Psychotherapist, Fiona Macbeth
In a guest blog for BAPAM, psychotherapist Fiona Macbeth considers the importance of emotional awareness for performers and some simple techniques for managing overwhelming feelings. Fiona ran the counselling service at one of the bigger London colleges for the performing arts, helping many young performers, as well as seeing established artists in her own practice. She helps performers overcome problems including low self-esteem, performance anxiety, perfectionism, confused identity, repressed emotions, distress due to physical injury and eating disorders. She currently sees clients in Brighton and London. Find out more at www.fionamacbeth.co.uk
What we are not taught is a vital skill which can make a huge difference to how we live our lives, and the lives of people around us.Between the ages of 2 and 12 we’re taught lots of useful skills. How to read, write, cross the road safely, eat with a knife and fork and possibly say please and thank you ; )
We are not shown how to deal with difficult emotions and calm ourselves when we feel overwhelmed. We are just expected to “pick up” this complex and incredibly difficult skill and develop it unaided. No training, no text books, no user manual – no guide to our emotions and how to manage them : (
To make matters worse, many performers may have “missed out” on real life social opportunities where they might have developed these skills. Maybe they prioritised the dancing competition over the sleepover, were learning lines for an audition when there was a school trip, and their best friend was their dance teacher. So these feelings, which are difficult at the best of times, may be totally overwhelming and terrifying. When we feel so angry we just want to hurt someone. When we feel so jealous of someone getting that part we worked so hard for that we can’t breathe. When we feel so uncomfortable and awkward in new situations that we want to run and hide.
Often young performers overwhelmed in these situations look to someone else to “deal” with it. That person is likely to already be a major influence in their performing life, such as their dance teacher or a parent. Unfortunately they may offer unhelpful advice, along the lines of raw emotions don’t fit well in a performance personality so it’s better to bury them or repress them. There may be pressure to adopt the “right” personality to do well in Musical Theatre, and exclude these uncomfortable emotions such as anger, jealousy and shame.
In my therapy practice, I see a lot of clients who say “I don’t do conflict and anger.” What they mean is they can’t cope with it or don’t do it well. And believe it or not, there is a good way of doing anger, or even confrontation. By expressing yourself in a calm rational way, and if necessary asserting yourself, you can develop heightened self-awareness. Then you are processing the anger instead of repressing it.
Repressed emotions don’t go away, they just lurk and pop out at inappropriate times. They can come out as a panic attack, as inexplicable and unstoppable crying or hysterical laughter. But they don’t go away unless they are explored, communicated and understood.
Left unattended, they can lead to other unhealthy actions. For example, binge eating as a distraction from emotions you can’t handle. Restricted eating or anorexia giving a false sense of control when emotionally you feel out of control.
Ideally they need exploring in a safe and controlled environment, such as counselling. This will help develop self-awareness, challenge dysfunctional behaviours, tackle underlying issues such as anxiety and increase our chances of being happy! However this can be a lengthy process and in the meantime rather than repression a healthier approach is for everyone, and especially performers, to develop a “toolbox” of techniques to help calm themselves when things are starting to feel out of control.
This can be as simple as a breathing exercise. Either find a quiet corner, or just do it quietly, and breathe in for the count of five and breathe out for the count of five. And whilst you are doing this just concentrate on the breathing. If your mind wanders, bring it back and think only about the breathing in this moment. You can do this for three breaths or three minutes, but practise it and it does work. It works best before things have got really out of control. This is because our emotional brain is triggered almost instantly and our rational brain is slower to kick in. So if you are facing a difficult situation, or something you know from experience might “press your buttons”, do some preparation with the breathing before the event, or entering the room, or seeing that teacher or director.
Free meditation apps work well for some people. Insight Timer and Headspace are very popular. Enter how much time you’ve got, what the issue is e.g. low self-esteem, motivation or anxiety, put your headphones on and zone out.
Visualisation needs practice but can be very effective. Visualise a calm and safe favourite place, such as a beach or wood, and expose all your senses to what that place would be like if you were there now.
Favourite photos of reassuring people or scenes on your phone can help.
Explore, experiment, practise and learn what works for you. Work with your emotions and don’t be taken hostage by them.