07 Feb 2014

The Fear Factor and My Ghostly Voices

0 Comment

The Scene: Improv Class with the legendary Viola Spolin.

“Alright.” she says. “Who wants to go next?”
I hesitate.

The ‘What if…?’ dialogue:

“What if I can’t do it?” That’s where it starts for me. I get afraid.fearful

“Afraid of what?”

“Not being able to do it? Then people will laugh at me?”

“Hey! I’m in an Improv class, isn’t that what I want?” the voice in my head is having a discussion with another voice in my head.

“You want them to laugh at your jokes, not be the joke.” The debate in my mind continues.

“No, I want to be as good as everyone else. Better!”

“Don’t go first.” I tell myself. “Let’s see what somebody else does.”

“Why? So I can be like them? That’s not good.” I counter. “I’m never going to find out what I can do copying someone else.” The Angel on one shoulder is arguing with the Devil on my other shoulder.

“But what if I can’t do it? I’ll be humiliated. Found out.”

“Found out what?”

“That I can’t do it.” I whine.

“So what?” I argue.

“Let me just watch.” I tell myself. “I need to see how they do it.”

I watch. I see that it’s not so hard. Or I see that it is hard. No one is getting it. if it is hard I watch to see how they fail and make sure I don’t do that. I let everyone else take the heat.

“Coward!” Another voice in my head shouts.

“I knew you couldn’t do it. Who are you kidding?” yet another voice chimes in. “Don’t bother, it’s not worth it.” “Give up before you make a fool of yourself.” Now it’s not just the Angel and the Devil – it’s my whole family!

Viola called this ‘Ghostly Voices’. It’s a form of being in your head. I knew all that. I’d read the book. But this is what kept me from moving forward in Viola’s Improv class. Risking failure; fear of the consequences – Humiliation. That was the state I constantly found myself in that first year. It was my conditioning.

We all have fear. We are conditioned to respond to it. From the time you do something wrong as a child you are scolded by your parents. It’s awful to incur the displeasure of your teacher, preist, nun or rabbi, or whatever authority figure you can name. They influenced you when you didn’t do what they wanted you to do. We are conditioned practically from birth to conform to other’s expectations. And the only way to breakthrough that conditioning is to risk it. Discover that you can survive it. Or is it?

I read the book “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” Much is written on the subject and there’s a lot of advice on how to counteract fear. Be happy to Fail! Fail and Fail often! Risk it! Take a chance! Be brave. Seeking the reward of overcoming fear is indeed a great feeling. We feel accomplished and exhilarated when we overcome fear.

When I was in Viola’s class, for the first year that was my focus entirely – OVERCOMING FEAR.

“It’s your ghostly voices! You’re in your head. Stop it!” she would holler. “The focus of the game is… and she’d state the focus and the rules. During the game she’d coach. “See your fellow player!” or “Use your where. Let the where support you!” or “More! More! Heighten what’s going on!” or “No urgency! We have all the time in the world.” never once saying a judgmental thing. (I was already doing that on my own thank you).

After playing she would ask “Were you able to accomplish the focus?”

“Class, did he (they) accomplish the focus?”

“No.” they would often say.

“No you didn’t. Alright. Next!”

Sometimes I’d defend myself. “I was trying to get…”

“I DON’T CARE!” She would holler. “There’s always a reason. Next!”

Sometimes if the answer was “Yes I did achieve the focus.” I would feel fantastic.

After a successful game, Viola would ask “Did he (they) benefit from the evaluation of the first team? Yes or no?”

“Yes.” they would say.

“Yes. You did achieve the focus. Alright, next!”

I never heard Viola once say, “That was good” or “you were wonderful.” “Nice work.” She also never said “That was terrible!” “Awful.” Or any other judgmental comment. Sometimes though she would yell at me “What we’re you DOING!?” and I’d feel embarrassed and try to explain what I was trying to do. “Never mind, there’s always a reason.” She would preempt. And then it was on to the next game.

I always felt terrible if I didn’t succeed. During evaluation sometimes I just couldn’t answer. I would shrug. Oh, it was excruciating at times. Other times if I had done it, I would feel great. But that was me. It was not what Viola was interested in. Viola was not interested in me, per se. She was after the game and getting me to play.


You counteract fear by not judging, just noticing without comment.

It took a while to feel the effect of not being judged. I was constantly judging myself. Viola let me have my own fear and never addressed it directly. She was canny.

My fear showed up as urgency, timidity and often imitation as I tried to do it the way I thought she wanted. Or the way another team or player would do it.

Once I accepted that whatever I did either worked or it didn’t and stopped trying to defend myself, I began to have fun. Every game was a gas. Whether I could do it or not was no longer the issue. I just started focusing on the focus of the game rather than my fear. This only happened because Viola would scrupulously avoid any judgmental words, good or bad as we played. Eventually I got used to hearing “did he do it or was he in his head?” When I stopped feeling bad about being in my head I accepted that it was just what was going on at the time and that allowed me to stay out of my head. I stopped judging myself.

Soon the ghostly voices stopped. They were replaced with great anticipation. I focused on the game rather than on myself. Call it ego, The Approval/Disapproval Syndrome, Fear of Failure or whatever else you like, It’s what stopped me from playing. My focus was always fear and trying to overcome it. When it was not addressed in class, in time, my fear simply dissolved. Class was not about Success and Failure it was about objectivity verses subjectivity.

It was all about fun and celebration. That’s when I discovered true Improvisation.

“Those who are raised in fear are themselves slaves to that passion.” – Bertrand Russell (I think) or it could have been Krishnamurti. Anyhow that’s the point.