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
Cultivating Resilience: Managing the Risks of the Biz.
Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.
“Resilient people do not let adversity define them. They find resilience by moving towards a goal beyond themselves, transcending pain and grief by perceiving bad times as a temporary state of affairs… It’s possible to strengthen your inner self and your belief in yourself, to define yourself as capable and competent. It’s possible to fortify your psyche. It’s possible to develop a sense of mastery.” – Author, journalist and Editor-at-Large of Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano
Last time I wrote about the various challenges that can hamper your ability to thrive in your chosen profession as a performing artist. As the Australian study WORKING IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY showed, there are both environmental (external) and psychological (internal) factors that can impede an actor’s, dancer’s or musician’s ability to succeed. Here’s a quick review: External realities include un-or under-employment, career uncertainty, low financial rewards, unregulated working conditions and societal undervaluation of artistic work. Internal issues that can interfere with a performer’s career include various kinds of anxiety, depression, disrupted sleep patterns, eating disorders, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.
Your ability to manage these conditions is rooted both in environmental reality and in your individual psychological makeup. Environmental elements are a fact of life; there’s only so much you can do to mitigate their effects on you. For example, you can join a union that will collectively bargain for higher compensation and better working conditions. You can lobby public and private institutions for increased financial support for the arts. You can create or work with groups like Not In Our House, which fight to end sexual harassment, racial/ethnic/gender discrimination, violence and intimidation in the arts communities. But certain things just are the way they are.
However, all of us have inner resources that we can identify and strengthen through knowledge, insight and practice. By turning inwards, we can find ways to reduce the negative impact of the challenging circumstances inherent to a life in show biz.
Internal vs. external locus of control
The first question we have to ask ourselves is: Do we feel that we control our lives or do external forces have the dominant role in determining the course of our future? The psychological construct ‘locus of control’ was conceived of by Julian Rotter in the mid-1950’s. It gives us a way to discuss the extent to which people believe they have power over the events in their lives. People with internal locus of control feel that they have the ability to influence events and outcomes (self-efficacy). People with external locus of control believe that their life decisions and ultimate destiny are determined by outside forces (chance, luck, fate, God).
Locus of control exists on a continuum, and most of us live closer to one pole or the other. The theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, does a pretty good job of describing a healthy spot between the external and internal poles:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
It turns out that individuals who have a greater sense of internal locus of control are generally more able to develop what I feel is the most important life skill for performers (and other folks too): resilience.
The dictionary defines resilience as “the power or ability to return to the original form or position after being bent, compressed or stretched.” According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.” For performing artists, the list of adversities includes the physical and emotional challenges associated with expressing ourselves through our art and the harsh realities of trying to make a living doing so.
There are many ways to build and maintain resilience. Here are ten practices that seem to work for many people:
Acceptance – It is helpful to acquiesce (meaning ‘to find rest in’) to the reality of whatever situation we find ourselves in without necessarily trying to protest or change it. Resisting is what usually amplifies the pain or difficulty. As the Serenity Prayer teaches, some things cannot be fixed; when we discover one of those immutable aspects of life, the best course of action is to recognize it and allow it to simply be. Ignoring, repressing or denying the truth will certainly not make it go away. As I explained in a previous piece, acceptance is also a key component in managing stage fright.
Empathy – We can never really know exactly what another person might be feeling or thinking at any given moment. But we can identify and imaginatively ascribe meaning to the other’s words, demeanor and behavior. Practicing empathy is necessary for us as artists, since a vital part of our work is understanding and communicating emotions. But it’s even more important for us as human beings. Empathy fosters compassion and is a crucial ingredient in creating connections between people.
Humor – It almost goes without saying that being able to laugh at our own foibles is one of the best ways to keep our equanimity when things get challenging. It’s not always possible to choose to see the ‘funny’ in difficult circumstances, but it sure is useful to do so when we can.
Identity – Because we put so much of ourselves into our work as performers, it can become difficult to maintain a sense of self outside the realm of our art form. Yet maintaining healthy boundaries between one’s self and one’s work is essential. You are a person first; you are not what you do or what you produce. When you accept that your identity is not the same as your artistic work, whatever successes or failures you experience will not change the essence of who you are.
Mindfulness – This term has become such a buzzword that I hesitated to include it in this list. But it’s too important to overlook. Mindfulness is the ability to keep oneself focused in the present moment, without getting stuck in ruminating about the past or being anxious about the future. Performers have direct experience with this concept: actors know they have to work from beat to beat in a play; musicians must learn how to break down a part into phrases; dancers go from movement to movement. Mindfulness can be cultivated using a variety of techniques but is most commonly learned via the practice of meditation.
Patience / Perseverance – These resilience-building practices are not identical, but I don’t think you can have one without the other. Patience is the ability to trust the process; to know that whatever you’re working on takes however long it takes and that each of us develops at a different rate. Perseverance is the determination or persistence one needs to keep pursuing one’s goals, regardless of how long it might take.
Physical health – This hardly needs mentioning. You know that you need to take care of your body. Your body is your home and your instrument. Give your physical self-adequate sleep, good nutrition, and proper exercise. Maintaining your physical health is the most basic form of self-care.
Self-awareness – “Know thyself” is one of the most ancient and oft-quoted maxims, with good reason. Having a clear perception of your personality, beliefs, feelings, needs, patterns of behaviors, etc. is the most fundamental issue in psychology and a necessary antecedent to good mental health. Self-awareness is also a prerequisite for developing empathy – after all, how can you be aware of another person’s state of mind if you’re not cognizant of your own?
Social support system – Connecting with others fosters mutuality, which is an important ingredient in maintaining your identity and a sense of balance in your life. Close relationships with trustworthy colleagues, friends and family, strengthen every other aspect of your life. Humans are social animals; we are not made to go it alone. You can achieve great benefits from both giving and receiving help from the important people in your life.
Tolerate uncertainty – Unexpected events happen at unexpected times. Change is inevitable, and it seldom happens in predictable ways. We cannot control many aspects of the circumstances that surround us, but we can learn to manage both the changes and the uncertainty. Learning how to moderate our reactions to crises requires the use of some of the other resiliency-supporting practices. We certainly need to accept that difficulties will arise. Activating our sense of humor can help soften the sting of adversity. Becoming more mindful can help reduce the anxiety that usually accompanies challenging events. And calling on our social support system will help us feel less alone and safer as we adjust to the unpredictable changes life throws at us.
When to seek professional help
Even the most resilient people can become overwhelmed by circumstances. Many kinds of crises and most kinds of traumatic events are likely to adversely affect everyone, including the most emotionally stable of individuals. Sometimes the pain, sadness or fear that results from an unexpected occurrence only lasts a short time. The feelings might not be so intense or last so long as to cause you to suffer beyond your ability to recover relatively easily – that’s your resilience coming into play.
But when you are beset by intense, overwhelming emotions that prevent you from living the life that you want over an uncomfortable length of time, that’s when you may want to consider asking for help. Events such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, a sudden loss of employment, a sexual or physical assault, domestic violence, a home invasion or fire, or a debilitating illness are all potential causes of the kinds of distress that often require professional assistance to overcome.
Seeking help when you need it is, in itself, a resilience-building tool. Psychotherapy is a process used to treat cognitive, affective and behavioral issues that are not amenable to other treatment modalities (like medicine or surgery). It can help ameliorate present tense problems, and it can also address long-term issues like mood and personality disorders. Therapy makes use of many of the resiliency-strengthening concepts discussed previously, especially empathy, self-awareness, and mindfulness.
If you are feeling anxious, depressed, inordinately angry or stressed-out, I urge you to contact a qualified mental health professional as soon as possible. My guess is that you will be glad you did.
Bill Harrison is a contributing writer for PerformInk who’s past INNER MISSION articles can be found by clicking here.