Have you ever bombed?
I mean, really blown it?
Maybe you had to make a presentation to your executive team, and gobbledygook came out of your mouth instead of brilliance. Or you were supposed to make dinner for your in-laws, and you burned everything. Perhaps you volunteered to write the newsletter for your favorite charity, and a third grader could have done a better job.
What do you say to yourself in those moments when things don’t go the way you expected?
I bombed this past weekend.
Well, OK. Maybe, just maybe, I was being tough on myself.
If you’re tough on yourself, this story’s for you.
Here’s the situation: Last weekend, I took a workshop with the gifted performer and director, Ann Randolph. She helps people write and perform their life stories. I’d taken three previous workshops with this storytelling mama.
In one of Ann’s signature exercises, you repeat a phrase — either “I love,” or “I hate” — over and over again. Ann watches for the moment when you embody that strong feeling in a visibly potent way. Then, Ann calls out a word or a phrase, and you create an improvisation around that word or phrase, on the fly. No script. No rehearsal. It’s “go!” You’re moving, no time to think. Pure impulse.
Previously, Ann has had me improvise about “dating,” “working,” and “my housemate.” On stage, in the moment, I’ve bemoaned being single with my New York Jewish mother who wants grandchildren. I’ve complained about wanting to stay in my warm, comfy bed rather than go to the office to counsel people on their careers. I’ve shared the true — yet preposterous — story of a former housemate who wanted me to inject her cat with insulin.
With Ann, I never know what scenes and dialogue will emerge from me in the moment. Improvisation is full-on, giddy play. I don’t censor myself. So all sorts of inappropriate and taboo nonsense comes out of my mouth.
On stage, I am naturally funny. I love hearing the audience laugh.
But this time was different.
After a weekend of writing and performing with our intimate group of 10, it was time for the big performance with an audience of 40 friends and family. I could have elected to read and perform something I’d written that weekend, as most of my fellow workshop participants did.
But no! I love improvisation, and I was excited and delighted to revel in the moment. No scripted piece for me! I prefer the exhilaration of not knowing what’s ahead. Eight minutes with no agenda.
When it was my turn to perform, I stood before the audience, and giggled. Then, Ann told the audience about the exercise, and she gave me the words, “I love.”
I allowed love to fill my heart, and pranced around the room declaring, with full force, like a hyperactive teenager, “I love! I love! I love! I love!” Ann directed me to repeat a particular gesture, where I’d melted down and scooped my arms from waist to the ground. The movement felt kind of sexy and sultry, so I wondered if Ann would toss out a word like “sex.”
But that wasn’t the word.
Ann called out “Being alone.”
What? I love being alone?
For a moment, my mind went blank. Dark, really. Darkness was the first image that came to me. So I used it. I remembered my honeymoon, many years ago, and the blackout curtains in our hotel room, and how disoriented and alone I feel in the dark.
I wasn’t too keen on how I described the scene in our Roman hotel room. Was I telling a story about feeling alone with my husband, or alone in the darkness? If that confused me, I wondered if my on-the-fly story confused others.
Then, I moved to another story about being with a boyfriend in a gold mine. As we went down the mineshaft, I realized that I’d be underground, in the dark. My mind multitasked, giving me the story and also a none-too-helpful internal commentary: “Susan, what a stupid story to tell!”
Next, I confessed that I just don’t like to be alone. My internal judge wasn’t too thrilled with some of the things that tumbled out of my mouth. I mentioned my mother had wished I could be a Jewish nun, but I hated how I described her remarks. I spoke of being asked on a 21-day silent meditation retreat, and thought “That’s boring.” I mentioned that a friend had asked me recently to try a floatation tank. Honestly, I disgusted at the words emerging from my imagination and my lips.
My energy was pulled in multiple directions. I tried to be an open channel to allow inspiration to pour through for my performance. Simultaneously, my inner criticism was running rampant. “Sheesh! Don’t you have something wise to say? Can’t you create a coherent story? That was a dumb remark!”
When my performance was over, I was relieved. I’d wanted to make people laugh more. I didn’t want to perform about such a heavy topic as “being alone.” But that’s what Ann had given me.
I bit my lip as I sat and listened to the last two performers while repeatedly wiping my eyes as warm tears ran down my face. I’m not sure if the audience could see my watery eyes when we took our final bows.
After the performance, I ran out of the gallery.
I felt so humiliated. Embarrassed. I kept telling myself, “You were awful. You didn’t measure up to your usual self.”
Fortunately, I also knew that those thoughts didn’t feel good in my body. So I reminded myself:
“Don’t believe everything you think.”
I walked briskly around the San Francisco block in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, then retreated to my car and sobbed. I called a friend, Louise, who’s taken Ann’s workshops. Louise empathized with me. “It’s tough to say “I love being alone,” Susan. I realized those words triggered negative emotions.
“I love being alone” hurt. Why? Because I really wish I was in a relationship. But, for now, I’m single.
After about thirty minutes on the phone with Louise, I saw Ann walk by my car. I called to her. She kept walking. I called again. No answer. Finally, I full-on shrieked. Ann stopped, surprised.
“Susan, what happened? Everyone missed you.”
Ann hugged me, invited me into to my own car, and we sat and chatted. She dispelled any myth that I had given an awful performance. She reminded me that the audience clapped. She highlighted that I took an interesting, unexpected angle on “aloneness” and “the dark.” And she told me that my movement always generates reliable creative impulses and that I follow them in ways that intrigue audiences.
I came home to an email from one of my fellow performers:
“Hi! I didn’t get a chance to talk to you after the performance but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your monologue. You brought that miner’s cave “ride” to life and I was right there with you. I probably would have run back up the mine shaft, personally. It was a great four days and I really enjoyed being in class with you, seeing you take risks and be vulnerable is inspiring.”
Gulp. Deep breath. Maybe I need to go easy on myself. And enjoy what did work about this spontaneous experience.
I’ve been on a quest to learn to be easier with myself. Ease – not tension — cultivates resilience.
So, in that vein, here are three things you can say to yourself when you go hard on yourself. Print them out and leave them near your desk, bedside, or wherever they’ll be useful to you:
- You’re probably being harsher with yourself than anyone else is being with you. Notice how your body feels. If you’re tense or tight, what you can to lighten up towards yourself? Take a deep breath, and tell yourself at least a few positive things to counteract the negativity you’ve spewed on yourself.
- You probably want your performance to be even better than it is. That drive for improvement is natural. But don’t let perfectionism steal your enjoyment of the moment. Just for today, experiment with dialing down the punishment and perfectionism, and dialing up the enjoyment. Try that on for size.
- Hey, I hear you being tough on yourself. Is that attitude helping? Really? How about softening up a bit? Just a little bit. Does that feel better, or worse? If it feels better, let’s try going just a wee bit easier for a moment. Hmm, does that feel better or worse? Keep loosening, softening, easing, in teeny, incremental steps. See what new levels of tenderness you can show to yourself.
What else do you say to yourself when you bomb, or don’t measure up to your own demanding standards?
PS – Fair warning: The video of me includes loads of cursing. A lot. I think my foul language is genetically based, on the New York side of my family, not the British side of my family. That latter is the part of myself that’s being considerate and warning those who have kids not to listen to this with them around, unless you want to explain all the potty-mouth words. I didn’t think you did…