Therapy and Improv

Growing up I used to do a fair old bit of acting. I joined the Northern Kids Theatre Company in my teen years and even did an audition for Children’s Ward (big time league, right there). Sadly, Jane ‘Corrie’ Danson got the main part and my acting career was relegated to that of a more supportive nature (walking past a child faking an asthma attack).

Part of the reason I never pursued the footlights is because I am not a natural extrovert. Whilst I love singing, dancing and all things comedy I don’t really like being watched.

Whilst training to be a therapist, like many others, I shuddered at the idea of observational skills development class. All those beady eyes with the potential to judge. I nursed myself through this awkward period knowing that real-life therapy situations don’t involve having an audience grade you and put it all down to newbie nerves.

However thousands of flying hours later I still have the same mild dissociative feelings before I meet with a client even if we have a well-established long-term relationship. It quickly vanishes once we get into the soup but breathing exercises and grounding techniques do nothing to help (rather bloody annoying given this late stage in the game).

The more I pick this apart the more I see the links between therapy and improv. The counselling room is the stage and the two people sat facing are the actors. Neither one of us knows what will come up in the next hour and there are no edits. This stuff is real. Things could and will and have to get messy. 

Directional and manual-based practitioners may be missing out on these kind of heady pre-gig nerves with their plans and scripts but for me it is a constant daily theme. I’m comfortable sharing this experience with my clients and find that being appropriately honest about my own human-ness, vulnerability and dismantling the therapist-as-expert myth can really help to deepen the connection.

I’m curious to see how many other professionals feel something akin to stage anxiety and discover how they deal with it in everyday practice. Not speaking the name of the Scottish play does little to reduce my thespian (therapian) jitters.

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