A little less than a month ago, I achieved a pretty major personal goal. I had a successful audition and got into the main improv company in my town – a great redemption arc considering previous audition experience I’d had. I am happy – nay, ecstatic – to have validation that all the effort that I have been putting in is paying off.
And a lot of work it has been. It seems a tremendous amount of work for me to be able to do what comes effortlessly to others. I know that is partially anxiety rearing its dumb head, but also there is some truth to the fact that some have innate talent, and I am not one of these people. Improv requires you to be free and breezy and quick on your feet, and I am none of these things. I’m an overthinker trying to pose as an improvisor. I am intellectually aware of “impostor syndrome” but despite that, can’t help but be affected by the certainty that I just do not belong here. I had the one good night during auditions, and a lucky streak of decent shows (except for the latest little bit set which set off this particular panic attack, in which I apparently started having a stroke or something and just word-saladed on stage). But really, deep down inside my bones, I am not good at this. Someone is going to call my bluff and it’s all going to come crashing down, mortifyingly, in a Carrie-at-the-prom kind of way.
I am well familiar with this feeling. Throughout most of elementary school, I had what is now called selective mutism, which is a social anxiety so intense in certain settings (usually school) that the child does not speak. In my case, when I was forced to speak, I affected a different, higher-pitched voice. I have no idea how it started in my case, but it was borne of some deep-seated paranoia about my voice not being girly enough – for some reason I had it stuck in my head that I sounded like a boy (which I probably did, because kid voices all sound pretty much the same pre-puberty). The paranoia evolved and reinforced itself via this obsessive fear that if I did just one day decide to drop the affectation and go back to my normal voice, all the other students and teachers would hate me for lying. I felt like a fraud and a phony every day, carrying this bizarre and totally self-imposed burden, but even though I knew that this was something I could solve, it was getting desperate enough that I saw no means of escape. This went on for years. Luckily, I transferred schools and it just disappeared.
I have never been able to banish anxiety, just squish it down to manageable levels until it again explodes and turns into panic attacks. I am not doing myself any favors by engaging in performative arts as a hobby, particularly one of the more stressful ones. Anxiety is obviously something that afflicts a lot of improvisors, judging by a purely unscientific sample of Tumblrs and Facebook status updates culled from the improvisors I know. Naturally, I think all of these people are incredibly talented and way better than I could ever be, and am baffled as to why they would be so down on themselves. And no, of course I do not think this is applicable to myself!
I know that the only way to really get better is to do what I have been doing, which is doing as many reps as possible. I also know that if I do any more reps right now, I might actually die of too much improv. I’m not even a month in, and still well within the probationary period.
There is nothing more painful to me than disappointing people, but it’s the one thing I can reliably do.