I recall the first time I was asked to perform in front of people, my stomach dropped as the words, “I guess I could,” slowly fell from my mouth. That night, I regretted not coming up with some excuse… doctor’s appointment, family vacation, anything! The thought of making things up on the spot while trying to be entertaining was terrifying and far from the safe nest of comfort I had created for myself at that time. Two weeks later, I very reluctantly dragged myself through the theatre doors, knowing that if I didn’t show up, I would be letting my peers down. Looking from behind the curtains, I could see the seats begin to fill. Immediately, my head began to race with thoughts of what to say or how to plan my characters; I was grasping for any anchors of familiarity. BUT… being an improv show, the whole point was not to plan or memorize! The whole point is spontaneous creation, stepping into the unknown, listening intently while building on others’ ideas.
So in all my angst, how did the show go? Much better than I thought. The mental images of getting booed off stage were just a part of my imagination. With improv (and with most other things in life), the hardest part can just be showing up.
That was 6 years ago, and I still perform, and now teach, improv. Why did I keep going? The act of being completely spontaneous and vulnerable through improv brought a high level of awareness to fears that were holding me back. Improv was shining a light on the limiting beliefs I held about myself – that “I’m not talented enough” to do this. The limiting beliefs we have about ourselves are often similar… they often start with the words, “I don’t, I can’t, I’m not, I couldn’t…” These are often the excuses we make to limit ourselves from what we could achieve. For example, I am still amazed that the majority of people I talk to say, “improv? I could never do that.” When this happens, I can’t help but wonder where else in their lives they are saying the same thing. A new leadership role? Speaking in front of a large group of people? Running a half marathon? Writing a book? The truth behind all of these comments is that we are capable of surprising ourselves with what we can do, and in all of our anxiety and nervousness, we just need to learn to get out of our own way.
Below are 2 things that I rely on when I sense myself getting in my own way, or hear my limiting beliefs start to chatter. The caveat is that both require a willingness to fail. When I first started taking improv workshops, I would force myself to jump on stage before I had any idea of was to come. Taking the risk to do something in spite of those fears requires us to give ourselves permission to fail. Over time and with deliberate practice, our inner critics will become less powerful and less controlling.
- Go for your obvious. Go with what’s there and true for you, because what’s obvious to you can be creative to everyone else and vice versa. We have a tendency to think we’re not enough – funny enough, smart enough, confident enough, creative enough, etc… For this reason, we often filter out our initial responses for fear of being judged. But it’s that initial, intuitive response that allows anyone – and I mean anyone – to get up on stage with nothing but their own thoughts and ideas, and put on a great show. When we go with our intuitive response, we tap into the part of our brain that deals with our creative and subconscious – and research shows that our intuition can provide the best answer long before our rational brain gets there.
- +1 or -1. At any given moment, you can step forward into growth (+1) or backwards into perceived safety (-1). We always have that choice. Making a +1 step is about doing something even if it feels threatening, and testing a limiting belief. More often than not, the risk of doing something uncomfortable is greater in our minds than in reality. If we let enough -1’s trickle into our day, we can begin to feel stagnant and powerless. Alternatively, add enough +1’s, and we’ll feel our inner confidence and energy grow. Aggregate and compound those micro-moments into weeks, months, years? You’ll find your self-limiting beliefs begin to loosen their grip.
I say this knowing how challenging it is. It’s hard to get out of our own way and overcome years of conditioning and ingrained beliefs. Yet my firm belief is that the challenge is worth it. As author Evelyn Waugh wrote, “when we argue for our limitations, we get to keep them.” For me, I used to be the kid that wouldn’t speak up in class, worried to raise his hand and believing that what he had to say wasn’t smart enough. When I get on stage, I can still feel that way… but now, that feeling doesn’t stop me from performing. Instead, it’s come to be the source of my creativity and my ability to adapt.