The Power of Vulnerability

Leaning Into the Discomfort

What we do as actors is weird. Like you didn't know that already. But although there are many reasons this statement is true, there's one, in particular, I want to point out.

Where other people run from intolerable emotions, we run towards. At least that's the job spec; whether we do it or not largely defines whether or not we're doing our job correctly. Good news is, the better we get at it in acting, the better we get at it in life and vice versa. It's become a mainstay of modern psychology and self-growth principles that, instead of running from the discomfort of vulnerability we should instead 'lean in' to it. We need to become very adept at this, as it's largely counter intuitive and working against our evolutionary primal instincts.

Feelings of vulnerability are unpleasant and this by very definition primes us to automatically 'move away' from whatever it is we think is causing this unpleasantness. Think about it. How else can one define pleasant and unpleasant except for 'want or don't want', 'move towards, move away from'. This has been the most basic, yet essential, survival trait of any animal and creature, let alone humans. It guides the most basic mechanics of seeking sustenance and escaping danger. Even plants have it. It's the most fundamental principle of life. It's the definition of survival.

That being said, we as humans are unique (at least as far as we know) and modern humans have, not just the ability to survive, but to thrive. In fact, this 'thriving' is largely what we are seeking whenever we talk about happiness being the goal of human life. It's not by the way. At least not usually, historically or biologically speaking. But that's not to say it can't be.

We as humans are both blessed and cursed with the meta-awareness. The ability to be aware of our behaviours and motivations and change them, at least to some degree*.  With this ability, we can choose to counteract our immediate tendency to run from the discomfort of intolerable emotions and instead, lean into the situation. Being comfortable is not what it's about. Our job is to portray the times in life when things are intolerable when emotions are excruciating and stakes are at their highest. Otherwise, not only are we not doing our jobs, but the whole exercise will be utterly boring, for us and the audience - and ultimately, what's less tolerable than boredom?

So if you really want to escape the most intolerable state of them all, put yourself out there, take a risk and make it count. We have the ability to learn to tolerate what are often considered to be intolerable emotions, and we can use them as a guide, of what to lean in to. The instinctual stimuli are the same, we just have to reverse the logic. Instead of moving away from what scares us, move towards (this does not mean things like oncoming traffic btw). If you are feeling fear and anxiety and resistance in a situation that you know is physically and psychologically safe**, move towards it. I promise you'll be happy with the results.

Vulnerability and resilience can come together and they should. The idea isn't that we start wearing our heart out on our sleeves at all times; it's reminding ourselves that our hearts are in our chests, which unlike most animals is exposed to the world openly, along with our brains, guts and jugular. We're already vulnerable. We're already able to be hurt and wounded emotionally and physically all the time. We're just not usually willing to admit it. Cultivating vulnerability is really about admitting and accepting this fact but also cultivating resilience alongside it.

Resilience is the second part of the equation that says, not only can we be wounded, but we can also heal and learn. We can grow stronger in our knowledge and experience and pick ourselves back up, dust ourselves off and do it again. Quit trying to be bulletproof. You look ridiculous and everyone knows it. Pumping your chest and pushing your emotions down (another way to say this is just tensing your abdominal and other muscles to drown out the physical sensations of the emotions) isn't fooling anyone. Deep down, consciously and unconsciously, we all know how frail we all are and we're all part of the same species. So trying to trick anyone else, let alone yourself is a pretty bad plan and it ain't gonna work in the long run.

The other bonus of acting is that, 'psst here's a secret - IT'S NOT REAL'. It's make-believe. You're safe. This isn't actually happening, which means as soon as you want it to stop, it stops. You just stop playing the game. The empowering thing is that even in the middle of a show, at any point you could just give up and walk off stage (please don't do this). But the point is you CAN. You have that power. You're not being forced to act. You can stop at any time. And remembering this means you can go wherever you need to go in your acting, ‘cause at the end of the day it's all fake - the thoughts, the emotions, the situation, the set. I mean, yeah, it all feels real at times, and we could get into the Buddhist perspective on 'self' at this point and pull apart the whole illusion of these things itself - but let's leave that for another time. The point is you have control. Don't victimise yourself to the craft. Remind yourself who's choosing what here and take the reigns. After all, as John Patrick Shanley says, "Theatre is a safe place, to do the unsafe things, that need to be done".

*(Whether that change comes from an actual 'free will' or as a result of the mere introduction of the awareness itself is a topic for another time - see 'Free Will' post to come.

**By this I mean not prematurely engaging with emotionally traumatising things that you have not worked through, such as past instances of abuse or fight or flight moments. I recommend these be dealt with preferably in a safe therapeutic environment first or with a strong support network.