Our Self as Storyteller and Performer
As we engage with the tasks of our lives and with one and other, we naturally perform as ourselves. We develop and present our Self to others, and simultaneously to ourselves, by interpreting the main character in the continuing and evolving story of our lives. This “Self-narrative” is recorded and maintained primarily within our unconscious mind: It serves as an ever-present backdrop and framework within which much of our imagination, our conscious thoughts, and our behaviors operate.
The foundation of the story of ourselves is our “world-view,” a broad underlying perspective on life shaped by our earliest relational experiences, particularly within the culture of our original family. It provides us with a general model of how the world is and what it holds for us, as it informs our sense of place within it. Our Self-narrative develops on the foundation of this world-view, continually incorporating and reflecting our accumulating history, life experience and received information. The story is further oriented by our sense of where we are coming from, and by our constant concern for our future direction. The continuous threads of the Self-narrative, and the attributes of its main character (ourselves as we conceive of ourselves) together form the key reference points of our subjective psychological reality; in turn, it shapes the lens through which we experience the external world. Our beliefs, our fantasies, our conscious thinking and our actions are, to a great extent, all reflections and realizations of our subjective reality and the Self in which it resides. Our subjective world is where our life experience is naturally the most immediate and palpable; it thereby provides us with a sense of coherent identity in an ever-changing world around us.
In serving both as our primary creator and communicator of our living story to both ourselves and to the outside world, our Self functions simultaneously through interconnected roles closely analogous to those of the theater world. These include that of creator/writer/editor of the story itself; that of the protagonist (who embodies primarily those characteristics we most like and value), and that of the actor who conveys our concept of our Self-protagonist to others through our personality. Additionally, and because we humans are inherently self-observing, our experience of Self also incorporates the role of a director/critic. Through this faculty we maintain within ourselves some degree of constant critical oversight of both the content of our Self-narrative and the characteristics and quality of its performance.
Throughout our lives we are tasked with managing aspects of the Self’s exposure to some form of audience. We continually experience observation from both outside our being – by an easily recognizable audience of others – while simultaneously, we are the focus of a somewhat more elusive internal observer: our inner director/critic. Regulation of the degree and quality of our exposure to such bilateral scrutiny is a continual challenge, charged by feelings instinctively connected to any sense of our vulnerability to potential threat. It is primarily through the apparatus of anxiety that we register such vulnerability at the emotional level: It operates like an internal alarm system.
Through the neuro-mechanisms of fear, anxiety cues us to the presence of any threat or danger – whether imminent, anticipated or imagined. The quality and intensity of the continuous, natural ebb and flow of anxiety within us can deeply impact how we (mainly unconsciously) select and disclose certain aspects of the whole of ourselves. Anxiety is thereby a major determinant of our personalities and of much of the behavior that makes our Self known in the world.
The Self in Social Interaction
In routine social engagement the management of our exposure to vulnerability takes place within a constant “relational balance,” by which each individual’s Self perceives and responds to the presence of an audience of others who are, likewise, Self-performers, and with whom we “share the stage.” Thereby, in a fluid give-and take, all participants in social interaction enact the role of the protagonist in their life narrative, while they alternately or simultaneously serve as the audience for other Self(s) present, who are similarly engaged.
Throughout, all parties to social interaction are psychologically programmed to continually make mainly automatic assessments as to the identity and disposition of the “audience” of others present. Key information is drawn from a multi-level exchange of information and energy among all participants. This occurs not only through verbal communication, but simultaneously, via a stream of “affective language” comprised of facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. From this complex, rich flow of information, all participating “Self-performers” continually evaluate how their Self-concept is being communicated to and received by others present – their audience. This sustains a natural equilibrium by way of reciprocal self-exposure and a shared experience of vulnerability, as each individual continually monitors and adjusts the degree and content of his/her self-disclosure according to the moment.
The Dilemma of the Designated Performer
When by circumstance or choice, an individual must act solely as a designated performer before persons solely designated as his/her audience, a radical shift occurs in the natural relational balance of the common social sphere: In place of the fluid dual roles of performer and audience shared among all participants, a situation of formal performance instead places a specific individual (individuals) in a unidirectional spotlight before an audience with whom there is generally little, if any, dynamic give and take. This minimizes the possibility for the designated performer to carry out the kind of ongoing “sounding out” of the observing individuals present, key to common social interaction. Moreover, it’s likely that an aggregate designated audience is too heterogeneous for any such assessment. The “designated performer” situation thereby suspends the performer’s access to information as to just who the present observers may be, and what may be their predispositions, current feelings and reactions to the presenting performer. Thereby, a designated performing-Self’s engagement with a designated audience of others imposes an overriding condition for success: that the performer relinquish any direct control over his/her experience of vulnerability under the unilateral scrutiny of others.
Inevitably, formal presentation simultaneously involves the additional challenge of the “second-tier audience,” present as the performer’s own internal critic/director. It tends to operate continually and unabated within any individual’s psyche, fueled by the anxiety linked to the unilateral exposure of the performing Self to “unknowable” others. The scrutiny of the internal critical faculty may increase vulnerability anxiety, and impact the performer not only directly from within, but also from without: via the distinctively human psychological process of projection. Through projection, whatever negative perspective may be generated by the performer’s own internal director/critic can readily become displaced and superimposed upon the “blank screens,” who are the unknown others of the more tangible external audience. A performer’s imaginative process of projection may thereby perceive in specific audience members, or in the group as a whole, a range of negative perceptions of the performance that may, in truth, originate and exist primarily within the performer him/herself.
Projection can thereby greatly exacerbate anxiety by creating a heightened sense of vulnerability to threat present on two fronts simultaneously: from both the external and internal audiences. Moreover, the continual, active scrutiny of the critic/director “internal audience,” tends to focus particularly on how a given performance conforms to idealized models and largely untenable standards held firmly within an individual’s self-concept and self-narrative. As in all situations in which living reality is measured against an ideal model, failure may loom as a constant and inevitable presence.
Performance anxiety (stage fright) can thereby be understood as a state of alarm arising from unilateral exposure of one’s Self to others; from a concomitant loss of control over the observations and reactions of others who are not likewise vulnerable; from intense scrutiny from within one’s Self, and from the imagined (projected) negative scrutiny of others. Among the great challenges that such multilateral stressors may present is the fact that the most basic, universal psychological response to feelings of threat signaled by performance anxiety – the option of “fight or flight” – is starkly unavailable to a designated performer. He/she may neither directly confront and engage an audience as an adversary, nor flee the stage! Thus, for many persons, even an occasional circumstance of formal performance or presentation, even one merely requiring straightforward presentation of simple, concrete material, can be a daunting and even overwhelming trial.
It is unsurprising that studies often demonstrate that for those unaccustomed, public speaking is among the most stressful of all life events. For those others for whom performing is a constant way of life, the challenges to maintaining a sense of competent relational control in the moment are likely to be less acute, though more protracted: Stress may ebb and flow within the trajectory of each individual’s career experience, according to each present circumstance; it is likely to be managed by a range of psychological faculties and coping skills that each performing artist acquires through experience.
With all these general tendencies noted, the unidirectional relationship of one’s Self to an audience of observing others is not universally fraught with stark emotional challenges, nor does it necessarily threaten any particular performer/artist’s competence. There are many performers who seem generally to welcome and take pleasure in the experience of being the primary focus of others’ attention, intense scrutiny – and anticipated applause.
The Promise And Benefits of Therapy In The Performer’s Life
For most performers the effort of presenting works of art with which they may be deeply identified, via rigorously circumscribed parts of themselves, is likely to exact some cumulative toll on the psyche. Over time, the depth and intensity of performing artists’ interpersonal roles on and off stage can produce a quite dense, even entangled experience of Self. This renders all the more difficult the challenge of discerning and sustaining a feeling of a vital, continuous core identity. Even those individuals with successful continuing life experience in performance may eventually need to undertake some reorganizing process, reestablish equilibrium, and revitalize their sense of being a continuous whole person.
It has been wisely, metaphorically observed that all performers must at some point leave the stage and retire to their dressing room; that in its confines they can remove makeup and costume, gradually reclaim their own narrative, and permit the essence of themselves to interact spontaneously with others. I conduct my work in a way safely insulated from the exposure, the constraints, and the demands of roles which a performing artist must enact on the designated stages of his/her life. I can thereby provide that metaphoric “dressing room” in which each performer may re-discover, reconstitute and cultivate an essential sense of being.
At certain junctures in their lives, performing artists may also wish to examine key issues surrounding the nature of their career and of the whole of the life trajectory that their ambition has set in motion. Questions may arise as to how each performer’s Self-concept operates within the framework of some broader identity, and of how a performing career fits within the larger context of his/her entire personal history and sense of future direction. To shed some light on this a performer may, for example, seek insight into how his/her performing activity was first set in motion, and to discern both the positive and negative elements that have motivated and sustained it throughout.
Furthermore, a performer’s career exists in a particularly challenging realm in which the quality of his/her achievement can be difficult to quantify in concrete terms, and is constantly vulnerable to wide fluctuations in external validation. Thus, a lifetime of energy may be invested in pursuing markers of success which may either prove elusive, or when achieved, seem ephemeral. The psychological challenges inherent to these dilemmas are distinct and sometimes, unremitting. Therefore, at those “tipping points” at which individuals answer the call to a deeper exploration of themselves, and look toward a goal of improving the quality of their fit within their own current and future lives, they can uniquely create in therapy a needed secure environment for careful, sustained attention which can yield long lasting positive changes.
My work with performing artists is founded upon models of relational analytic theory integrated to insight drawn from my personal history as a performer. In my view, the psychological challenges to a performer’s realization of works of art often mirror the dilemmas present in the relationship of that artist to him/herself, and to others throughout a broad range of life situations. As with all my clients, I recognize that the difficulties related to the work of performing artists that are presented in therapy are far from generic: They are present in each individual’s life with very specific qualities of complexity and intensity – as they also reflect fundamental dilemmas of our universal human experience.