If I can just live further from the spotlight I think that’ll be better for all really. — George Michael
It’s a story I hear often, working with successful people. When they’re ‘on stage’ and performing well — things are great. When they step back and out of the spotlight, though — depression and low self-esteem often kick in. When you’re used to the adoring eyes of your audience rallying up 35k likes to your posts, when you’re used to people knowing of you before they actually know you, when you’re used to the thrilling rush of adrenaline as a star speaker, when you’re used to the anticipatory silence of an audience (when you can hear a pin drop) and the roar when they applaud…the quiet stillness and darkness of being offstage or backstage can be suffocating.
Too much self-centered attitude, you see, brings, you see, isolation. Result: loneliness, fear, anger. The extreme self-centered attitude is the source of suffering. — Dalai Lama
Star performers feel a relentless need to be onstage. One gets hooked — like an addiction — to the feeling of being watched and admired. You develop a fearlessness when you’re comfortable in the limelight. But hardly anyone warns you that when you step back or the spotlight dims, that you might experience significant physical, mental, and emotional effects.
There are many reasons why stars shift out of the spotlight. For some, they back away to take care of family — both younger and older. Others burnout from the intensity of overzealous relationships with work. Some suffer with addiction and chemical dependency. Many have deteriorating situations with family and friends. And yet, others might desire and mindfully make the transition from star to backstage — stepping back to mentor and bring others into the light. Sometimes we choose to step back, other times we fall.
It’s something I notice with some of my clients, because I was this person too. After many years of successful speech competitions, I felt like a superstar. These weren’t participant trophies in any way. Sure, some were ugly pet rocks or plastic gold people standing behind podiums glued on generic bowling trophies (most were public school competitions — read “low budget”). But many said “First Place.” (and yeah, some said “Finalist”…but I was competing against Brian Rivera and Jessica Chastain often…so just being with them in the top 6 was a huge honor.)
Life happens, though. And I had to choose between paying rent and getting more rocks. I chose to pay rent and quit competing midway through my senior year of college. After a while of working regular sorts of jobs and struggling with depression and homelessness, I returned to school to get my Masters degree. After almost four years, I found my way back to competitive speech.
I spent several years being a coach. I learned to appreciate my role as mentor. I learned to live vicariously through my students when they won (and when they lost) but I didn’t lose the sleep they did nor did I miss any meals. I learned to work with their (sometimes huge) egos, mental illnesses, and physical disabilities. I grew in ways I never imagined.
I learned to appreciate my ability to be effective both onstage and off. I found that as a backstage performer, I could make huge impact — with writing, framing, and coaching, in general. It gave me keen insights to use when I stepped back into the spotlight to present my work at Communication conferences. I had developed good working relationships with others and found I had grown immensely through listening and observing others— rather than me always having to star in the show. I became more cognizant of how others viewed me. I received better feedback from others — because I had already showed them I valued their opinions — offstage — where it was (is) easier to develop credibility and trust. I found a balance for stepping up to star and stepping back to support.
Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony. — Thomas Merton
It’s important to find a balance between being in the spotlight and taking time backstage to avoid burnout.
Whether you are an up-and-coming star or a seasoned veteran still looking for balance, here are four strategies to help you shine your own light:
Family and friends can be your biggest fans. They can also find themselves feeling like fans, rather than friends and family. These relationships must be nurtured and cultivated. Work is one aspect of our lives. And when we look to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Safety and Belonging are foundational to Self-Esteem and Self-Actualization. So establish strong bonds with friends and family — give them your time, your attention, and your loyalty. Stars who have solid supportive relationships fare better in crisis than those who slip into loneliness and despair. A good exercise to assess your impact on others is to imagine your own funeral. Who would be there? What would they say? I want my local paper to write an editorial like Rosel Schewel’s when I go. So lots of work to do — but family first (blood and chosen).
Become a Great Storyteller.
You have to believe that time spent backstage is necessary and useful. Don’t look at yourself as being irrelevant because you aren’t currently starring in anything. Look at yourself as being savvy about your opportunities. Perhaps, you’re in development for your next starring role. Over the last year, I’ve been preparing my next big launch into the world of web teaching — I’ve researched and studied and purchased studio equipment. I’ve gotten 6 new educational certificates. I’ve been extremely productive — even if the world didn’t see it. (eventually they will!) I see it and it matters to me. If you have positive stories to tell — both when you’re onstage and when you’re not — you’ll have better self-esteem throughout life’s ups and downs. And if you have to interview a bunch of times for your next job, having a solid story about yourself and what you’ve been doing are essential. Don’t let your stories get stagnant though. Keep reworking them….always.
Beware the Epinephrine Addiction.
Many top performers usually develop an affinity for epinephrine, AKA adrenaline, for it brings us strength and energy. But if you get used to regular doses of it, then not having it means experiencing significant withdrawals. It’s important to find healthy ways of getting adrenaline — and healthy ways to generate energy in your body. Some people get into rock climbing or compete in community sports (softball, volleyball, bowling, etc.). Some swear by yoga and meditation. Some love Zumba. Others love to drive go-carts at the local track. Find ways to generate adrenaline that don’t involve work —and find natural ways of creating energy. Your body will thank you for being able to handle the stress of adrenaline and you will have ways to feel that natural high that won’t lead to burnout.
Get Good at Behind-the-Scenes Work.
It’s nice to be the star — but there are other ways to make impact. Think about how to be productive in different ways — not always relating productivity to when you are in the spotlight. Develop a deeper understanding of what moves audiences. Observe others and learn as much as you can. Consciously let others take the lead on some projects. You can and will support them, heck maybe even co-star with them, but they need opportunities to step up too. Share the stage. You’ll find your skill set increasing. Your ability to play more roles increasing. Your trust in your network and coworkers increasing. There’s so much potential for star performers to learn and grow if they open to knowing more about their industry and operations. Take your abilities further. Help someone else be the star, support them to have an optimal environment to shine. (Their success can reflect on you…it may not be as powerful as a spotlight — but a nice reflection can offer a warming glow.)
When I feel I’m doing too much, I do less, if I can. And that’s why I’m in a rare position where I don’t have to do job after job. I can take time when my family needs it.
— Angelina Jolie
The thrill of being ‘on’ and the excitement of being ‘in demand’ are truly wondrous feelings. I think everyone should experience them in their lives. But for those who shine unyieldingly bright — burnout and fatigue are real. I’ve talked to many friends, students, and clients about this. I’ve seen too many of my generation (the cynical, depressed Generation X) fall victim to it. Finding balance is key. You can step into the spotlight when you want — and you can retreat to the comforts of backstage, too. There is a time and place for both.
What do you do to avoid burnout and fatigue in your life?
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Christine Warda can be found at SeeDub international.