The anxious artist
Thanksgiving is the two-day-old meat in the sandwich of holidays that lies within the months of October through December. Halloween season is full of spooky stories and costumes. December is filled to the brim with gift-giving and snowmen. Thanksgiving is rooted in racism, arguing relatives and an underwhelming parade in New York.
While Thanksgiving has many negative stereotypes, there is one thing I enjoy about it: The attitude of gratitude that resides in not only me, but my closest family and friends. Thanksgiving is a time to spend appreciating the things you would usually take for granted. This Thanksgiving, I want to shed light on something that I never thought I’d be grateful for.
I’ve had anxiety since I was little. I started taking medicine for it after I graduated high school. It’s no secret that having anxiety is hard, especially when it comes to my art. The constant nagging of never being good enough in my mind pushes me to do better. However, this pursuit of perfection often turns sour quickly. This year, my perfectionism broke me for the first time in months.
Have you ever cried in class? It’s awful. It’s embarrassing and vulnerable, but at the same time could potentially be the best thing to happen to you during your collegiate career. Earlier this year, I cried in my acting class. The tears in my eyes swelled up and burned hot against my cheeks. I wanted them to stop, but they kept falling one after the other — a physical manifestation of the frustration I had with myself.
We had been working on a difficult scene. The scene work had been going on for at least two weeks. With my anxiety, I often tend to extremely over-prepare or drastically under-prepare. When I under-prepare, I lay in bed all day thinking about what I could be doing, but don’t have the effort or motivation to. When I over-prepare, I figure out everything to the most minute detail in an effort to ensure that all the “what if” scenarios flooding my head never become a reality. For this particular class, I was over-prepared, and it ended up being my downfall. I was working too hard. I had memorized the lines, I had read the script three times, I had done hours of research, I had set myself up to succeed. Yet each day, I failed.
My professor would give me more critiques than compliments. I knew the work I was doing was not where I wanted it to be. Instead of taking these critiques as a learning experience, I started to take them personally. One day, during one of our end of class discussions, I let the critiques get the best of me.
My head was littered with questions: What am I doing wrong? Why is my pacing too fast? Why am I not playing into the given circumstances of the scene? Why am I not listening to my scene partner? As I had time to anxiously stew in my own thoughts, my questions got bigger and less founded in reality: Why am I so bad? What if I’m never good enough to make a living as an actor? What if my professor hates me? What if everyone hates me? The list of questions racing through my brain could go on for pages. I couldn’t get them to stop.
I sat idle as the class talked about their work, yet my brain was moving at a million miles a minute. My professor noticed I was not fully present in the group’s conversations. He made a joke, and I didn’t laugh because, quite frankly, I was so lost in my own thoughts that I didn’t hear the joke being made. He coyishly asked me, “Do you not think I’m funny?” To which I replied, “No, I was just — I wasn’t listening.”
After class he approached me.
“Alix,” he started, “What’s wrong?”
I wanted to brush off his comment. Say “Nothing, I’m just tired” and walk away. But all of a sudden, every ounce of frustration I was feeling boiled up inside of me. I started to cry.
“I don’t know, I guess — I feel like I’m doing a bad job,” I said, wiping away the tears.
“You’re not doing a bad job. You’re just not being present,” he replied.
It was these words that sparked a groundbreaking realization for my artistry. Throughout my life I had thought that the harder I was on myself, the better I’d become. Yet, upon reflecting on other acting assignments, I realized it was my own self-deprecation that had stunted my growth. No one was telling me I was a bad actor except for me. Critiques were given to me, but the projection of my own insecurities onto them is what made these critiques impossible to listen to. The next day in class, I approached the scene with a sense of being present. I still knew all my lines and blocking, of course, but I tried my best to get out of my own head. I practiced an approach of self-awareness that I had never thought possible before. When a self-deprecating thought entered my mind, I ignored it and focused on the scene instead. I’ve practiced methods similar to this with meditation, but I never thought to apply them to my art. This was difficult, and it certainly didn’t happen the entire time, but I was trying.
Anxiety with any art form is a hard battle to overcome. There are many days where I wish my brain would just shut up, days I want to reach into my own skull and pull out all the bits that make living with anxiety so hard. But there are also days like the one I had in class, where I experience monumental growth. There are days that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll think of these days and people like my professor that help me get there this Thursday.