Monday, December 18, 2017

Learning to React

For a long time I suspected I might be broken in some fundamental way. I did not seem to feel things the way other people did. Other people’s emotional lives seemed to be richer than mine. I could fake strong emotions pretty well, but that is a thing sociopaths do, right?

It crossed my mind that I might indeed BE a sociopath, but then I did a little research and read that sociopaths have no regard for the difference between right and wrong and never feel guilt. These last two are not true of me. I definitely feel guilt—most of the time.

So if I’m not a sociopath, what is going on?

With the help of an acting class, I think I may have started to figure it out.

Early in my life I made a decision to be a person who is steady, reliable, and helpful. I always wanted to make things better, not worse. And one way to do that is to be a voice of calm. Big emotions scare me and make me feel unsafe—they always have. So I learned to tamp them down in myself and to pull others back to calmer waters when they were getting worked up.

It worked for me to be a calming, helpful presence. Turns out, people like that.

It also turns out that being a calming, helpful presence requires a LOT of self-management. I learned that if I wanted to be steady as a rock, I needed to ignore whatever emotions I was feeling and keep an even keel. Over time, it got easier and easier to forget that I even had my own reactions to things—I was always attuned to what other people were feeling and then adjusting myself to them.  

This is a great way to make the people around you feel safe. It is also a great way to lose all touch with the things you yourself are feeling.  After many years of living this way, I got to the point where I could not identify my own feelings unless they were so huge that they managed to break through my insulation and force themselves to be reckoned with. Smaller things went unrecognized and, therefore, unprocessed in any kind of normal, healthy way.

Realizing this about myself has helped me understand something that has puzzled me for years: From the age of 12, I have loved sad books, movies, and songs--the more deeply tragic, the better. I now understand that these books and songs and movies gave me a safe outlet for my emotions—they gave me a “legitimate” reason to feel powerfully sad and to cry without having to look deeper and see what was going on in me. They were a safety valve.

Oddly, sports acted as another kind of safety valve. By playing organized sports into high school and then by following professional sports very closely my entire adult life, I’ve had an outlet for other feelings. Anger and joy both find a way out when you are heavily invested in the outcome of a pitch, a play, a game, and a season.
Another obsession of mine is politics. The first time I ever got positive feedback as a writer was in a Political Writing class as a junior in college. I found I could express passion for my beliefs about politics without feeling like I was in any kind of immediate risk. And other people wanted to publish the things I wrote!

So, I had—more or less—three outlets for strong feelings: literature, sports, and politics. All three of these have been a huge part of my life ever since I discovered their usefulness.  None of the three of these serve to connect me to my own feelings or to the people closest to me. In fact, sometimes they get in the way because it is easy to convince myself that I am a passionate person with deeply-help beliefs.

I have recognized this as a problem for a while now. But I could not come to any kind of solution to the problem that worked for me. It is hard to give up an approach that has been “working” for years and years.

And then I enrolled in an acting class. It was a fairly impetuous decision that grew out of a feeling of boredom and a desire to shake up my life a bit. When I signed up I did not even think to ask about the methodology of the class or the philosophical underpinnings of the method. In retrospect, this is good. Had I asked, I might not have followed through.

The class I found was in the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca. The classes at AWI are based in the Meisner Technique of acting, created by Sanford Meisner over his 55 years at the Neighborhood Playhouse. The foundation of the Meisner Technique is the ability to identify what you are feeling in the moment in reaction to the people you are sharing the stage with. Rather than memorize lines that you deliver with a preset cadence and emotional charge, you instead say your lines with whatever your emotionally honest reaction is in the moment.

You’re not acting, you’re reacting. And the reactions need to be authentic.

So, you can see how this might scare the living shit out of me and my carefully cocooned emotions. I have spent a lifetime assiduously avoiding tapping into my honest, raw emotions. And this semester I was asked to do just that, every Monday and Wednesday from 5pm to 8pm.

By the second week of classes I found myself coming up with all sorts of excuses for skipping class. But then I would go anyway.

I found the exercises terrifying—and I was not very good at them. They required me to turn off that inner voice that dominates my head—the one that is constantly sizing up the people around me and guessing at what they want or need from me. Far more often than not the words I would say came from that part of my brain rather than from somewhere more real, more honest, more ME.

BUT, there were a couple of moments when I was able to turn that inner voice off and simply react to the people in front of me. Those moments were magic and like a drug. Instead of managing myself and the other people, I simply reacted honestly. As I said, this did not happen often. But it was often enough that I have come to crave it.

It feels exactly like the emotional equivalent of learning to walk. At this point my emotional self is able to pull itself up to a standing position using the furniture and the legs of the people standing around me. Someday it will be able to toddle around. Then someday it might even run. I am still afraid of strong emotions, but I have a growing belief in the importance of letting myself feel them and whatever else is in there.


  1. Glad I clicked through and read this. Really interesting piece and sounds like the acting class is fascinating + terrifying -- you are BRAVE to go out there.