As actors, self consciousness is something we are all almost guaranteed to experience to some degree in our careers. Whether it is self consciousness about our ability or a performance we’ve given, self consciousness about how we look or come across on camera or a more general sense of self doubt about our potential to achieve success in our careers, self consciousness is an unfortunate reality of this profession. Let’s tackle this challenge headfirst. Here’s an investigation into self consciousness for actors, and three ways to combat it for yourself.
Self-Consciousness is Natural
First up, let’s immediately relieve some of the pressure you may be experiencing by reminding ourselves that self consciousness as an actor is completely normal. Every actor I’ve worked with, no matter how established and experienced, has had to deal with their own form of self consciousness from time to time.
Acting places the artist in an incredibly vulnerable position. In fact, taking that notion a step further, acting actually requires a level of vulnerability from the artist. Not only are we putting our artwork (our performance) into the public domain for scrutiny and criticism, as all art is, but we are also the artwork. Our performance is at one time both an indication of our taste and ability free for anyone who has the time to dissect and decide how they would do things differently.
Since this is the reality of our profession, that it places us in a vulnerable position and that a level of self-consciousness is to be expected, then there is no use beating ourselves up about it! Right at the outset of us understanding how we can best deal with our self consciousness, we need to be kind to ourselves. We need to accept that it is normal and that the task is not actually to remove our self consciousness, but to acclimatise to it and thrive in spite of it.
Why Does Self-Consciousness Arise?
There are many reasons why an actor might get self conscious, and perhaps one of these reasons is what has brought you here today. Self consciousness can happen both when we’re performing and when we’re not. When we’re acting, we can be self conscious about our performance itself, and when this arises it may manifest as fear. You may say to yourself “I don’t know what I’m doing” or “I don’t know who I am”. On a stage or a set we can become all too aware of the eyes of the audience or crew watching us, expecting us to do our jobs perfectly. It can be pretty scary, this acting thing! Such a shame we love it so much. When we’re not acting, self consciousness may arise due to our perception of our own ability or self. We may think we’re not as good as other actors or have issues with our appearance or how we present ourselves. Self consciousness may arise in the casting room when we have to try to calm our nerves and be the best version of ourselves for the casting director.
There are SO many factors of this profession which may induce a self-conscious state. Rather than getting bogged down and daunted by all of these scary hurdles we have to overcome, let’s instead talk about the ways in which we can combat these obstacles and empower ourselves, so we can do what we love with the best of our ability.
3 Ways to Combat Self-Consciousness as an Actor
Let’s look at a few things we can do when that inevitable self-consciousness starts to creep up on us.
#1 Search Outside Yourself for the Answer
Self consciousness is a manifestation of fear which arises from inside our minds based on our perceived reality. More often than not, the thoughts we are feeling about ourselves are not shared by anyone else, and even if they are: that is outside our control and not worth worrying about.
So, if self-consciousness is arising within us – if self consciousness is a focus which is directed towards ourselves, where is somewhere we could seek the answer to freeing ourselves? You guessed it. Outside yourself. We must turn our attention away from ourselves to gain freedom from self consciousness. Declan Donnellan’s book The Actor and the Target deals with this issue in great detail. Donnellan teaches us that all of the actors’ concerns about their performance: “I don’t know what I’m doing”, “I don’t know where or who I am”, can be solved through the use of a Target. The Target is anything seen through the eyes of the character to which attention can be paid. The target is the opposite of self-consciousness: it is consciousness about the world around us and the character. The place, the people, the relationships and situations of the character.
If this concept interests you, check out my article about The Actor and the Target.
If you’re someone who deals with self consciousness to do with your performance, whether you feel often as though you don’t know what you’re doing or what you ‘should’ be feeling, practise turning your attention to the world around you, rather than what’s going on within you. Set yourself the challenge in your next rehearsal room/ process to take responsibility for the challenges you’re facing as an actor; whenever a question arises in your mind which has you turning your attention upon yourself, begin by turning things around and searching for the answer outside of yourself. There are so many more solutions to be found outside ourselves than inside ourselves. If you’re self conscious about the fact you’re not reaching a certain emotional place with your character, relieve yourself of the obligation to find that experience within yourself. Search instead in the eyes of another character, or in the world around your character – full of detail and history which may inspire you to feel through them.
When we are self conscious about our performance, we are just adding yet another pair of eyes onto ourselves. Allow the audience to be the ones with their eyes on you, you don’t have to do that as well. Your eyes, your attention should rather be outside of you – on all the powerful and evocative forces surrounding your character. In the world around your character is energy and inspiration tenfold to the power of our own isolated emotional storage facility.
#2 Practice Self-Care
In performance, the key to combating self consciousness is to turn our attention away from ourselves. Once we’re out of performance, however, the key is to get to know ourselves a little better.
If self consciousness is a real ongoing problem for you, if you find it difficult to find self acceptance when reviewing your work, then you might like to consider starting a journey of self care. Self care is actually a really common and essential practise for the actor. Being in such a vulnerable position so frequently means that the actor is prone to having their ego and resilience battered around a bit, and it’s important that we prepare for this reality accordingly.
If the concept of self care is something daunting, foreign or too esoteric for you, consider it this way. Just as you would go to the gym to strengthen your muscles to be able to withstand greater challenges, so too is it worth strengthening our minds and resilience in order to be able to withstand the setbacks and disappointments of this industry. After all, rejection is a guaranteed element of the career of an actor. We will be told ‘no’ 99% more often than we will be told ‘Yes’ and if we’re not careful and don’t have the practises to take care of ourselves in place, we will start taking these ‘no’s as indication of our self worth.
There are many different methods of self care, and only you will be able to determine which is most effective for you. What’s most important with any self care practise is that it is focused on the self. It is about you and it is for you, not anyone else. If you’re completely new to the concept of self care, the following list of practises is a great place to start, as they have great benefits for combating self consciousness and for your craft as an actor in general:
- Lifestyle awareness: Diet, sleep habits and exercise
- Reducing comparison: minimise social media use.
That last point on the list, “Reducing comparison” is of particular relevance to us as actors. Social Media will always be feeding us evidence of the fact that the people around us are doing so much better than we are. Be endlessly aware that social media is not an accurate representation of ‘reality’ and that behind those screens, everyone is dealing with their own challenges. As best as you can, reduce the amount of time you give to comparing yourself to other people. You will not find solace or a reduction of self-consciousness in jealousy, resentment or self-disparagement.
The practise of self care will allow you to dig a little deeper into your understanding of what is fuelling your self consciousness as an actor. Self care will simultaneously allow you to understand where that self consciousness is coming from, and also allow you to recognise and notice when you are being too harsh on yourself whilst feeling self conscious.
So, start getting curious. Ask other actors in your network, how have they managed their self-consciousness? How have they taken care of themselves in times of self-doubt? You’re not alone in this experience. I’d bet nearly every actor has had to find their way through self consciousness from time to time, and each may have an insight for you as to how they’ve navigated this period, and which practise of self care worked best for them.
Read more on: Self-Care for Actors.
#3 Search for the Golden Moments
Here’s an insight I learned from an actor who was two years above me whilst I was in first year of Drama School:
“Search for the golden moments in other people and you’ll build your ability to recognise them in yourself.”
I think this is such wonderful advice, and particularly pertinent to the challenge of overcoming self consciousness. As we discussed in point number 1, this is a practise which takes our focus off ourselves and onto what’s outside of us.
When you’re watching another actor perform or even rehearse, (any moment of an actor in process) search for their Golden Moments. Search for the breakthrough moments, search for their moments of victory, or their moments of overcoming struggle. Turning your attention to seeking out other actors’ Golden Moments is an endlessly rewarding process. Firstly, it will remove the temptation within you to compare yourself to them in a negative way and experience thoughts such as, “I wouldn’t do it like that” or, “I wish I could do that”. These thoughts of comparison aren’t actually all that helpful for us; they either give us a false sense of security that we’re already good enough and don’t need to keep progressing, or that we will never achieve what we want to achieve. If we instead search for the golden moments, we will sooner be able to recognise them in our own work. If we see an actor overcoming their own self consciousness, we are able to analyse that breakthrough and assess what we can learn from it. If we see an actor pick themselves up after a ‘defeat’ on the rehearsal room floor, we may find the courage to persist in the face of adversity the next time we’re on the floor.
Searching for the golden moments in the people around you requires humility and may not be a simple task at first. Often, the way we see ourselves and the way we see the world may be closely linked. If we are struggling with self consciousness, our perception of the world around us may be overly negative. By searching for the golden moments around us we give ourselves the chance to bring the positivity we seek in the world into our self perception.
I really can’t recommend this process highly enough. I used to be someone who would only see the shortcomings in another person’s abilities. It’s not something I’m proud of, and it has taken a lot of work for me to recognise that this was actually coming from a place of self consciousness and self doubt. I didn’t want to be a judgemental, self conscious person and actor anymore, I instead wanted to be someone who could see the golden moments in others. In doing this, I gained the ability to see the golden moments in myself, and by seeing those golden moments my craft as an actor improved exponentially.
The task of overcoming self-consciousness is not a quick nor easy one. It is a process which requires self-investigation and the courage to face your fears. By reading this article and asking yourself the question, “how can I overcome this?” you have taken the first step. Thank you for taking that first step!
Let’s continue moving forward along this path. Let’s leave ‘self consciousness’ behind us and replace it instead with ‘self awareness’. The more aware we are of who we are, how we work and the person we want to become, the better able we will be to achieve all those things.
We’ve covered three simple yet powerful steps today towards achieving this goal: turning our attention from ourselves to a ‘Target’ outside ourselves, investing in self care and searching for the golden moments. All of these practises require just that: practise. Actively incorporate these tools into your day-to-day and craft as an actor, and I’m sure you will start to see and feel the benefits of them in your ability to manage any self consciousness which may arise.