Improv and Shame

As an improv teacher I am an expert in shame. Shame is the number one oppressor of our creativity and by the second class of our level 1 program; I know who has shame issues, what they come from and how to stress them.

Shame is what holds us back in life. To understand shame, compare it to guilt. Guilt is the emotion of “I did something bad.” Shame is the emotion of “I am a bad person” and the difference is profound. If a child acts out and the parent says “hitting your brother is bad” the child learns to not hit his brother. If the child acts out and the parent says “bad child” the behavior stops but an invisible emotional wound embeds itself in the child’s lowered self-esteem. After a while, the child believes that he is himself bad, inadequate, unworthy.

For those of us without the support and tools to combat shame, we seek external outlets to hold the shame in our place. Often the parent who shames the child is using the child as a sink for her own shame. Imagine a child throwing a temper tantrum in a supermarket. The whole store glares at the mother as if to say “you’re a bad mom.” Unable to deal with the shame, the mother deflects it to the child: “you’re a bad child! You’re rotten!”

And thus shame is an epidemic in our society – an unending cycle spiraling out of control. However, there is hope. Just because someone shames you does not mean you have to accept the shame. Accepting the shame is a personal choice, reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

And improv is the single greatest way to develop the tools and support to combat shame. Improv by its nature puts us in stressful and uncertain positions. We have to express emotions that make us uncomfortable, be put in positions that recall our traumas and deal with the sexual charge that inevitably pulsates through the class. I lived a particularly shamed childhood and it has granted me the gift of seeing shame in others, the source of my talent as teacher and coach. Again and again I have seen people transform before our eyes week after week.

Improv is an art – healing wounds is a side-effect. Progressing in the art processes our shame while providing a community to support us and instill positive values after the shame evaporates. This is the first in a series of posts about shame. Next we discuss the relationship between shame and narcissism – how they are two sides of the same wound. Join our mailing list to stay updated.

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