As an actor, you embody a character to tell a story. Through that story, you connect to your audience by mirroring the fears, needs, disappointments, hopes, or dreams that everyone has experienced in some way. Acting is a powerful art that can change lives and can even shift the world.
It’s through the authenticity of your acting that a story can be told.
You are the vehicle through which that story comes alive to reach others’ minds and hearts. With all this in mind, your acting has the greatest impact when it is delivered through your fully felt artistic expression. And, this is why you, the actor, set out on a journey to really embody and become a character.
Recently, Lady Gaga opened up about her experience of “becoming” and “unbecoming” her character Patrizia Reggiani in The House of Gucci. She allowed herself to be very vulnerable when she talked about the emotional challenges of going through such a process and how she felt she lost touch with her own reality.
She described her experience,“You end up sounding and looking like them… It’s not an imitation, it’s a becoming… I knew I had become and the greater challenge was to unbecome.”
Lady Gaga also described the feeling of being out of touch with herself, feeling as if she was still on the set while taking a walk in the city. She experienced a “disconnect” from her own sense of self and people in her personal life.
Many other actors have spoken out about the sacrifice and the challenges they go through to embody a character and to make their performance real. Some found themselves behaving like the character in their private life, long after filming was done. Some may have described that the experience made them feel like they were “losing their mind,” experiencing panic attacks, anxiety, and a sense of emptiness and confusion. Other actors have reported going into deep depression, related to the nature of the character they played, particularly after a long and very dramatic show.
Living in an intense emotional place to play certain characters, especially if you play a dark, emotionally intense character can bring up deep emotional challenges. Many times, actors who play characters who have painful stories, addictions, or other dark personality aspects find that their own unresolved emotional issues can emerge. Actors have reported suicidal thoughts or turned to addictive behaviors to cope with the emotional aftermath of “becoming and unbecoming.”
So, what is at the root of the emotional challenges of “becoming and unbecoming” a character?
Clinical psychology teaches us that losing connection with oneself can be emotionally traumatic. There’s a cyclical relationship between abusive or adverse experiences, the resulting emotional trauma, and then a sense of losing touch with yourself. That loss of self is retraumatizing, and can send you back into feelings related to the original trauma. When you’re an actor portraying a character over a long period of time, you can experience a form of emotional trauma which can disconnect you from your real true self, and that loss of self is another trauma experience.
If you play a character who has some particular emotional challenges, your nervous system can take in the “trauma” of your character through the felt-sense of the character’s emotional experiences. We know that when we imagine certain emotional experiences at a very intense, visceral level, you really take in that experience in your nervous system. It leaves an imprint on you and changes you at some level.
You are more likely to experience a loss of self through embodying a character if you have unhealed traumatic experiences. A history of emotional abuse, neglect or other unprocessed childhood experiences (like bullying, shame, humiliation, or rejection) can make the “unbecoming” even more challenging. Actors with unresolved personal struggles are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, addictions, or suicidal thoughts after they leave a difficult role.
Are you an actor who has difficulty “unbecoming” and reconnecting to your core self? What can you do to help yourself?
- Do your in-depth emotional work. Psychotherapy can give you insight into your inner world and how your past experiences can inform your acting and what could be triggered through acting. Good emotional work will also help you heal emotional trauma or conflicts, so when you can minimize the emotional effects and bounce back quicker after you embody a character in a deep way.
- If you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, addiction or suicidal thoughts, find a therapist to help you work though the pain, heal, and reconnect with yourself as soon as possible. This is especially important when you are in the “unbecoming” stage after your show or movie since the imprint can really be sealed into your unconscious mind if you don’t take steps to heal and recover. These feelings associated with playing a difficult character can compound past traumas and increase your risk of experiencing trauma-related symptoms in the future.
Though this may sound worrisome or even scary, you can look at this as an opportunity to do some in-depth emotional work that will help you not only with your acting (to continue to grow and expand yourself as the acting instrument), but to help you bounce back easier and with more fluidity after each performance.
It can be very challenging to go through the process of “unbecoming” and return back to yourself. A trusted professional can help hold your experience and guide your process so that you are able to safely resolve the loss of self due “becoming” a character. You can also heal the current and past emotional trauma triggered by such a process, and build the emotional strength that can help you move forward in your creative career.
My California-based psychotherapy practice specializes in the unique needs of artists and creatives. Psychotherapy is powerful and can help you resolve your emotional issues and struggles in the fascinating but challenging career. Working with creatives for over 20 years now, I know that psychotherapy is a science and an art at the same time.
Every creative, performer, or artist is unique as every piece of art, performance, or creative act. My psychotherapeutic approach helps you discover your unique life experiences and your unique self, through a combination of in-depth psychodynamic/psychoanalytic work along with the neuroscience of psychotherapy and EMDR.
Creating your beautiful, fulfilling life and inner world is in itself a powerful form of art. From this enriched, expanded, fluid inner world, you can embody a character and tell your stories even as you preserve and expand your emotional well being.
Contact me to set up a free 15-20 minute consultation to see if psychotherapy can help you further your career and your personal life.
I am Mihaela Ivan Holtz, Doctor in Clinical Psychology. I help creatives face and shift emotional trauma, depression, anxiety, performance anxiety, creative blocks, and addictions – to be and live their own best version. You can read more about Therapy for Creatives and Performers here.