How Improvisation Grows Resilience — and resilience is everything

When Fast Company named Amy Poehler “most creative person of 2015” they asked her to make a video in which she repurposes ordinary household items so that they become entirely different things. For every item she transforms within a 3-minute time frame, Fast Company donates $100 to a charity. A wired computer mouse becomes a fashion accessory, a stapler a pyramid for a mouse.You can watch her do this here:

This is a one-hander version of an improvisation exercise we often do in training groups to engage the creative mind and explore the possibilities that lie within limitation.

Psychological resilience is like the ability to perform this exercise — it is the strength to engage with whatever is available in novel ways, to work within limitations that may be unfair or simply arbitrary, conditions which are part of everyday life in countless ways. And resilience is everything because it is the foundation of piloting through rough terrain in life, of gaining all possible power and knowledge from adversity.

Specific elements of this exercise charge up the creative juices and at the same time strengthen psychological resilience:

  1. the emotional stakes — an important goal within a time limit — stretch a person’s efforts to reach beyond the self (raise funds for people in need);

2. the clear task (find new uses for existing things) engages the executive functions of the brain in ways that enhance the ability to think on one’s feet, organize ideas and self-regulate under stress;

3. the open-ended outcome (anything goes, repurpose the same item multiple times, combine them to maximize their usefulness) which excites the novelty-seeking “reward” circuitry that drives exploration.

The similar exercise we use in training groups involves taking common household item — an umbrella, or a flashlight — and each member must engage with it as if it is an entirely different thing. The exercise is done silently, and the objective is “show, not tell” what the item has become, e.g. an umbrella rhythmically tapped into the palm of one hand becomes a policeman’s nightstick. In the crook of an arm it becomes a bouquet of roses carried by a weeping beauty queen. As the action is completed, the item is handed to someone else. No action can be repeated. An exercise like this may sound simple and maybe even silly but is deceptively sophisticated in its power to develop one of the key competencies associated with psychological resilience, the capacity to look at the same thing from many different perspectives.

Resilient people share 3 common traits, according to research discussed in Harvard Business Review:
“acceptance of reality;
deep belief that life is meaningful;
an uncanny ability to improvise;

In order to improvise, we must remain open to what is front of us and let go of expectations of what others will say or do in a psychological space of mutual vulnerability and uncertainty. This can be challenging, because automatic self-protective habits of mind that reduce vulnerability and help us feel safe limit cognitive agility and narrow our perception. The skills we cultivate through improvisation exercises — close listening, agreement to interact within a given structure, receiving what others offer, operating at the top of our intelligence, being generous and collaborative when we have no idea what the other person will do next — are most valuable when we are dealing with the unexpected, when we must make important choices on the fly. “Improv is about being spontaneous. It is about being imaginative,” writes Paul Sloane in The Leaders Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills. “It is about taking the unexpected and then doing something unexpected with it….The key is to be open to crazy ideas and building on them. And funnily enough, this is exactly what is needed if we are going to make our enterprises more creative and agile.” The moment-to-moment interactions that unfold during improvisation games and exercises are an opportunity to practice putting aside our fear of looking bad for the sake of spontaneity. And spontaneity is at the heart of the psychological strength to respond creatively and effectively under pressure, and to make the most out of what we are given, which lie at the heart of resilience.

An improvisation exercise we use to train health care professionals builds this capacity specifically. Two players sit side by side, and their only instruction is to start a scene by doing a physical movement that is given to them from someone in the group. A simple movement — wave the right hand, shift from one foot to another, stare at the ceiling — is assigned to the pair, who both do the movement without speaking for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds they can begin to add conversation inspired by the movement. The idea is to create a relationship between these 2 people, to build identities for each player grounded in that relationship, which is grounded in this shared movement. The wave of the hand, shared by 2 players, can become a mom and dad saying good-bye to their daughter driving off to college. The shifting from one foot to another might might lead to a scene in which 2 kids keep moving as they stand outside in the cold waiting for a comic book store to open. Once the players have developed the central relationship between the characters and what their emotional moment is about, the exercise is over and the group discusses the process. What was the interpersonal dynamic between these 2 people we just got to know? How did the movement inform the imagination of the players? What might happen next? In this exercise, the movement assigned to the players is a safe and low-stakes way to practice facing “what is” — the reality that must be dealt with — and the process is a model for how to engage with it. The discussion brings the entire group into the creative process.

“The ability to see reality is closely linked to the second building block of resilience, the propensity to make meaning of terrible times,” writes Diane Coutu in “How Resilience Works” in Harvard Business Review. “We all know people who, under duress, throw up their hands and cry, “How can this be happening to me?” Such people see themselves as victims, and living through hardship carries no lessons for them. But resilient people devise constructs about their suffering to create some sort of meaning for themselves and others.”

The improviser’s focus on the moment-to-moment choices we can make in response to one another is one of the thinking and relationship skills associated with recovery from trauma. Research published in Behavior Therapy found that it is possible to reduce the long-term impact of trauma, through thinking in very concrete ways about what it is we must confront. In this study, participants who were trained to think very concretely, rather than in the abstract, about a traumatic image or event — e.g. think about what is occurring and what is in sight that can be used in some way to take action rather than more abstract thinking and pondering why the event is happening — showed significantly less long-term emotional distress. Abstract thinkers had more than twice as many intrusive memories. “This study is the first to show empirically that the way we think about trauma could affect our memories of it,” states Dr. Jennifer Wild, who co-authored the study with Dr. Rachel White. “Further study is now needed, with people who have experienced real-life trauma and to confirm that this can be applied in groups who regularly experience trauma, like emergency workers. This could be the basis for training to improve people’s resilience in the face of expected traumatic experiences.’

The thinking skills learned in improvisation are grounded in just this combination of acceptance and action. With practice, it trains us to cope with uncertainty, let go of control, focus on what is and on what we can contribute as events unfold, all cognitive/emotional competencies we need in the face of stress. We can never predict when a traumatic event will tear apart the defenses we need to get anything done in life, laying bare our vulnerability and powerlessness. Trauma splinters reality into how things were before and how they will be forever after. It sweeps away people who are part of who we are and elements of ourselves based on how things were. It changes us in ways we do not want to be changed, into people who must make room for an empty space where someone important used to be. This takes an enormous effort, as anyone who has worked through such loss can attest, and it helps a great deal when new people draw out new aspects of self as we gradually form new roles that are adapted to the new reality.

Out of old threads, new clothes. Resilience is hope with muscle, and improvisation is the psychological work-out that works.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer with www.lifestage.org. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a show featuring true stories — with a twist — told by people form all walk of life.