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Have you ever wanted to break out of the scripted roles we perform in our daily lives? In Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, Jaques utters the famous line, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”  He laments, as many of us do, that our lives have somehow been scripted for us, and we are stuck in the same play, day in and day out.  Someone is rude, inconsiderate or nasty, and that is our cue to react with anger.  Our child stubbornly refuses to follow our direction and we react by becoming frustrated and impatient.  If we reconsider Jaques statement in a more positive light, however, I think it also suggests that with some creativity and skill, we can choose to re-write the unsatisfying scripts that we follow and begin to experience a new and more fulfilling performance of our lives.

These are difficult times.  We are aware, or made aware, of the increasingly complicated demands on our time, energies and skills.  Our world is in economic, moral and political crisis.  We use and are exposed to technologies that vastly improve yet also accelerate and overwhelm our lives.   As a result, it is easy to feel anxious, stuck, unsatisfied, stressed, and less able to lead our lives and relationships as effectively as we would like.

It is extremely important to remember that we are creators of our lives, not just recipients of life. Learning to respond to and create with what or who is in front of us, verses automatically reacting, produces a more positive, effective and humane way to live. Being creative, flexible and open in our daily life is liberating and transformative for our selves and our relationships.

Setting the Stage

Consider this perspective:

  • Life is often improvisational. What if we relate to our moment-to-moment, day-to-day lives as an ongoing improvisational performance?
  • Seeing ourselves as creating our lives as we go is a very powerful, practical and liberating way to live everyday life with others at home, work and in our communities.

But how do we become more open, flexible, and responsive?   There is a growing movement in psychology as well as organizational and community development that utilizes the tenets of improv and performance as a way to help us:

  • Live our lives better and build richer relationships
  • Listen and communicate more actively and effectively
  • Transform what we think is possible

What does Improv & Performance have to do with my life?! Ok, I hear you: “I’m not creative”,  “I am not a performer”,   “That’s being fake”,  “Are you talking about getting on stage and doing some kind of Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

True enough, we are not all professional actors or in a famous improv troupe.  However, we are all performers in the most basic, practical sense of the term.  Everything we do is a performance – from the most mundane (walking down the street to work with the thousands of others doing the same thing), to the most colorful (dancing the Salsa with your dance instructor).

However, over time we come to think of performance as being fake, only for young children or for actors on a stage. We forget that we can and do improvise, create and perform. We get ‘socialized’ as adults and are overly concerned with knowing how, looking good, following rules and getting results.  The effect is that we sometimes do not have the skills needed to create and build together. We can get stuck, stale, rote. We have a hard time ‘playing well with others’ so to speak.

Seeing ourselves as performing all the time loosens us up to do something different, to be more flexible.  It also helps us remember that we are meaning-makers (try saying I Love You with joy then again with rage; a different meaning gets created for you and the recipient).

So, what are some improv skills you can learn and practice right now?  Here are some of the basic ‘rules’ of improv, followed by examples.

Take chances

  • Say something in a new way to the person with whom you are in a fight.  If you usually end your fights with ‘I’m outta here!!’,  try singing it in operetta.
  • Imagine or ‘channel’ a mentor and talk like that person when you feel stuck or want to react in a not-so-helpful way.
  • Go out on the dance floor, even if you ‘don’t know how to dance’. Alternatively, do anything you don’t know how to do and purposefully look foolish.
  • Have some fun and be silly – smile and wave hello vigorously to the driver next to you who just gave you that gesture.

Listen  – Accept  – Build

  • Listen to what is being said, don’t just wait for your turn to talk / argue / prove your point
  • Accept what is being said / done as an offer. It is the “material” you have to work with, whether it’s the material you wanted or not
  • Build with what is being offered by accepting and responding, to help create with the other person and to move forward

Example: Your eight-year-old child refuses to follow bedtime and is chronically tired for school the next day.   You could: 1- react angrily by punishing her and forcing her to bed, or 2 – ignore it and let her run the show which we know gives the wrong message, or 3- accept her statement as an offer-an opportunity to build something more creative and new.

Let’s try option 3:  “Ok Wanda, you don’t want to go to bed and that’s the rule of the house to go to bed by 8:00 pm on a school night, so let’s figure this out together”.

That’s the beginning of the new scene you are now creating with your daughter. You could then do a myriad of things.   You can pick a time to play a game with all family members and the winner chooses their own bedtime on Friday night.   Or you could play the “let’s not go to bed game” for 5 minutes then play the “let’s go to bed game”.  The options are endless.  The point is to not reject what is being offered or to be passive but to creatively build with it, no matter how annoying or inconvenient the offer from your little one might be (our children are experts in those kinds of offers – and by the way, they feel the same about a lot of our offers).

Scenes in the Play of Life

  • When things aren’t going so well, you can ask, “Can we take two?”  “Can we start over? “ How are we doing?”, “Can we stop and do this differently?”
  • You can get really advanced as a director and ask “Can we finish this argument as if we were lying on the beach with drinks in our hand?”

Complete Vs Compete

  • Paying attention to others to advance what is happening without your ego (e.g. – what is best for this scene right now versus what would make me look the best).
  • Make others look good. I know you might be cringing at that one given our cutthroat, competitive, winner-takes-all culture.  However, making others look good is not the same as being a ‘sucker’ or letting others take credit for your skills and accomplishments. I simply mean that a group can move forward by being invested in making each other look great.  Imagine if we got this suggestion out to everyone, so that we all were trying to make others look good — then no one would be left out!

Yes-And versus No-But and Accept Offers –The Improv Classics

No But includes:  negating, rejecting, arguing, doing right/wrong talk

Yes And includes:  accepting offers, building with someone’s action or statement versus seeing it as problem to change or fix.


“I hate you right now!!!!” (Yeay there’s a teenager in the house)

No But response: “You don’t talk to me that way you %*%@$&**!!” which continues the negating/fighting OR

Yes, And response:            “Yes, and let’s figure out a way to resolve this that’s

kinder and more respectful

I would love to take a walk in the park on Sunday with you”.

No, But response: “No we can’t do that I am too busy” OR

Yes, And response: “Yes that sounds nice, and I have a lot of work to do, can we figure out how to do both?

Using “Yes, And” is critically important to successfully managing, or better yet, playing and creating with the stuff of our daily lives.

These tools of improv, practiced as a way of life, creates joy, richness, and super relationships. I invite you to relate to your daily life as an ongoing performance:  choosing to write our own scenes where you and I are creating together as part of the broader play of life.

On to the next scene…

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Important article last month in NYT Magazine called the Americanization of Mental Illness (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/magazine/10psyche-t.html?adxnnl=1&emc=eta1&adxnnlx=1265938557-jVBI0HaxgoJ+c9pYJUMISQ) that takes a look at the contextualizing of mental illness , how it is a culturally understood verses universal /objective concept.   Great read, what do you think…

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Pathologizing normal?

Interesting Radio interview on DSM 5 .. what do you think?


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Ok there’s been a recent mini-upsurge on the topic  of therapists using  /  not using ’scientifically- proven’ approaches to helping clients, namely a Newsweek article entitled Ignoring the Evidence: Why do Psychologists Reject Science? (http://www.newsweek.com/id/216506) and  other on-line articles from colleagues in  the field.

Here’s my written response to  this latest flurry on science and therapy that I wanted to share with you:

As a practitioner of a post-modern ( well maybe at this point even post-post modern) approach to helping people develop called social therapy (www.eastsideinstitute.org / http://www.Letsdevelopphilly.org) I would like to add to the conversation that there is/has been a growing body of theorists, academics and practitioners in psychology who point out the limitations and distortions of still trying to use the tools and methods of modernist science as a way to legitimize and evaluate the practice of sound, helpful and ethical approaches of therapy.

I think we need to come up with new sciences new tools and methods to help inform so-called best practices that take into consideration our subjective-ness, our non-generalize-ability, and recognizing in the most serious and sophisticated way that it is the relationship you build with your clients that helps them.

I invite us to ask whether understanding human life needs to be a cultural and philosophical activity, rather than a scientific one. Whether people the world over would be better served if we looked at the human landscape with a painter’s, poet’s, and storyteller’s sensibilities instead of with the biologist’s and physicist’s scientific tools.


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I recently listened with intrigue to several interviews of Barbara Ehrenreich (author of the well read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America).   She’s been on the publicity circuit for her new book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books, 2009).

This opens what I think is an interesting and thought-provoking dialogue regarding the impact of the think-positive movement.  What I took from the interviews is that Ehrenreich critiques the sometimes overly-used, overly-simplified Pollyanna-ish mantra to ‘just stay positive and good things will happen’, including cures for our cancers and money in our bank accounts before we foreclose on our mortgages (see the popularity of The Secret and any Oprah show).

I am looking forward to reading the book to explore her critique further.  What exactly is the cultural-political-social-emotional effect of the increasingly popularized positivity movement, with all the pink ribbons for breast cancer and self-help / pop-psychology tips to have positive attitude in the face of life’s difficulties?  Of course this critique runs the risk of over-simplification as well, i.e.)  Ehrenreich’s argument for being more realistic might be just the other side of the same coin:  optimism  / realism.

With that caveat in mind, though, I think it is an interesting conversation / debate, raising questions such as:

  • What do we mean by “positive” anyway – what is a positive attitude, positive thinking?  Is it the permanently happy-faced / turn-lemons–into-lemonade attitude that annoys us after about 30 seconds?  Or is it more like the loving-kindness that Buddhists and mindfulness-based therapists expound upon: giving love and kindness to ourselves and others is The Way, or are we talking about something else altogether
  • What is the moralism and judgmentalism that (necessarily?) comes with using the terms positive and negative? Are these dualistic categories another over-simplification? For example, is sharing  / socializing / giving something difficult that going on– you know, the messy stuff of humanness: fear, bitterness, anger –  is that negative?  What if that sharing of the messy stuff builds a closer relationship and helps the person having difficulty…is that negative or positive? And who or what decides what column – N or P  –  a particular thought or action falls under?

I digress, as my thought in looking forward to reading the book is that the ‘problem’ with some segments of the positivity movement is not the issue of being positive in-and-of-itself, if we define positivity as being kind, open, supportive towards ourselves and the world. The ‘problem’ might be that there is this stronghold modernist-scientific belief in causality: if you are positive it will somehow cause your cancer to go away or cause your marriage to be fixed or cause a check to come to your mailbox.   But what if we go with another non-linear, non-causal perspective, and look at how maybe thinking and living positively is a nice, decent way (albeit just one of many ways) to live life with others – not that it will cause any particular outcome that you want, it just is. What do you think?


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I’m reading this book called Ending the Pursuit of Happiness by Barry Magid (Wisdom Publications, 2008). He is Zen practitioner as well as a psychoanalyst.   He points out the importance that vulnerability plays in our emotion health.  He says that as long as we try to avoid or are afraid of feeling vulnerable, we are paradoxically more defensive and unable to be fully human.   Being fully human is what makes us strong:  able to respond to life’s pains and pressures, and joys and surprises.

So, a way to be vulnerable is to embrace that we do in fact need each other and need support and don’t know what we are doing sometimes (or more than sometimes!).  That’s hard given our fierce commitment to American Individualism and the Western bias of intellectualism (being smart = better person).

I am reminded of the work created by my mentor Dr. Fred Newman (Lets Develop, CLRP Publications, 1994) where he invites us to not only accept and embrace our feelings of vulnerability but to actively GIVE our vulnerability to others:  don’t be so possessive for goodness sake and instead, see our human-ness (“I’m scared”, “I need your help”, “I don’t know what to do”, etc.)  as good material to give to others to build with!  What do I mean good material to build with?    Well, you tell me:  next time you want to act cool, put together, like you know what your doing when you are scared, anxious, confused – share your vulnerability with the person you are with and ask for help.  Tell me what happens, what you and the person produce together,  and how sharing impacted on you.

Imagine that. Well, I not only imagine this I work hard to practice that advice in my own life and with my clients.  And I find that I am of course failing all the time.   After all  – like the rest of us  – I like to look smart / be a Knower / look good.   I am starting my New Year’s resolution early this year and want to resolve to ask for your help to ask for your help more!  Here’s to being vulnerable together!!!!  What do you think?

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