Can You Train Yourself To Be Awesome? Yes, and deal with anxiety at the same time

When training to be awesome, it helps to have a guide. And support. Lots of support. According to Charleston, SC improviser and author Greg Tavares, awesomeness can be learned and it arises out of the primary force driving successful improvisation, the human connection between players. His book Improv For Everyone is a manual rich with ideas and exercises that draw on this core principle of improvisation training — a principle also applicable to situations on the stage of life: that the felt and expressed sense of “we” is what produces the creative space to explore and solve problems with other people. And to grow into being awesome.

Improvisation turns on a kind of relentless positivity, because everyone involved in the improvisation situation is vulnerable and taking emotional or creative risks. We bring to that situation of vulnerability our whole imperfect, flawed and floundering self, knowing that rejection, failure, or humiliation can result from it. An improvisation game or scene — whether it takes place in a classroom, training space or onstage with an audience —requires the ability to pilot through, or work around, the stress response that naturally arises when we feel psychologically threatened in this way. “Improv can get you into a fight or flight place, and you have to learn how to desensitize that because no one is in control,” states Tavares in a Q&A with “It’s all cooperation.”

And actors on the stage of life — from parents figuring out how to get the baby to take the medicine, to co-teachers working out the best way to deliver lessons to students, to social workers assisting clients to explore an important but difficult change — are co-creating solutions to intense, real-life pressures just as likely to trigger the sense of threat that makes us perceive and respond to things through a narrow and negative lens. With its emphasis on radical acceptance of what others contribute but also clear structures and agreements, improvisation has become an innovative method for learning skills and habits of mind for managing fear and anxiety.

“Here is something you might have never heard: you can train yourself to be awesome.” Greg Tavares, Improv For Everyone

We can shift out of anxiety and the self-protective roles and postures that rise up naturally when we are at risk of failure, rejection or humiliation, by “moving the focus onto others,” according to Tavares. “That’s one of the first lessons I teach, and I realize that it takes effort and it takes learning.” And the soul of its power, according to Tavares, is fun. Here he is breaking it down in a TEDx talk:

In her article “So Funny It Doesn’t Hurt” on, writer Katherine Toohill details the benefits of her own exposure to improv classes — despite her self-described “ingrained self-consciousness” — which include enhanced energy, confidence and communication skills. “For some,” she writes, “the benefits can be even more significant: Researchers and clinical psychologists alike have begun to pay attention to improv, conducting studies or incorporate it into work with their patients. The improv stage, in theory, is a space free of judgment or fear of failure, making it an ideal environment for people who struggle with low self-esteem, social anxiety, or other types of anxiety disorders.”

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“The beauty of improv is that it is quintessentially a collective, cooperative form that rests completely on trust for the spark of creativity that can transport the players, briefly, into confidence-building interpersonal connections.” Gordon Bermant, University of Pennsylvania researcher, quoted in “So Funny It Doesn’t Hurt.”

The focus on a partner might sound simple, but deceptively so. The stress response can throw us into the cognitive confusion and emotional self-absorption that comes with protective states of mind. The skills learned in improv provide an alternative: rather than turn inward, which has the effect of shutting off the flow of positive and creative energy, we turn out to our partners. Close listening focuses attention on what another person is communicating. The radical “yes” to what is offered and willingness to build on it empowers a partner to take risks. And if our partners do the same for us, a kind of magic happens. A story develops. A game unfolds. Moments of insight. Fun.

The key to unlocking the creative energy that opens up possible choices for creating together in improv and in life is focus on the “we.” And it bears pointing out that there is an enormously important, fundamental difference between the “we” that produces a space for creative collaboration and the “we” of a boundary-less codependence. The codependent “we” is a way to mitigate one’s own anxiety by “fixing” another person’s problems, merging in ways that blur individuality and a form a bond around a fundamental imbalance between give and take. Codependence has very little space for playfulness, it is fear-driven and tension-loaded. The co-creative “we” is rooted in spontaneity and expands it. The website identifies the importance of play — particularly playing a role and playing games — for developing the co-creative mindset, drawn from Viola Spolin’s Improvisation For The Theater:

“Embrace basic human interdependence: we thrive — we are healthier — when 
we look to each other, listen to each other, share with each other, and build together. A. Be a part of the world. Notice things. Note details.

B. Make your associates look good.

C. Build upon each other’s contributions. Build upon words already spoken, and actions already taken.”

Life is difficult, and rife with threats. With all the uncertainty we deal with and the stakes involved, it is okay and natural to be anxious. The improv stage is an uncertain space in which anything can happen if the players stay connected to, and support, one another completely. These skills also make us better collaborators and partners on the stage of life. The results can be awesome.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is an approved provider of Continuing Education for social workers in New York State, provider #0270. And host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a show that features true stories — with a twist.