Every other Friday at 7 p.m. I set aside two hours to work through my thoughts. Every Sunday at four, I stop what I’m doing and actually express how I feel. Occasionally on a Saturday, I go out of my way just for the release.
If you didn’t know what I was talking about, you might just think this schedule carries the regularity of some pretty intense therapy. Because that’s exactly what it is, in the best of ways.
As a college grad with too much time and too little to do, I stumbled into an improv comedy theater in the heart of downtown Denver. The perfectionistic, anxious woman in me said, “Stop! Do not step on stage. Do not open your mouth. Do not go back.” The curious voice wanting to try again and play some more won the battle. I kept going back.
And I’m still going, and taking home valuable life lessons every single day:
1. You can only move forward by taking the next step.
In improv comedy, this concept is called “Yes, and.” When a scene partner offers a banana you didn’t expect, you emphatically say, “Yes and… let me feed it to the monkey on my back.” When three team members huddle onstage, you decide, “Yes and… we’re in the NBA Championship!”
We have no control over the cards we are handed on stage or in life. But we have control over our reactions. We have the choice to come to a standstill in front of an obstacle and refuse to accept what we see OR accept what is before us and take a step to move our situation forward. Imagine being handed the banana, and shouting, “No! It’s not a banana. It’s a ukulele.” The entire exchange would come to a sudden halt. Through acceptance, though, by grabbing hold of the banana and exploring our options for what to do next, we gain freedom from the “stuck place” in which so many of us land.
2. The next step might seem scary. That’s okay!
What keeps us from making a change in life? Well, so much! But one of those obstacles is fear. We’re afraid of what we are about to lose. We’re afraid we won’t be able to keep up with what this new future brings. Our minds jump to future-thinking, and fear gets in the way of any growth we can be making in this very moment.
But I didn’t always know this. Not until I jumped on an improv stage and played short of hilarity. In order to take our scenes to the next level, I had to be willing to put myself out there. I had to make a change in the dynamics between characters and risk, to be frank, looking like a fool. That sort of a change, in public, was terrifying.
So I announced it to the audience — as my character, of course. I said, “Wow, I’m afraid,” then jumped straight into that fear. Whatever happened next, I had learned a valuable lesson: acknowledge your fear and move on! It’s quite okay to be afraid, but it’s just stagnant and unproductive to let fear get in your way.
3. Invest in your voice. It’s the greatest gift you have.
Mom always told us we were special, but who really believes that with a pile of student debt and but a dollar on a Charlie Card? Somewhere along the way, we learn that sure, we are special, but only as special as the person next to us. And somehow, that thought is twisted in our minds to seem negative.
Except, imagine an improv team with only one person. It can be done, but I sure would miss the other gal in that duo. Imagine a scene improvised with only the ideas of a single mind; it would all be too predictable. The magic happens when we share ideas and let differences coalesce. And the only way to access those differences is to nurture our incredibly special, individual voices, and to appreciate the voices of those around us.
4. If you’re angry, let it out. If you’re hiding, let your vulnerability out.
Improv scenes attract conflict. I haven’t yelled so much as when I am on the stage. It’s just … easy. We all know anger. We feel powerful with anger. We are too heated in anger to feel anything else. DING! DING! DING! And that’s the problem.
Anger out of true, deep frustration is absolutely beautiful. But more often than not, anger becomes a defense mechanism against vulnerability. What if you let out your sadness instead, or perhaps your surprise? The emotions would be raw. The volume quieted until every word you said was heard. YOU WOULD BE HEARD.
Read number 2 again, then give it a try. Vulnerability is beautiful.
The reality is, laughter heals. Improv empowers us. Comedy restores our voice and soon enough, our confidence. There are many goals to therapy, one of which includes achieving a healthier, happier, more productive life. There’s only core one goal in improv — have fun. But between you and me, improv just hasn’t yet realized that it is therapy.
What’s your therapy? Let us know, and join the discussion.