Instead of saying, “This person is very unkind to me because they’ve had a difficult life.” I’ve retrained myself to now say: “This person is very unkind to me. They have had a difficult life.” I then remind myself both those things can be true separately. One does not justify the other. In time, you might even find the second statement will fade when how someone treats you becomes your priority.

“Toxic people are not necessarily uniformly toxic, which also makes it complicated. There are some people who are equal-opportunity tyrants – they treat everyone badly – but most are too smart for that. They have folks they target and others whom they keep close at hand, because, if everyone thinks they’re awful, it can make it difficult to sidle up to the bar… The difficulty raised by this is that different people may have very different experiences of a toxic person.”

Dr Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

You can’t always trust word-of-mouth to identify toxic behaviour. Not everyone will experience a person the same. This is made even harder if you have experienced the undermining of your reality through gaslighting. You can feel unsure of your instincts, so a good rule of thumb is to observe behaviour as you see it. Observed behaviour, along with how you feel, can build a more realistic picture of a situation or pattern. Words spoken can be very deceptive, most especially when they originate from the person exhibiting toxic behaviour.

Toxicity is not a one-off incident that might be caused by an unsettling life event or change in environment. It is repeated damaging behaviour. It is a cycle. I have found that as I become less reactive and manage to gain some distance from toxic behaviour it becomes easier to observe the traits as they reoccur and a situation I once thought I played a significant part in creating, turns out to be very little to do with me as I watch the person go on to repeat the pattern with others.

Here are some signs of toxicity suggested by WebMD:

  • You feel like you’re being manipulated into something you don’t want to do.
  • You’re constantly confused by the person’s behavior.
  • You feel like you deserve an apology that never comes.
  • You always have to defend yourself to this person.
  • You never feel fully comfortable around them.
  • You continually feel bad about yourself in their presence.

Unfortunately, as in all corners of society, people who display toxic behaviour patterns appear in improv communities. To argue that improv is somehow immune as it is such a darn-nice-people sport would be naïve and also dangerous fantasy thinking. The ground of improv is just as vulnerable to toxicity, as any other community space.

Maybe even more so.

Improv contains a lot of empathetic, kind, accommodating, vulnerable hearts. And this is a beautiful thing. But it also exposes it to frenzied feasting if a fox, with a hankering for empathy, gets into the hen house.

In the Americas, there is a cryptid – a mysterious hidden monster – that is blamed for killing livestock. It is said to suck the lifeblood out of its prey. It’s called Chupacabra – goat sucker – and sightings of it have been possibly explained as a wild dog with mange. Chupacabra’s skin is said to have a fluorescent glow like it’s toxic. This could be because of the incessant scratching that comes with the mange mites embedded under its skin.

If Chupacabra is a creature with an affliction, surely we must pity it. Having contracted mange is not the creature’s fault and it is a horribly uncomfortable condition for the animal to endure.

True, but try telling that to the goat.

“I acknowledge that many roads lead to the “reasons” why people are antagonistic, narcissistic, difficult, and abusive and that they have backstories too. But the bottom line is that, when someone abuses you, it hurts, and, over time, it takes a permanent toll. No, “toxic” is not a nice word. But these are not nice patterns. Nobody should be relegated to the status of human punching bag. Nobody.”

Dr Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

I’ve learned it’s very important to give yourself permission to feel upset by toxic situations and dynamics, regardless of the reasons behind the behaviour. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the hurt and anger, you yourself can get stuck. Priding yourself on being an accommodating, kind person makes it even more likely you may put the needs of others before your own need to pay attention to uncomfortable feelings.

In Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong, she talks about a rumble she had with the premise: people are doing their best. When I first read this, I, like Brené, went through a stage of scoffing “Well, that’s not true.” But over time I’ve realised this way of thinking is oddly liberating. Initially, I felt it justified abusive behaviour but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realise it does not. What it does, is help us to accept what is. It shuts down fantasy thinking.

“All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgement and let’s me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”

Steve, quoted by Brené Brown in Rising Strong

If you assume everyone is trying their best, it allows you to be discerning. You let go of judgment and perfectionism. You give yourself permission to choose how to handle a situation as it is.

“Toxic behaviour tends to be associated with traits congruent with narcissistic, antagonistic, psychopathic, dysregulated, and passive-aggressive personality styles. These are personality styles that often cause more harm to the people around them than any other personality or mental health/illness patterns we observe. The people with these personality patterns may not be experiencing discomfort, but the people around them likely are. This is not a “moral” judgement. Nor is it an indictment of people who engage in these patterns; this is an indictment of these patterns. They are invalidating, they are deceptive, and they are damaging.”

Dr Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

Consider another hidden monster: Mothman – a ‘flying man’ spotted first in a small town in America. The people in that town came to think of Mothman as the harbinger of doom, when in actuality it seems very likely that Mothman was an owl. The owl was an unusual breed, probably a bit wet from the rain, sleeping rough in an abandoned toxic factory, not the most eloquent runner, but trying its best to survive.

People who display toxic tendencies are trying to survive. Unfortunately for everyone, they have a way of doing it that hurts others and transmits pain. For me, understanding more about personality differences, disorders and disturbances has been a life-saver. I think it has actually reduced a lot of my social anxiety because I know what to listen out for and that other people’s behaviour is most often about their internal struggles and not about me.

“Anyone a certain age will always remember the story of Charlie Brown and the football. Lucy (the toxic invalidating friend) repeatedly asks the empathetic and yearning Charlie Brown to play football, and she invariably pulls the football away as he goes in for the kick, leading him to fall flat on his back. Each time, he approaches it thinking it will be different – and each and every time, she pulls the ball away. A relationship with a toxic person leaves you feeling like Charlie Brown. You keep going in, thinking that this time it will be different, that this time Lucy will not pull the ball. The first time she did it, it was time for him to be cautious; the second time she did it, it was time to never play ball again. That eternal hope that it will change is what keeps these relationships going (and keeps the Charlie Browns of the world repeatedly falling on their backs).”

Dr. Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

I’ve come to recognise that if I do not learn to draw the line with toxic situations, I actually become an invalidating friend to myself. I centre the toxic behaviour and become increasingly more invisible as I ignore my own needs. My self-trust takes a nosedive.

Dr. Ramani S. Durvasula has an incredibly helpful YouTube channel offering advice and information as to the psychological tendencies, patterns and dynamics surrounding people with narcissistic traits. She has also written a brilliant book called “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. In it, she considers how toxic and narcissistic behaviour is on the rise, fuelled by present-day cultures, like social media. In 2018 the Oxford Dictionaries chose “toxic” as their word of the year and “narcissism” has become a buzzword for our times, quite often used now to reflect on the behaviour of world leaders.

Towards the end of Dr Ramani S. Durvasula’s insightful and invaluable book is a super useful section entitled A Simple Survival Guide, which gives you strategies for dealing with toxic situations. Here is a flavour…

  • manage expectations
  • maintain boundaries
  • shore up supports
  • recognize they will not change
  • take care of yourself/ practice self love
  • don’t engage
  • get mental health assistance
  • learn to let go
  • stop defending yourself
  • hold on tight to your own reality
  • do the things that you value

Doing something you value helps you refocus and get some distance. It can be an effective antidote to ruminating. And I have found practising improv can particularly assist with stopping spiralling thoughts and running dialogues over in your head. To make a scene successful, you have to be all in. For this reason I have found it very hard when doing improv has actually put me in the shoes of Charlie Brown. I’ve been lying on my back on the grass in my life more times than I care to count. And sadly, I have also been down there as a result of my practice of improv. In order to do my best, most connected improvisation, I’ve come to understand that I have to do it away from toxic dynamics and behaviours. I have had to not participate in jams at times. I have had to pull out of a course. And I have had to opt out of doing a showcase once because I recognised I would be putting myself into harm’s way, like a My Little Pony jumping into a paddling pool of purple goo.

As improv is generally such a vulnerable-making, trust-requiring, and empathy-breeding arena, toxic behaviour can feel all the more hurtful. We take risks in rehearsal, in class and on the stage when we show up to be seen. The culture created by the ethos of improv dictates we should be up for anything at any time which can conflict with our instincts.

Although improvisation can be a fun, fast, spontaneous sport, that shouldn’t mean your pursuit of it needs to lack boundaries. The only way to get better at creating them and holding them seems to be to practice. And practising having boundaries is the best way I have found to prove my true commitment to myself. It’s the way to increase self-trust. I do not regret removing myself from toxic situations one bit. And although it was tough to do, if it had been easier, it wouldn’t have meant so much to me.

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

If I don’t stick to my boundaries surrounding toxic behaviours, I get resentful. I then start acting in ways that don’t feel like me. I get bristly. It doesn’t feel good and I’m more easily sucked into ego games I have no genuine desire to play. When we drop our boundaries in the face of someone else’s discomfort, we confirm their superiority over our inferiority. We send a signal to our inner world that our needs come last. And that leads to resentment.

Boundaries are not so much about changing the behaviour of others as we might initially assume is the intention of their design. Most often, they are instead about our relationship with ourselves. What will we do to get distance from invalidating, damaging, toxic behaviour? How do we prioritise our own needs? What short-term discomfort will we suffer in order to extract ourselves from long-term goo cycles?

“I assumed that people weren’t doing their best so I judged them and constantly fought being disappointed, which was easier than setting boundaries. Boundaries are hard when you want to be liked and when you are a pleaser hellbent on being easy, fun, and flexible.”

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

When you strive to be an inclusive, tolerant and kind person, this can come into conflict with making the tough decisions about how to handle toxic situations but it is very important we give ourselves permission to be discerning. If you feel that being around an individual (or group) is making you feel crappy, you don’t have to be around that person. We do all have that choice.

With every toxic situation, dynamic and environment we cut away from our lives, we create space. That can feel scary but it’s surprising how quickly a vacuum fills with other opportunities. And ones with the potential to be life-affirming, joyous and fulfilling. So pay attention to the ick. Honour your instincts. Set boundaries. And if you have to, distance yourself. Make home where you hang your hat – with you. Give yourself permission to choose. And choose your sweet self.

Critics and How to Face Them: Part 2 – Outer

Have you ever let a critic stop you in your tracks? Have you held a criticism close to your heart? Have you soaked up that critique, ruminated, let it speak to you in ways you wish it hadn’t? Well, allow me to let you in on a secret… You are not alone.

In Part One of this exploration into handling criticism, we met our inner critics. A gang of misguided villains trying to keep us safely in line through critical messages. They lie waiting for a weak spot. Think Pinky and The Brain – two caged mice looking for an opportunity each night to gain power:

Pinky: Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?

Brain: The same thing we do every night, Pinky – TRY TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

Pinky and The Brain, Animaniacs

Only the inner critics’ world is you. You are their world.

Having inner critics can make receiving criticism from the outer world all the more destructive. In the past, I’ve let criticism stop me in my tracks. I’ve abandoned projects. I’ve abandoned talents. I’ve even abandoned practising skills that brought me joy. And I did that because someone beyond my borders said something critical that I drew in close to my heart and let soak into my vital organs.

At times like this, it is worth remembering that whether you do a good thing, a bad thing, or an exceptionally great thing, critics still criticise.

The truth is, people have all kinds of complex reasons for criticising. Often their agenda is hidden from your view. I know this to be true because I have been unnecessarily critical. Over-spilling with inner criticism and frustrated with the world, I’ve criticised because it brought me some relief to project that pain outwards.

“The outer critic projects onto others the same processes of perfectionism and endangerment that the inner critic uses against the self.”

Peter Walker

When we listen to an inner perfectionist, whose standards are unrealistically high, we will measure the outside world and find it wanting. And that goes too for our own contributions.

During the first few years of improvising, I received my fair share of unsolicited criticism. Some of it was fair. Most of it was unnecessary. With this skill – improv – I was thankfully intent on continuing to learn regardless, but I would say next to none of that criticism really helped me improve. Some of it slowed me down. Lots of the criticism wasn’t even really about me, but a need to criticise. I watched some of my harshest critics, criticise others too, and often. Sometimes, seemingly indiscriminately. Other times, when someone else actually did an exceptionally great thing.

“Don’t be distracted by criticism. Remember, the only taste of success some people have is when they take a bite out of you.”

Zig Ziglar

Being an improv fledgling, I got through that criticism of my skill largely by reminding myself frequently I didn’t have to be good. I just had to be there. My belief in the value of being brave enough to step on that stage, kept me risking being seen and judged. In this way, I managed to develop a growth mindset about improv. I could make mistakes. I could learn. So I made the decision that I would celebrate that moment I stepped onto the stage. Instead of hanging everything on the feedback I received or whether it turned out to be a successful improv. The credit I bestowed upon myself would be for being there doing my thing.

“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

Aristotle

Daring to do anything in this life, exposes you to criticism. There’s no way to be brave with your efforts and avoid attracting the attention of critics. We might be in luck and fly under their radar for a while, but no one escapes them forever. And criticism of our creative projects can cut all the deeper because authentic creativity is about expressing ourselves. That criticism can cut to the bone.

“The motive behind criticism often determines its validity. Those who care criticize where necessary. Those who envy criticize the moment they think that they have found a weak spot.”

Criss Jami

Because of the high stakes of creative expression, being in an improv group that decides to give feedback to each other can be dangerous. For me, if you’re inside the creative work, it’s very hard to be objective. It is often far more effective to get someone from outside, like an experienced coach, to provide ideas on how you could improve your act. Offering feedback is a skill in itself, and one best given by someone trained to bestow helpful notes.

In my improv duo with the wonderful Josh Hards, we have a process where after a scene run in rehearsals, we will recap what we did and what worked for us. We will talk about what we intended with certain moves as that helps us understand each other’s intentions, but we don’t give notes on each other’s contributions. For us, it’s about taking responsibility for our own improv while understanding one another. We developed this practice using the advice of Jules Munns. By putting connection and creativity at the heart of our practice, the need for perfectionism and criticism wanes.

Brené Brown in her book Dare to Lead explores being clear about your core values as a way of diluting the sting of criticism. The two values you hold most highly in your life will probably be quite different from those of the next person. It means therefore that their criticism may not be as relevant to you, as you have other ideas about what makes life worth living and art worth making. If you are holding your values close, there’s also less room in your hands to hold onto criticism.

“The arena, paricularly during dark moments when we’re trying to be really brave, can be confusing and overwhelming: distractions, noise, a rapidly blinking Exit sign that promises immediate relief from the discomfort, and the cynics in the stands. In these tough matches, when the critics are being extra loud and rowdy, it’s easy to start hustling – to try to prove, perfect, perform, and please. God knows these are my four big p’s. We can either hustle to show the crowd that we deserve to be there, or we can let them scare us off. Either way, it’s easy to let them get in our heads and hijack our efforts.

In these moments when we start putting other voices in front of our own, we forget what made us go into the arena in the first place, the reason we’re there. We forget our values. Or, frequently, we don’t even know what they are of how to name them. If we do not have clarity of values, if we don’t have anywhere else to look or focus, if we don’t have that light up above to remind us why we’re there, the cynics and the critics can bring us to our knees.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

The concept of the arena is integral in Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong. Brown reminds us the arena is any moment or place where we have shown up and dared to be seen. Risking being awkward in a new improv team is an arena, directing a new show is an arena, starting an improv school is an arena. Handling a tough leadership inclusion moment without getting defensive puts us in the arena. Working hard to grow the community you care for, making mistakes, learning from them, is definitely an arena.

“If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I am not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their own lives, but will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgement at those of us trying to dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’re not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in your feedback.

We have to avoid the cheap-seats feedback and stay armour-free. The research participants who do both of those well have one hack in common: Get clear on whose opinions of you matter.

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

Brené Brown suggests writing the people whose opinions of you matter on a one-inch by one-inch piece of paper. It must be small enough to only capture the very core. She calls these people ‘The Square Squad’ and the suggestion she makes is that the credentials for these people are those that love you not despite your vulnerabilities and imperfections but because of them. They shouldn’t just be a ‘yes’ gang but people who pull you up when you need an integrity checking.

My Square Squad is now made up exclusively of people who have dared greatly; who have made mistakes, owned them, and stood back up to try again. They know what it feels like first-hand to be in the arena and they help me to deal with the feedback that does need listening to, in order for me to live within my values.

“We need to seek feedback from those people [the Square Squad]. And even if it’s really hard to hear, we must bring it in and hold it until we learn from it. This is what research taught me:

Don’t grab hurtful comments and pull them close to you by rereading them and ruminating on them. Don’t play with them by rehearsing your badass comeback. And whatever you do, don’t pull hatefulness close to your heart.

Let what’s unproductive and hurtful drop at the feet of your unarmored self. And no matter how much your self-doubt wants to scoop up the criticism and snuggle with negativity so it can confirm it’s worst fears, or how eager the shame gremlins are to use the hurt to fortify your armour, take a deep breathe and find the strength to leave what’s mean-spirited on the ground. You don’t even need to stomp it or kick it away. Cruelty is cheap, easy, and chickenshit. It doesn’t deserve your energy or engagement. Just step over the comments and keep daring, always remembering that armour is too heavy a price to pay to engage with cheap-seat feedback.

If we shield ourselves from all feedback, we stop growing. If we engage with all feedback, regardless of the quality and intention, it hurts too much, and we ultimately armour up by pretending it doesn’t hurt or, worse yet, we’ll disconnect from vulnerability and emotion so fully that we stop feeling hurt.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

To avoid becoming overwhelmed and abandoning our efforts entirely, we must learn which voices to listen to and when. This is all the more important when tackling territory where power structures exist. If we take any opinion, particularly the loudest, we risk listening to those who do not have a stake in the discussion. Marginalised and oppressed voices can go unheard and are sometimes silenced altogether. It’s a common defence tactic to criticise in order to project shame and blame outward. This distraction can keep a critic safe behind a ‘better than’ mask.

“Criticism often arises from fear or feelings of unworthiness. Criticism shifts the spotlight off us and unto someone or something else. Suddenly we feel safer. And better than.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

Arguably, no place is as tempting to engage with noisy cheap-seat feedback as on social media. Defensive comments, criticism, and the re-centering of narratives are rampant. Reactive statements are in no short supply. And reactive words encourage more reactive words. Numerous times, I’ve typed a draft rant, only to later delete it once I’ve given myself time to move out of a reactive state. I call up Inner Gandalf again who stands on that bridge in the face of the cheap-seat criticism shouting, “This Shalt Not Pass!”

If you want to help your Inner Gandalf (or equivalent), ‘unfollow’ the more persistent of cheap-seat critics on social media. Even consider blocking them. You take away their power if you don’t fuel their fires by accepting their invitation to react.

Your life doesn’t need cheap-seat associate critics. It needs contributors and connections.

Remember, you decide who to listen to, how to do your thing and what values you hold close while doing it. For some people, whatever you do, it will never be enough so let that criticism from the cheap seats fall at your feet. Only pick up what is valuable, constructive, and encourages you to grow and develop better practices. Chat it over with your Square Squad. Get your Caring Committee of Inner Nurturers on the case. Try out different ways of speaking to your inner critics and don’t let them convince you all your outer ones are right. Let your values be your guide.

Celebrate that moment you step into the arena. Hear that inner crowd roar. You’re there doing it! Congratulate you.

How to Belong

Something wasn’t working. We tried to ignore it. It was the elephant in the room – a now gigantic beast wearing a tiny bowler hat and a monocle. The well-dressed Nellie was waving, pulling faces and doing parlour tricks. No one wanted to look him in that enlarged eye so we carried on regardless.

Personally, I did what I’ve always done where performing room-elephants are involved. I tried to clean up the mess, attempted to assemble some sense of order and hoped I could nudge us all in a positive direction. Did it work?

Hell, no. The elephant just brought in a unicycle.

And then a hula hoop.

And then a flaming sword. Was he really going to swallow that?

I couldn’t hang around to watch. I’d seen enough. This time I trusted my gut. And I called it. I left a troupe.

It was a small sad thing. Something that needed doing but I still felt it pretty hard. Part of me didn’t really want to leave but a bigger part of me knew I couldn’t stay without betraying myself so there was no other option. Not anymore.

The fortress of being on the inside of a group can be so comforting but this situation required of me to walk into the wilderness. And sure, we can ignore the call of the wild but it’ll keep on calling. You can bet your gym membership on that.

“I won’t sugarcoat this: standing on the precipice of the wilderness is bone-chilling. Because belonging is so primal, so necessary, the threat of losing your tribe or going alone feels so terrifying as to keep most of us distanced from the wilderness our whole lives. Human approval is one of our most treasured idols, and the offering we must lay at its hungry feet is keeping others comfortable. I’m convinced discomfort is the great deterrent of our generation. Protecting the status quo against our internal convictions is obviously a luxury of the privileged, because the underdogs and outliers and marginalized have no choice but to experience the daily wilderness. But choosing the wily outpost over the security of the city gates takes a true act of courage. That first step will take your breath away.”

Jen Hatmaker

I’ve never been great at leaving things. At eight I agonized over resigning from Recorder Club. Did I enjoy it? I couldn’t tell you but I do remember the tortured decision-making process of leaving and how it took a long time to pluck up the courage to tell my music teacher. When I finally did the deed, she didn’t seem fussed, which I found confusing. Didn’t she know what I’d been through?

Leaving requires putting my need to leave above other people’s expectations of me to stay. It requires facing boredom or silence or the next space. It requires valuing my time. And these are things I’m still learning how to do.

I could hear myself saying I needed to leave the troupe and I knew that meant I could either talk about it forever, hoping it would magically improve, when I knew deep down it would not, or I could leave before the performing elephant brought out his glockenspiel.

This time I chose the latter.

It can be great to be in a troupe but it can also be hard work: group dynamics; commitment; loyalty; navigating all the different needs, goals and expectations people bring; differing attitudes towards performing, feedback and rehearsals; varying priorities, judgements, criticisms and excuses. Being in some troupes might help you feel like you fit in for a while but there’s a big difference between fitting in and really belonging.

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

Maya Angelou, Interview between Bill Moyers and Maya Angelou, 1973

Brené Brown discovered these words spoken by Maya Angelou and they unsettled her. She was confused. She didn’t know what they meant. To her, the feeling of fitting into a group was so desirable she couldn’t accept what it might mean not to. Belonging was the mountaintop she’d been striving for all her life. How could someone she admired so very much give advice that made so little sense to her?

This is the starting place for Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. It’s a book that has left a lasting impression on me. Her previous books Daring Greatly, Rising Strong and The Gifts of Imperfection get a lot of attention and they should; they’re brilliant. But there is something about Braving the Wilderness that still haunts me. I think about it often. I think about it when I’m feeling lonely. I think about it when I’m reading angry comments on Facebook. I think about it when I catch myself self-sacrificing.

Why do I think about it so much? Because at the heart of the book is a message, an exploration, a concept that I can’t shake off. It is a book that engages with the differences between fitting in and belonging. In our desperation to fit in we change our tastes, we change our opinions, we change our image, we change our masks.

But to belong… now that’s different. That’s surely the golden ticket. That’s what we were striving for all along.

I know about fitting in. Over the years, I got more adept in its requirements. It started for me in the same base training camp it does for many of us: my family of origin. A place, in which, I was constantly baffled and confused by proceedings. My mother would often smooth out my forehead telling me I would get frown lines. Of course, I was frowning; nothing made sense.

“Even in the context of suffering – poverty, violence, human rights violations – not belonging in our families is still one of the most dangerous hurts. That’s because it has the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self-worth. It broke all three in me. And when those things break, there are only three outcomes, something I’ve borne witness to in my life and in my work:

1. You live in constant pain and seek relief by numbing and/or inflicting it on others;

2. You deny your pain, and your denial ensures that you pass it on to those around you and down to your children; or

3. You find the courage to own the pain and develop a level of empathy and compassion for yourself and others that allows you to spot hurt in the world in a unique way.”

Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness

I know I will not be alone in this alienating feeling and the drive it can cause to fit in. For many, like me, the festive holidays are a reminder of how much we have had to sacrifice ourselves.

Recognising now that I am not alone is better but it can still feel lonely. Despite who else is also sacrificing themselves to fit in, the process of ‘fitting in’ is one you go through alone, with no real company but your true authentic self prodding away, from under a blanket, trying to get your attention: “Ahem, I’m still here you know. I CAN hear you.”

This means you may succeed in fitting into a particular group but there’s still that nagging feeling that things are not right with the world.

A great many books have been written on, and songs sung for, and films made about, this feeling. And for a really good reason. It is human to want to belong and we know when we get caught up in chasing that need, we can sacrifice near everything, including the people who do see our true selves and accept us as we ourselves do not.

“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness

Belonging is a primal instinct. One that historically we needed in order to evolve. As hunter-gatherer folk, we survived better in groups so being part of a band of fellows was the difference between life and death. Abraham Maslow put the need for belonging just above needs that secure safety concerning resources. It’s now generally acknowledged that a sense of belonging is linked to good physical health. It is therefore not a surprise that shame surrounding not belonging can be some of the most damaging and also most keenly hidden.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to belong by hiding under a blanket of lies, or even by screaming: “Include me!” It doesn’t work either of those ways.

It’s a sobering statement but the only down-in-the-dirt way to belong is to accept yourself. I always hoped hard if I could belong, I could learn to love myself through others’ accepting eyes. But that’s not the way around it happens. Instead, we struggle to see those accepting eyes because we can’t see what they see. We can think they are deluded or mistaken or fools.

If we strive to belong without self-acceptance that is what leads to inauthentic and sometimes even destructive behaviour. It can also keep us clinging to a group that doesn’t suit our authentic selves. As you accept yourself more and more you are inclined to show more and more of your true self. And in doing this it makes it more obvious when a group is not sitting right with you.

Self-acceptance can prompt us to leave the table when love and respect are not being served.

“Be easy on yourself. Have fun. Only hang around people that are positive and make you feel good. Anybody who doesn’t make you feel good, kick them to the curb. And the earlier you start in your life the better. The minute anybody makes you feel weird and non-included or not supported, you know, either beat it or tell them to beat it.”

Amy Poehler

By increasing my levels of self-acceptance I’m finding it so much easier to make the calls about the rooms I want to be in, the people I want to be around and the groups I want to leave. I know if the chips were down, and no one seemed to want me, I will still want me. I will always be on my own team. I’ll be my own squad. I’ll be my own personal cheerleader shaking my pom-poms to form the letters of my name and doing a back-flip into a flying splits.

Well, why not? It’s my metaphor.

“True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.”

Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness

Last night I watched Hidden Figures. A brilliant film about the extraordinary African-American women who worked as mathematicians at Nasa during the space race. The film focuses on Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Three incredible human-beings who displayed such courage in the face of extreme predjudice. I’d love to ask them how they kept walking into those predominantly white and also segregated spaces at Nasa. I want to know what drove them, what kept them going, what gave them that determination. Did they know they belonged there, or anywhere or to themselves?

I acknowledge that there are lots of ways I can walk into a room and be accepted as others cannot. This will affect how I connect with the issue of belonging. My experiences shape my reflections. There are many things I have not had to experience.

I used to believe in order to belong I had to pay a toll. When I joined an improv community a few years ago I had some uncomfortable moments. I wanted to keep showing up even when I felt challenging feelings. What I realise looking back now was that I actually didn’t need to prove myself deserving of the right to belong in the eyes of others. What I really needed to do was feel deserving to my own eyes and to do that I needed to accept myself. I did that by walking into those hard moments. Putting in that work wasn’t a requirement placed there by others but it enabled me to say “I belong here.” And it was accepting myself through saying that which led to the increasing sense of belonging.

My journey to feeling accepted had to start with me. I started to feel proud of myself for the courage it took me. I decided I deserved to belong and I wasn’t going to let anyone take that away from me anymore, especially not me.

That was how I started to belong to myself.

I included me in the equation. The more I included me, the more I showed up as my authentic self, the more I seemed to be included. I also have less of an issue with scarcity. I see there is enough space to go around. And everyone gets to choose which space feels right for them and where they want to position themselves.

Hard moments do involve turning up. Sometimes they also involve walking away. I’ve often known I wanted out, way before I leave a situation. My gut has said “time to move on” but I’ve ignored it to keep on flogging. I’ve waited it out until a blow-up or a conflagration just so I can be completely sure.

Cheryl Strayed instead tells us to leave because we want to leave.

“Wanting to leave is enough.”

Cheryl Strayed, Brave Enough

It seems counter-intuitive that the more I practice not fitting in, the more I seem to have done so. But that isn’t really about fitting in. It’s about letting go of the need to fit in. Its about self-acceptance. It’s about belonging. And whenever my sense of belonging starts to wane, instead of worrying about whether others are accepting me, I try to remember to ask: am I accepting me – imperfections, perceived imperfections and all?

Brené Brown did come around to understand her idol’s words. She went through the emotional rumble as Brown often does. She got there. And she wrote about it in her fascinating book Braving the Wilderness.

Maya Angelou was an incredibly courageous inspirational writer and activist. She also performed too. In the interview in 1973 with Bill Moyers, Maya Angelou’s final remarks went as follows:

Moyers: Do you belong anywhere?

Angelou: I haven’t yet.

Moyers: Do you belong to anyone?

Angelou: More and more. I mean, I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much. I like the humour and courage very much. And when I find myself acting in a way that isn’t… that doesn’t please me – then I have to deal with that.

Interview between Bill Moyers and Maya Angelou, 1973