I need your help with my shame

As you know, one of my favorite topics to talk about is shame, especially how it affects improvising and performing.

Nobody has done more research on the topic or is filled with more of it than I am. That make me an expert on the subject.

In all seriousness, it is killing me. Shame is the number one leading cause of death to artists.

If you don’t know what shame is, you certainly know what it feels like. It’s the feeling of embarrassment when you bomb in a show in front of your co-workers that you invited, and the next morning, you feel so humiliated you call in sick.

Shame is as powerful as drugs and alcohol. It’s a mood altering substance.

For years, I thought for years the best way to deal with shame was to avoid situations where it may come up. But that is impossible in the arts.

In improv you often hear, “There are no mistakes.” I’ve found that people aren’t really afraid of making mistakes; they’re afraid of the feelings that come from thinking they made a mistake, and 90 percent of the time, that feeling is shame.

I want to discuss three types of shame that I continue to suffer from, in the hope that you can identify with me and share with me some of the ways you have overcome them.

  1. Performance shame
    This is the most common type of shame for improvisers. You do a show and it doesn’t go well so you feel terrible. You may have said something during the show you wish you could take back. You may have made a move that nobody on your team picked up. You took a risk and did a new character and it bombed.
    Then you feel stupid and embarrassed in front of a paying audience.After the show, you beat yourself up. When you get home, you keep going over and over in your head what you “should” have done differently.That night you get no sleep. You convince yourself your improv career is over. When you wake up, you feel like you want to die. But you can’t, because your two-year-old daughter comes into your bedroom to wake you up and wants to have breakfast. (A true story)

    I am pretty sure anyone reading this blog is pretty familiar with this kind of shame. It’s the common variety.

  2. The Buzz Kill
    The second type of shame is more tricky — it’s called The Buzz Kill. It is more sneaky and subtle and leaves no fingerprints.With this type of shame, you actually have a great show, class or rehearsal and you have such good time and really enjoy yourself that you find something wrong about your life or about the show to ruin it.Most of the time, the thing you start to obsess about has nothing to do with the show (since it went well). Maybe you got charged a $10 service fee from you bank for an overdraft, or someone sent you a snarky e-mail, and one of these things makes you feel shame.

    I can take little stuff like that to feel shame about. Why do I do that? Because I have hard time taking in good.

    I know it sounds crazy. That’s because I am pretty crazy.

    And yes, it looks, sounds and tastes like self-sabotage, but once you bite into the jelly doughnut, it’s not filled with strawberry filling, it’s filled with shame.

    I can’t tell you how many times I have had incredible shows and leave the theater feeling elated, walking on air with peace in my heart. I am one with the world and my place in it. Then 30 minutes later, on my drive home from the theater, I find the tiniest little thing to kill the joy. By the time I am walk through the front door I feel like a loser. This 100 percent self-induced.

  1. Real-Time Stage Shame
    The third type of shame is the deadliest shame of all. And this is where I need your help. It’s called Real-Time Stage Shame.Unlike performance shame, it does not wait until after the show to try to kill you. It does it while you are on stage performing in real time.When this happens, everything stops. You go into a black hole. Your brain shuts down and your mouth goes dry. Words can’t be formed into sentences. You pray an anvil drops from the sky to puts you out of your pain.

    Sometimes you bounce back. Most of the time you don’t.

    Not only has this happened to me, I have seen it with my students in classes and workshops. God help us all.

    How to Get Over Shame
    There has to be a cure. Or at least some tools to get our emotional car unstuck from the mud.

    This is where you come in. If you have experience with any of these types of shame and you have any tips or tricks to get out of them, please share them in the comments portion below and we will run them in an upcoming blog. Think of all the people you can help, including me.

Looking to take your improv performances from good to great? Sign up for Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 class, starting Sept. 5. Sign up by Aug. 22 to save $30! 

16 replies
  1. Verne
    Verne says:

    Once, up on stage telling a story about my life I lost my orientation completely and only felt stuck, blank. What shocked me was how I found a trust in the audience that allowed me to talk about how my truly most frightening terror was coming true: I was losing my mind! Once I realized the deep truth of this, and admitted it I found I could put this fear into the context of my story. Perhaps the only time in my life i’ve been able to recover from performance-shame-shock; but it was the best feeling!!

  2. Russell Stern
    Russell Stern says:

    With real time stage shame, use it, let it work for you. See whatever is happening as perfect for the moment. If you buy it, they will buy it. It will probably be the most brilliant moment.
    This will also help with performance shame, because if you know you went with it in the moment, and trusted that, you can also trust afterwards that your performance was what was best for that moment. This is sometimes different from what our mind thinks is a good performance. But as you know, the best performances come from a place of flow beyond the mind. Even if you think you the performance was what you hoped it would be, the surprise often is that it was just right for that audience in that performance. They probably loved it!

    • Amy Burge
      Amy Burge says:

      Perfect. We are not going for the funny–we are connecting with honest, raw emotion. That is such an amazing gift to give an audience.

  3. Joseph bennett
    Joseph bennett says:

    Yes! And I’ve experienced the performance and real time stage shame (all too recently) and will likely bite into the proverbial jelly donut soon enough. And my advice? It starts with an H, ends with an R and has U in the middle. Laughter truly is the best medicine… try to use humour to heal, Jimmy. It really, really, really works!

  4. Eva
    Eva says:

    Another thing that helps me: An improv teacher told me that I shouldn’t beat myself up over my performance. However, if I can’t help it and do it anyway, I’m allowed to beat myself up for the amount of time the people who watched me had to “suffer” from my performance, not any longer than that. So if I wreck a 3 minute sceene, I have to stop beating myself up over it after 3 minutes…

  5. Amy Burge
    Amy Burge says:

    Jimmy, you know the answer. The shame you keep feeling isn’t about that specific moment that triggered the shame, but something much older and deeper. So let yourself feel those emotions that come up. Find a safe place to dog deeper and process it. Journal? Therapy group? Private therapy?
    And know that this isn’t a one time thing. It will continue to come up, but each time it will be easier to process.
    As for on stage, you know the answer. You are an amazing teacher. Remember that time in your class when we were doing the car scene and I had “made a scene at a funeral”? It was such an emotional roller coaster for me, and so vulnerable, and at any point if I had got in my head and judged myself, it would have taken away the magic that was happening. And you — YOU — created
    a safe place for me to live in the shame and find the joy, to just go through it, process it and come out the other side. That is a gift that I will always cherish, and I wish you could create that safe space for yourself, because you deserve it.

  6. Marijke
    Marijke says:

    Yes. Read and/or listen to Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability. Super awesome and interesting and has tools for helping to deal with the shame. Also, shame filled or not, you are an awesome person Jimmy.

  7. Betzi hekman
    Betzi hekman says:

    Hello! Here are my thoughts on the 3 types of shame. Post Show Shame: This stinks & I’ve definitely felt it but I get over it much quicker when I ask myself “What can I learn from this?” Did I miss an edit? A gift? Did I steam roll someone? Did I warm-up per usual? Get a good night sleep? Did I eat enough prior to a show? 2. Post Great Show Slump. Also stinks. I think 2 things are in play- 1. You had a glorious show & now the rest of your life seems to pale in comparison. 2. You’ve hit your upper limit (Read Gay Hendricks The Big Leap to find out your particular brand). Long story short, our brains have just become used to feeling good vs. Scared/watchful and sometimes feeling too good feels unsafe so we find ways to bring ourselves down. 3. During show shame- Just felt this recently-and this is probably the worst! I notice what’s happening & then decided to make a really strong choice asap. Usually emotionally but most often I’ll yin/yang it ( Thanks Holly from the Reckoning). I’ll choose to ignore content for a moment & just read the visuals stage pictures in play and decided to do the exact opposite. Essentially, turn off my ears and turn on my eyes. Good Luck!

  8. Juanjo Domínguez
    Juanjo Domínguez says:

    I feel too many times the third kind of shame. To stop it I use what I call a ‘superhearing’, this is, I try to stop the critic inside myself (that is always the source of shame) and look into the eyes of my parter and just hear what he or she is saying. Next, I just hear myself and express what I’m feeling. I know it is very generic, but it usually works. Don’t panic and don’t try to be-funny/interesting/make-the-action-advance/whatever-you-want-to-put-here and trust your partner and trust not much yourself, but your feelings, expressing them without fear. If the shame appears during a solo, just look at the audience and be silent for a few seconds, and do the same, but with someone in the audience. You don’t need to speak to him/her, just use it as an anchor.

  9. James
    James says:

    Interesting topic. I guess the first step is being able to talk about it, which you have all seemed to master. I have yet to get there.

  10. Brian
    Brian says:

    I’m a newer improviser (~1 years of classes) and in my 40’s. I’m also a big introvert with a long history of struggling with social anxiety disorder, a condition that brings with it a lot of shame that I’ve honestly grown REALLY tired of. I also have a long personal history of being in therapy. So of course, what did I decide to do last year – walk straight into a massive bonfire wearing a wool coat doused in gasoline – start taking improv classes at a major urban theater. I don’t know why I do this – it feels masochistic most times and I think I spend more time thinking of quitting improv then I do doing it. But I keep doing it. Honestly, after a year of doing improv classes and a small smattering of performances, the least difficult part of improv is the technique/theory/curriculum. The most difficult part of it is the mental game, the mindset, the confidence, being comfortable failing in front of others, being able to let go, being able to embrace what you did without shame. I did a jam last night and HATED my choice. The scene felt like it lasted FOREVER. Other actors walked off stage leaving me alone for about 10 seconds. Did people enjoy the scene? Possibly. Did I enjoy it? Hell no. All of this to say…this shame stuff is hard, probably the most difficult part of improv, and I’m not sure if it will become manageable enough for me personally to keep me doing it. I hope it gets better and fortunately I’m stubborn enough and have a big enough guilty conscious that I’d feel way worse quitting this thing I started, then enduring the shame.

  11. AM
    AM says:

    I think shame is a particular kind of fear: the fear of being cast out from a group. I’m not sure how to address it, but thinking of it that way has helped some. One thing I’ve been trying is reminding myself of, and focusing on, the bonds I do have with individual people. Even if I’m not sure those bonds are 100% secure, just reminding myself that I am tethered to this person and that person does something to the fundamental insecurity inside me.

  12. Jake
    Jake says:

    After taking improv classes for a while, I came to an epiphany that, if you are using improv as a way of feeling better about yourself, or validating yourself, or making you believe you are good at something, or only wanting to be in front of an audience so that you can hear their applause for you….it’s going to be a very rough ride. Improv can be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. You really need to have a fairly strong foundation base of strong self esteem and worth in order to become a great improv player. Otherwise, it becomes very easy to attach your sense of self worth to your performance, which in improv with it’s high rate of failure/imperfection, makes it a dangerous and bloody mine field. In my short time doing this, I feel that the strongest performers are not those without fear, but those who have freed themselves from connecting their sense of self to the success or failure of their performance. Those that realize that I’ll be the same person after the performance that I was before – regardless of whether I succeed for not. These performers can truly be present in the moment as they have nothing to fear afterward once the scene is done.

  13. Mary
    Mary says:

    Dear Jimmy,

    Thank you for your openness about experiencing shame. Even though the sense of self-blame is a terrible burden for you now, it probably once had survival value.

    A child growing up in a frightening and dysfunctional home can say to themselves some form of, “I’m bad. I must have caused this problem. If only I’d acted differently, mother or father wouldn’t hurt me or treat me so badly.” This is self-protective because it explains the problem and offers the child a solution, to just be good and everything will be fine.

    But would such thinking be true? Probably not. A child can’t fix his father’s anger that he’s unemployed. A child can’t fix his parents’ addiction to alcohol. Children depend on their parents for love and support, and when parents can’t give that, children aren’t responsible.

    I think maybe your shame once protected you, even though today it’s a burden. I’m wondering if some part of you unconsciously still believes everything will be better, if you only see how bad you are.

    The best help I can recommend is Coherence Therapy, because it quickly enables therapy clients to see the unspoken, unconscious emotional truths making it necessary to have a symptom, and to question the validity of these.

    Coherence Therapy has successfully treated shame. I’ll paste in a link here, but in case it doesn’t show up, please go to

    Also, I’ve had great success for many issues with energy meridian tapping. Please see:
    The EFT Basic Recipe by Founder Gary Craig – YouTube

    Thanks again for your sharing your feelings, and thanks for a terrific website. I like your blog a lot.

    Warm regards and good luck to you!

  14. E
    E says:

    There is a fourth kind of shame – not that we needed the piling on… the shame that comes the morning after a show that felt wonderful, where you and your scene partner were connected in warm, intimate ways,where you could have sworn you were reading each other’s mind, and where the feedback from the audience was truly next level praise… and your director/coach tells you that everything you did and said was not what the scene/genre/plot/relationship called for. That’s a vomit inducing, shame-filled gut punch twice, because you’ve just been told you not only did a shitty job, but your feelings of having really flown on angel wings were just wrong. The world starts spinning and the vortex of crazy shame doesn’t let go.


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