Expressing Yourself

Help me stop wanting to kill myself after a bad show

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It’s nice to write a blog every once in a while when you don’t have all the answers.

This time, I’m going to you for answers, because one thing I’ve learned over the years is if I’m struggling with something, there are other people out there who have struggled with it, too. And if I’m willing to ask for help, I have found people are usually willing to share their experience, strength and hope around how to overcome it.

So, here’s my issue (which, sadly, I’ve talked about before): I believe that my worth as a person is directly tied into how I perform on stage. If a do what I determine is a “good show” everything is fine and I am a worthy human being. But if I do what I determine is a “bad show,” I am a piece of shit and don’t deserve to live.

Yes, there are many things that are fucked up about this, and one of the biggest ones is that my perception of what is a “bad” or “good” show is broken. I can’t trust myself for an accurate read. As you can guess, this is an awful way to live, and takes all the joy out of doing improv for me.

Last Sunday, it got pretty bad for me, we did our Jimmy and Johnnie show at Second City. I’ve felt like I’ve been off my game for the last couple of shows and certainly not living up to the high standards I set for myself. On top of it, a lot of my students who I respect came to the show. And in my head, I assumed that after watching my performance, they were all thinking that not only does their teacher suck, but also “Why is he teaching the Art of Slow Comedy when he isn’t even doing it himself? He is so full of shit. Why should we listen to that chump?”

These were only a small sample of the negative voices in my head on my ride home. In fact, they got so loud that I was surprised I could focus enough on driving to get home safely. I was not being kind to myself.

The sad thing is I have been doing this to myself for years, ever since I first started improvising back when I was in my late teens. The whole joy part of improv is something that has never come to me naturally. It has always been more about myself worth.

After being in group therapy for years, I know why I think this way. I was one of five kids from a dysfunctional and addictive home. Both of my parents were emotionally unavailable and I was neglected. I competed with my other brothers and sisters for my parents’ love and attention, which really didn’t exist. One way I squeezed a tiny bit of attention out of the nearly empty tube of toothpaste was by being the funny one. No one in my family could keep up with my quick and sarcastic humor. Getting laughs for me equaled love.

I thought getting laughs from my Mom and Dad was getting real, unconditional love. It was not; it was fake. It was like using artificial sweeter in your coffee. It tricks your brain to think you are using real sugar.

I didn’t fully understand this when I first started out in improv, which is why I was threatened by people who I thought were funnier or more talented then I was. Now, it makes sense. It was all about my role in my family. In my head, there was not enough love and attention to go around, and if someone else was funnier than I was, it felt like I would lose what little was available.

So how that plays out in improv today is if I do I good show I feel I am loved, and if I do a bad show, I feel like I’m not loved, that I will be abandoned. I have made progress, though. It used to be more severe. Before, I felt I had to be the funniest person in the show to feel loved, and today I am much more comfortable with letting other people get laughs. So, I am not hopeless here.

But I would still like help. I am hoping as you read this that not only can you relate but you are also willing to share your secrets with me about how to overcome this in the comment section below. Because this is killing me. This takes all the fun out of performing. So, I am asking, please help me. I am all ears.

Looking for a new approach to your improv? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting May 23. The Early Bird Discount ends TODAY!

23 replies
  1. Rob
    Rob says:

    I interned at iO for a year and got to watch a year’s worth of TJ & Dave shows. Over time, I noticed that they were all top-notch and professional and worth watching BUT some were better than others. This was very presumptuous of me, but I once asked TJ: “Do you ever do a show that’s not up to your own standards, and if so, how do you handle it afterwards?” I’ll never forget his answer: “I don’t let myself get too high after a good show or too low after a bad show.” Reading between the lines, I took his answer to mean that he was forever doing what he did and wasn’t so much paying attention to how he felt about it at any given moment. Or something like that.

    Reply
  2. chris
    chris says:

    Hi Jimmy,

    I have read some studies showing that many people equate their career choice with their value. Since that has unhealthy repercussions, I just want to share my outlook. I look to another source for my validation, one that will not change and is unconditional. You have to find that source that you can get your validation from, something that is not based on your performance. For me, since parents, spouses, children, and especially audiences will let me down, I look to the spiritual source. I know that no matter how good or how bad I perform, I am loved by the one who created me.

    Reply
  3. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Since I have been perfroming, I noticed early on that I would start being critical even before the show would start. When I was even planning out workshops, I would say they will that is silly or stupid. I would constantly find myself of being critical. So I had to find a soulution, mind you I don’t always do this, but I try always do this.

    Before,
    I don’t get inside my head before a show or workshop.
    I talk positive and build myself up.
    I remind myself that just going on stage is brave. (meaning the opportunity, and the bravery aspect)

    After the show,
    I only allow myself a set amount of time to be critical of a show for a certain amount of time.
    I don’t let the show define me as a person. I’ve learned that I am giving to much power away. I have learned that I do not have this expectation for anyone else.
    I have learned that some time it hits, and sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless, I am still an improviser and Improv still impacts me and helps me be a better version of myself.

    Again this is not always, but I try to do these things every time.

    Reply
  4. Meg
    Meg says:

    Wow, Jimmy, this is fantastic. Thank you – I had a huge insight due to this post. I can say, the more present I can stay in the moment, the better. Easier said than done, because, you’ve just expended a LOT of mental and physical energy and the coming down part is sort of a wholistic process. Physical mental emotional FOR SURE as well as psychic / spiritual in a big way. EVERY THING is engaged – sort of a “All hands on deck”. Coming down from that is a process I think. And – don’t know why I’m guided to include this- my sister teaches on camera acting and suggests having something to do/somewhere to go after an audition. (How many times have I left an audition with the idea to “QUIT” screaming in my head) I’ve done this and it works wonders. How would it be to plan a gift/reward to yourself afterward? Something to celebrate a job well done? And some sort of ritual of letting it go? Also, those of us raised in goofy circumstances are prone to getting high from feeling low. It’s an norepinephrine addiction (adrenalin) addiction. We receive MASSIVE amounts of adrenalin from performing. I want to keep it coming, and when I continue to eat the shame of thinking I did a crummy job, I’m getting an adrenalin hit! Sometimes I think I want to continue feeling shitty about my performance/audition etc… to stay high? Love you brother. Thank you so much for this, it helped me a lot.

    Reply
  5. Pam Victor
    Pam Victor says:

    Jimmy, I talk a lot about quieting the voice of unhelpful judgment in my classes and in my essays because it’s such a universal experience for improvisers. In the interest of hopefully helping, you might find some little nuggets particularly in the three “nonjudgment in improv” essays on pamvictor.com

    The upshot is this: That critical voice in your head is a big liar. Those are beliefs, not facts.

    That inner critic will always be with us. The practice is in quieting it, and there are several techniques I’ve found useful to help with that. One is this: Next time you start hearing those lies, count to 17 out loud. (Yes, 17.) Then ask yourself, “What would be it be like not to listen to the voice of unhelpful judgment?” No need to even answer that question or follow the train of logic. I find just asking it to be helpful.

    After I have a “bad” show, I try to use this formula: I allow myself to listen to the “Itty Bitty Shitty Committee” in my head for exactly as long as the show or scene lasted. So if it was a 30 minute show, I’ll beat myself up for 30 minutes. AND THAT’S ALL. Then I ask myself, “What did I learn from that scene/show?” (There is no time limit to how long I allow myself to ponder that…but I really try very hard keep it do-able and constructive without slipping back into the shame spiral.)

    I do believe that it’s only a “bad” show if we don’t learn from it.

    And since I haven’t learned much from my “good” shows, are they really that good after all?

    Sending you abundant wishes for joy and ease ahead!

    With a hug,
    Pam

    Reply
  6. Russell Stern
    Russell Stern says:

    I have a lot of experience with this. One thing I have found, is when I think i have done badly, or am overly self critical, which is almost always, i find myself surprised that I get comments or reactions that are really positive and inspired. So I try to get an overview later, seeing that people are taking in a whole picture, beingness, or consciousness, and aren’t attuned to those thoughts I have about what I might have done better. Sometimes the things that I thought sucked the most, reached people on a deeper level. The very mistake I thought I made, I am congratulated for doing it wonderfully, the opposite of what I thought I did. I usually am shocked by this. So i have found that my self assessment comes from a smaller place than what my larger purpose, mission or spirit really intends.
    It usually doesnt stop me from my self crucification, but each time I try to give it over more, to a loving place inside, which can take time for me. Whatever way works for you to get a better view of the situation that comes from a self loving approach if possible. Yes, there are always lessons on how I can do better, but my ability to move forward from it in a positive way is an even bigger lesson for me.
    I have a long way to go to get better at this too.And i also find that the more that i can give this self judgement over to spirit, while the performance is going on, the better things go. Mistakes just flow into better things, and seem like they were meant to be.
    Ultimately, as you know and have taught us, you are sharing the truth of your beingness and heart, so even owning that this comes with my imperfection, is part of sharing this truth. So i keep going forward with it, more accepting that all of this is part of the process.
    Easy for me to say this, but still a painful process for me. And it can be harder in front of students and friends and family! We think we are supposed to be an example of perfection, impossible to fulfill! Even a greater example is to live the truth of what the whole experience is like and how to navigate that. I am sure you were a great example of that.
    As hard as it may be, I try real hard not to let on to others my own critique of my performance, which sometimes can devalue others uplifting experience and viewpoints and can steal away my own recognition that my performance had a special value that I didnt see initially. Its hard not to tell people I didnt do my best, but not doing so allows the situation to be seen more for what the value really was.

    Maybe this helps?

    Thanks for your teaching in a way that shows the sensitivity and humility that we need to be creators.

    Best,

    Russell

    Reply
  7. Laura Volk
    Laura Volk says:

    Hi Jimmy,
    I’m feeling with you on this one. My outlook is a little different. WHO WOULD YOU BE IF YOU WERE NOT INSECURE? That’s my advice to you. Explore this question as so much of your identity is based here. Clearly, you understand this about yourself and you have many insights into how this trait developed. If knowledge is power, you would have moved past this. So, the question is, would you cease to feel intact if your sense of self was one of wholeness and worth? Who would you be if you were basically an ok guy?f Perhaps that’s where the real work lies and the core from which real change will come. Sometimes we are too frightened to do what we most need and want to do. That is what it is to be human. But as we gain wisdom, we we can gain courage and move forward through the change we know we truly want. And then….the strength to be our best self. It is actually easier to agonize than to accept change. 🙂

    Reply
  8. Rick B
    Rick B says:

    First off, Jimmy, reading that even you have these feelings at times makes me feel better about myself… that when I think that I’m not as quick or as clever in a scene or when I realize that I just broke a cardinal rule, that even then I shouldn’t give up Improv. It makes me humble to give myself permission to stumble or mess up at times. I learned from you (both as a teacher and in your blogs) that the real strength is that I’m willing to put myself out there in the first place.

    I’ve done Improv performances for only about a year. So who am I to offer my thoughts to Jimmy Carrane. But then that’s putting myself down. I guess we all have something to offer to each other.

    So what do I do as a 1st year performer to not equate one performance with my self-worth?

    1) I remind myself that I do something that few other people have the guts to do. I’d like to think that I might get even more respect from others for being open and taking risks and putting myself out there (on stage or in what I write)… and that that might actually be even more valuable than how funny I am.

    2) I remind myself that when I think I mess up (others may disagree), it’s a learning experience for me to do better the next time.

    3) I take note of the messages I’m telling myself in my head and then try to let them go rather than obsess on them.

    4) I try to remember some things that I did in a performance that worked, that felt good so that I put it into better perspective, so that I don’t evaluate the whole night based on what I experience as my worst moments.

    5) Most of all, I think about the messages that you told me in your classes. And I remind myself “If even the best most experienced Improvisers can mess up once in a while, then I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.”

    My bottom line take on this blog of yours: Your human-ness and openness is far more valuable to me any one performance.

    And you remind me that sometimes we’re on… and sometimes we’re not at our best. And that’s life in Improv. I’m working on doing the self-talk to accept that notion. Learned it from you.. in your class “The Art of Slow Comedy.”

    Reply
  9. Tom
    Tom says:

    Hey, Jimmy-

    First of all, I love you, and I really don’t give a damn about how “good” or “bad” you were in an improv show. FWIW, I think you’re funny, but more than that, you are an earnest, honest, caring, loving, giving human being and it’s a privilege to call you my friend.

    Another friend of mine recently shared a centering exercise… a great thing for me when I’m in my head. It’s a quick check-in that helps me get out of my head and become aware of the world that exists outside of me. It’s a “5-4-3-2-1” exercise.

    5: Right now, notice five things you are seeing
    4: Right now, notice four things you are hearing
    3: Right now, notice three things you are physically feeling
    2: Right now, notice two things that you smell
    1: Right now, notice one thing that you taste

    Try it! This can be repeated throughout the day. I’ve found it to be useful, to help me get out of my head and back into the “right here, right now.”

    Reply
  10. Nathan Ebenroth
    Nathan Ebenroth says:

    There’s an open house at the Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center on Sunday, May 27th from 12-4pm. Come and check it out! Vipassana will help you let go of a lot from the past, stay more in the present moment, and be more peaceful and filled with joy regardless of what comes your way. http://www.dhamma.pakasa.org

    Reply
  11. LC Wilks
    LC Wilks says:

    Jimmy,
    The best improv performances that I watch are authentic in the moment, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always believable. Your performance didn’t end at the curtain call. Your authentic presentation of yourself carried forward and spilled onto the blog page: “I would love to be loved. I am confused as to how to receive love and give it to myself.” The human condition in a nutshell. Keep playing that scene, on and off stage. Bravo from the guy sitting in the third row!

    Reply
  12. Verne
    Verne says:

    Hi, Jimmy;
    I performed last year at a homecoming event. Though my practice and rehearsals felt phenomenal my performance felt like crap. I still beat myself up, and feel shame over what I did that felt forced, hyper-pressured and too loud. I am still seeking ways to let loose of my self-hatred, and I guess right now it seems like I would love to be reassured that I will have LOTS of opportunities in my future to perform again: I would LOVE to be able to remember this feeling that could reassure myself that what I sincerely bring is FAR better than what I think I have to force into a space and time.
    Love you!

    Reply
  13. joseph bennett
    joseph bennett says:

    Wow. So much wonderful wisdom and generosity in these responses!

    In my humble opinion, I believe that much of your suffering (and a subsequent solution) is right here in your words: “I believe that my worth as a person is directly tied into how I perform on stage.” Operative word being “believe” So what if you could change your belief? How would that serve you? I teach my clients that suffering only happens in that space just above our eyebrows, aka our mind. Thats where we create “stories” about shoulda/woulda/coulda.

    You might enjoy the free ebook that I cowrote with my husband, called “Stop the Bullshit You’ve Been Telling Your Self” I hope it helps, and I’m sending you much, much love!

    Reply
  14. Randy Craig
    Randy Craig says:

    Jimmy, Feel free to call me when this happens to you. I can SO relate to your situation for most of the same reasons. I have been having a real performance crisis this past year because of what I believe is this hijacked burden on my talent to give me self worth. About a year or so ago, I was thrilled to get a few lines on The Chicago Fire but was a nervous wreck on set the entire day; earnestly hoping I would get discovered or at least liked by someone in the biz. And just last year I decided that, after 30 years of doing improv and never doing whole iO thing, I would sign up & breeze right through. I thought I killed levels 1-3, though I was terrified each day I showed up for class. Half way through Level 4, I discovered my classmates started a new FB group for that level to which I wasn’t invited. I was so devastated that I dropped out. My true friends tell me I am very good at improv and acting and I believe I am good at it too. I love performing but I drive myself right into a panic with how much I thrive on praise. When people aren’t raving about me, I am confronted with my feelings worthlessness. In high stakes situations, like auditions or with famous people or potential connections I cannot hide my shame and it takes over the room like a rotten fart. And of course, because my mind is fully absorbed in my acceptability, I lose focus and I fail. I have been in therapy half of my adult life. I wonder if I may ever be cured. It’s a life of constant work, learning, connecting with others and renewal. It’s a process, I think. And life is just plain difficult – period – for everybody, for different reasons and at different times. But, amazingly, and Ironically, the silver lining in all this is the fact that my hypersensitivity actually makes me a better actor! I strain to know what’s going on with the other person. I can easily become emotionally invested in make-believe situations. I am terribly vulnerable which fuels my reality on stage. Adjusting to my bizzare childhood skewed my “understanding muscles” in such a way that I effortlessly make things up and can be very creative. It’s kind of like, the Karate Kid: the young boy who was pissed because he had to do all that wax-on-wax-off-paint-the-fence bull$#!t and had no idea he was developing special strengths. My latest strategy is to focus on the adult part of my personality and try be like a good dad or a good coach to the scared little boy inside me. He needs me to be there for him. He needs me to accept him as he is and guide him. I’m the adult and I can find other big people to get help. I have many people who really love and support me. Not to mention that the Creator of the entire universe thought I was worth it so much that He sacrificed Himself for me for all my imperfections so I wouldn’t have to worry about being good enough to be a part of His eternal family.

    Reply
  15. Ahadi White
    Ahadi White says:

    Hi Jimmy, I enjoyed the show, including YOUR performance. Wasn’t thinking all those things you accused us/me of. Looks like people are giving you good and loving advice. It will be interesting to hear about what you are able/willing to take in. HUGS!

    Reply
  16. Tony Rossi
    Tony Rossi says:

    It took me a LONG time to recognize that “I am enough, regardless of what my resume says.” Something that’s helped me is talking with other artists and hearing that I’m not alone. There’s something empowering in talking to others and learning that our unique quirks really aren’t so unique.

    Looking at all the comments – I see that we are SO not alone! I hope everyone continues to share and discuss. I can’t emphasize how important it is!

    Reply
  17. David Ljung Madison Stellar
    David Ljung Madison Stellar says:

    It’s great how, when we become good at something, we can take the fundamentals for granted.

    The problem with that is that when the fundamentals start to slip, we don’t always notice.

    Failure is a wonderful thing. And when you do improv long enough, you realize that is a serious and true claim – not just something we tell beginners so they can relax. Failure is a gift. It creates new opportunities, it teaches us, it gives us new perspectives.

    So I would ask you to consider this.

    Imagine you have a new student, and they are doing well, but really choking on Three Things. They can’t answer, they stumble, they just get stuck. You talk to them about it, and they say that they just get stuck listening to the voice in their head listening to the voices saying “You don’t have anything good to say, you’re failing, you’re not going to have an answer”

    And then they start to “fail” and feel bad and make it worse.

    What would you tell that student? What would you tell them about the self-critical voice of failure?

    Because that’s what you need to be able to tell yourself right now.

    That voice is a lie. Improv is about play and joy, and it has nothing to do with that voice. It’s about letting ourselves go from that voice and discovering the incredible world that opens up.

    You have that on stage.

    So now you just need to discover that off-stage. 🙂

    Reply
  18. John R
    John R says:

    Jimmy,
    I think I learned this from you. The goal is not to be funny but to do a careful, exploration of what it is to be that character listening and interacting with those other characters on stage. Funny is a collateral benefit.

    Reply
  19. Mila
    Mila says:

    Great idea for a blog post. Tips I use to reframe:
    1) When you improvise, you are trusting yourself. Don’t blame You for doing what You thought was right in the moment, because, similar to a small child, if chided for trying and not succeeding, it will quiet the You that puts yourself out there to be open and willing in the moment.

    2) Knowing that you had a crappy show, and feeling like you disappointed others, is a version of self-awareness. Not the healthiest version if you’re beating yourself up far too much, but it does indicate that you KNOW you a) didn’t do as well you could have, b) provided less support for others than ideal, and c) put out a show that others might view as mediocre. This is a major LIFE gift – so many people lack self-awareness and are unable to take responsibility or even recognize when they have behaved poorly or are putting others at an inconvenience. Thank this part of your personality for generally making you a better person and friend.

    3) I personally prefer “bumpy” shows. It is exciting. “Perfect” improv (quick, witty, amazing acting, all comes together) is YAWN. I like to watch people make really risky choices, or make mistakes, and see them wiggle their way out, or not. It reminds me of how human we are, and is usually more artistic to me than those “amazing” shows people rave about.

    Reply

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