Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at billharrisontherapy.com
Photo: First rehearsal for Strawdog’s upcoming MASQUE MACABRE
INNER MISSION: Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist. To read past articles click here.
Performing is a collective activity. Whether you’re on stage, in a recording studio, or on the set of a film or TV show, you’re almost always acting, dancing or making music with other people. Creatively engaging with your artistic peers is such a ubiquitous part of the lives of performers that you may seldom wonder what’s so soul-satisfying about creating drama, dance and music together. Why does it feel so good to be part of a group of creative individuals?
Humans are social animals. Even the most introverted people have an innate need to belong to a group that shares some common traits, whether it’s blood, talent, culture or another type of affinity. Though present in almost everyone, the intensity of this drive varies from person to person and manifests in distinct ways among performing artists.
The psychological term for the human need for social inclusion is affiliation. It’s defined as the inherent desire to feel a sense of involvement and belonging within a social group. Affiliation also includes a “concern over establishing, maintaining, or restoring a positive affective relationship with another person or persons.” “Positive affective relationship” essentially means having a strong emotional bond with other people that encompasses acceptance, kinship, rapport, mutual understanding, closeness and compatibility.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow considered social belonging to be a core human need. He positioned it as the third level of his hierarchy of needs, situated just after physiological needs (air, water, food, sleep, etc.) and safety and security needs (physical, financial, etc.). Maslow believed humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance with their families, intimate partners, teachers, close friends and colleagues. He observed that the absence of these emotional bonds can be the precursor to loneliness, social anxiety and clinical depression.
The need for affiliation among actors, dancers and musicians is especially strong. For theater artists, powerful attachments form between members of the cast and crew of a show or film. Musicians are known for the sometimes-complicated life-long relationships among group members. Dancers are often fiercely loyal to a particular choreographer or to a troupe or both. What makes these affiliations both similar to and distinct from groups of people outside of the arts?
People in all professions stick together in both formal and casual ways. Professional associations abound, as do informal gatherings at the local watering hole after work. People bond with one another because they ‘get’ each other – they share experiences, whether it has to do with training (doctors and lawyers), special talent (athletes), a reliance on one another for survival or safety (members of the military), etc. There’s usually a shared argot known only to the ‘in crowd’, as well as a collective feeling of exclusivity and (perhaps) superiority. Groups of performers share all of these attributes.
Some of the particular aspects of belonging as they pertain to artists have their origins in childhood. As youngsters, many future dancers, actors and musicians were singled out because of their talents, and made to feel special because of them. While it may have been gratifying to receive attention and praise as a result of one’s artistic ability, some accompanying psychological risks are too often unrecognized or ignored. How each individual responds to the perception that they’re exceptional depends on a variety of factors, such as their inborn temperament, the attitudes and behaviors of parents, teachers and peers, and the degree to which the child is valued for herself (as opposed to exclusively for her abilities). Prodigious talent may be a gift, but there’s usually a price to be paid – and it’s not trivial.
One of the downsides of being recognized as an extraordinary performer at a young age is the potential for social isolation. The development of one’s artistic skills requires work – classes, individual practice, rehearsals – all of which takes up a lot of time and energy a child might otherwise spend with friends in more unstructured ways. It’s easy for kids to become involved with their artistic pursuits to the exclusion of opportunities for the kinds of social interaction most other children get to experience. We’ve all heard stories of people’s lives being severely damaged by overly zealous stage parents or abusive teachers. The loss of a ‘normal’ childhood due to social isolation is at the core of many of these tragic biographies.
If a young person’s need for affiliation is curtailed by the cultivation of their artistic aptitudes, one common solution is to bond with their artist-peers for camaraderie. Remember the ragtag groups of theatre nerds or band geeks wandering around the halls of your high school? Forming relationships with one another is an act of mutual identification and affirmation. Creating a community with similarly talented people helps build an environment that fosters safety and security, based on all members of the group feeling included and accepted. Musicians, dancers and actors all use the term “ensemble” for our assemblages of performers. Ensemble is French for “together”, and refers to “all the parts of a thing taken together so that each part is considered…in relation to the whole.” There’s a pretty good description of what affiliation is all about.
Stressful situations increase the need for belonging with one’s community, even if stress is a normal part of one’s daily life. If you’re a performer, you’ve chosen an inherently anxiety-inducing profession, and this shared anxiety is one ingredient of the glue binding you to your tribe. Humans have evolved to support one another during challenging times. The oldest members of our species were much more likely to survive if they stuck together and fought the marauding hordes (or the saber-toothed tiger) collectively. There was, quite literally, safety in numbers. Their ancient experience has become part of our legacy. Affiliation is our mutual security blanket.
However, sometimes groups aren’t so safe. Just as there are dysfunctional families, there are aspects of communities in which patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors become destructive. Unfortunately, some of these patterns are so insidious and difficult to contemplate that they become taboo. An all-too-prevalent example is sexual exploitation, in all of its awful variations. Other dysfunctional group dynamics include racial and gender bias in hiring, physical or verbal intimidation and other manifestations of power inequities.
Every group tacitly agrees to keep certain subjects hidden. Among performers, these taboos include envy, competition for gigs, infighting and (sadly) sexual abuse and coercion. Actors are loath to admit they are envious of a fellow actor who got cast for a role they sorely wanted. Even the idea that there’s competition among people who are otherwise friends (or at least friendly) is frequently concealed. Tension or outright conflict among members of a company (or cast or band or orchestra) is common – and is just as commonly swept under the rug if at all possible. The #MeToo movement has at long last started to alter the landscape when it comes to sexual matters, but some of these other taboos remain firmly in place.
Affiliation with our artistic peers, then, is both necessary and inevitable. We create and perform together as members of ensembles and it brings us great joy to do so. We need to feel understood, accepted and supported by one another. And we need to become more conscious of the aspects of belonging to our respective tribes that are harmful and destructive. Our colleagues make up our creative and professional families and, just like our families of origin, require attention and nurturance to thrive.