A common issue in acting is that we get in our own way. Life issue too, no? We overthink. We overanalyze. We do this until the opportunity or moment has passed us by. Then we overthink the outcome of that indecision and hesitation. This is chronic and it is very very usual. It seems following instincts is no longer all that natural for a human being. In art, having the ability to act based on that first impulse is likely going to result in something beautiful, human, and most importantly, true. We want that. Being in our heads just gets in the way of good art-making.
Thankfully, there are ways to combat this.
I’ve compiled a list of techniques any actor can use to “get out of their heads”. I use many aspects of this list myself. Of course, acting, like anything, is an ever-evolving practice and the road to mastery only circles back to the beginning so I am nowhere near perfect in getting out of my head. However, when I apply these, they tend to work.
So without further ado, here are the techniques:
Get Into the Body
The fastest way for me to get out of my head is to get into my body and there are many ways to do that. One of the best and quickest in my experience is to use your breath. Breathwork techniques are powerful and they are as helpful to the actor as they are to anyone in the world. There is one called the 4-7-8 breath that takes you straight into your parasympathetic nervous system, the calm and relaxed version of you. You breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7, then let your breath out for 8 seconds. Repeat as needed.
There are breath techniques for charging oneself up, activating breaths, balancing, and relaxing, so you can choose whichever one is right for your character’s situation. There is a lot to all this so stay tuned for more later.
Another way to get into the body is to change your state of being. If you’re still, jump up and down. If you’re sitting, stand up and walk around. Stretch. Shake out. Drop and do 10 push ups. When we are actively engaged in movement it’s actually difficult to be stuck in the head. Don’t think, just do. If you try to rationalize moving you are still in your head. No matter how silly or annoyed you may feel, change states quickly and see what happens. I think you may be surprised at the shift.
“Focus on a Fish”
There was this one awesome time that I went scuba diving. It was what they call a “discovery dive” which meant that my instructor did all the work with my tank and all I had to do was relax and try not to freak out while diving deeper than I’d ever swam on my own, approximately 40 feet down. My instructor was super helpful in preparing me and there is one thing he said that has stuck with me to this day. He said “if you start to freak out, focus on a fish.” Why? Because by putting my focus on something specific it would pull me out of my fight or flight brain and into the present moment. From that place of presence, I could become calm, collected, and better able to decide what was next. When I felt fear or anxiety start to creep in (and it certainly did) I would zoom in on one specific fish, watching its fins wave in the water and its mouth open and close.
The same technique can be used for actors in a scene. If you find yourself all up in your head and unable to get out, “focus on a fish.” Or an object in the scene, or your acting partner’s mouth, or a piece of lint in your pocket. Literally anything small and specific to bring you back to the reality of the moment. It does wonders.
If you want to watch the video from that scuba experience here it is:
It’s Not Only About You
A lot of times we are in our heads because we are thinking about ourselves and others’ perception of us. Self consciousness to a detriment is rampant in life as well as acting. How many times do we choose to not shine, not act, not be truthful, for fear of what that might look like to others? This is a big one. I hate to admit it but this is the one that has held me back a thousand times over. I am a sensitive person and sometimes feel like the reactions and judgments of others are also “felt” by me. This makes it all the more challenging when attempting to do anything worth doing because there is that looming presence of “what will they think?” or worse, “what will this one specific person that I know most likely WILL have a strong opinion think? And how bad will that FEEL to me?” To focus on this is a sure way to non-action and puts you on the expressway to Playing-It-Safe and Not-Doing-Anythings-ville. We can break out of this terrible and debilitating habit though by first recognizing the truth: it’s not all about us.
Remember, the majority of people are afflicted by this issue. Recognizing that first is important. Most are not really concerned about you at all because they are concerned about themselves. If something you do steps on their toes or they are in competition with you, then what you do might matter to them, but only so much as it relates to them. Still about themselves, see?
So how to use this as a way to get out of your head?
Stop thinking of yourself. It’s a revelation, honestly. It’s freeing. Instead, think of how good you want to make your scene partner look. Or think of your character and how much you care about what they are experiencing in the scene. Let the you that suffers judgment go and take on the character’s burdens. That is your job as an actor, after all.
Finally, I’ll end with a quote that still hangs above my desk in hopes that someday I will know the fullness of it. It is a poem by Marianne Williamson and was used by Nelson Mandela in his 1994 Inaugural Speech. I’ve had this same piece of paper with these words since my freshman college professor handed it out in Acting 3.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
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