“I was a highly sensitive child... I think most actors are highly sensitive people.” - Nicole Kidman
Many creative people including actors have the personality trait of high sensitivity. The technical term for the trait is sensory processing sensitivity, and is present in about 20 percent of us. It includes being unusually responsive to sensory and emotional stimulation, and often being more aware of other people's emotions.
What is high sensitivity, and how is it related to introversion and shyness?
Psychologist Elaine Aron is one of the leading researchers and authors on the trait, and has published a questionnaire: "Are You Highly Sensitive?"
Here are a few items:
* I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.
* I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.
* Other people’s moods affect me.
* I tend to be very sensitive to pain.
* I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
* I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.
You can take the full test to see how many items apply to you.
Sensitivity and Introversion are slightly different but very close. Dr. Aron comments that Susan Cain’s popular book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking" is really more about HSPs (highly sensitive people) than social introverts.
Aron writes, “Her discussion of ‘introversion’ throughout is almost identical to what has become the standard definition of high sensitivity - deep thinkers, preferring to process slowly, sensitive to stimuli, emotionally reactive, needing time alone, and so forth…”
Psychologist Cheryl Arutt, who has a number of film credits as an actor, commented in one of our interviews about being an artist that "an exquisite sensitivity is an asset when it comes to creating art - I mean, after all, they are their own instruments."
But, she added, "That same sensitivity can often make the painful experiences they have even more so."
One of the main characteristics of the related trait of introversion is that we lose energy or feel 'drained' from activities or situations that usually energize extroverts. For example, a party, restaurant or loud environment may become "too much" stimulation for a sensitive person or introvert to want to experience very long.
Too many things to pay attention to and react to, including other people.
As an actor who is highly sensitive, situations like auditions, rehearsals, meeting producers, doing press interviews may be draining or emotionally challenging, at least after a while. That may be one reason some successful film actors enjoy the comforts of their trailers, or a more private life, away from people.
"I'm going to sound a little weird here, but I like to spend a lot of time on my own in the woods. I don't exactly sneak off in the middle of the night, but I like to be in a place where no one can reach me by phone or e-mail." - Joaquin Phoenix
In her research, Elaine Aron found that a "pesky 30% of sensitive people" were describing themselves "as talking a lot, liking to meet new people, having a lot of friends, and enjoying large parties. "Yet otherwise they were like the other 70% — sensitive to pain, caffeine, and loud noise; not liking pressure; being easily overstimulated; and so forth."
She adds, "So they also needed plenty of down time away from others, unlike most extroverts."
Categories and labels, including these kinds of personality types, may be convenient to categorize ourselves and others, but we are more complicated than labels, especially as creative people. And we are not just one trait or the other: we may feel sensitive or introverted at times, in some situations, but extroverted in others.
Psychologist Elaine Aron says because highly sensitive people "prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called ‘shy.’ “But shyness is learned, not innate."
Shyness is a mild form of social anxiety and is not the same as the personality traits of introversion and high sensitivity, although all three can overlap for many of us. Over the years of reading and watching interviews with actors, I have often been struck by how many of them are so compelling in their performances, but talk about being shy off-camera or off-stage.
Kim Basinger has been kind of famously shy, and has talked about the value of acting as a way to deal with it, like a number of other actors. She said, “Because I’m such a shy person, having to live it out loud in front of everyone has made me a stronger woman, so much stronger, that it’s been a gift to me in a way.”
Nicole Kidman has commented, “It was very natural for me to want to disappear into dark theater, I am really very shy. That is something that people never seem to fully grasp because, when you are an actor, you are meant to be an exhibitionist.”
A number of other dynamic actors have talked about being shy, including Jane Fonda, Taye Diggs, Evan Rachel Wood, Chris Cooper and more.
Being a highly sensitive person can help you connect with your own emotions and the other people you work with. But as Scarlett Johansson has noted, sensitivity can have a dark side, perhaps especially when you are out in the "real" world: “I think I was born with a great awareness of my surroundings and an awareness of other people. I know when I really connect with somebody. Sometimes that awareness is good, and sometimes I wish I wasn’t so sensitive. Sometimes you don’t wanna see what’s behind people’s doors.”
Author and research professor Brené Brown notes: “In our culture, we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.”
As an actor, you probably will be more dynamic and expressive the more vulnerable you are, and more willing to access all your emotions, even "unacceptable" or painful ones.
Frances McDormand thinks “With most people when there’s a pain in their life there’s mental scar tissue that forms over the pain and helps you go on living. An actor’s scar tissue really never covers over things the same way, not if you’re going to be sensitive. With good technique, an actor can do that and walk through life without going insane.”
Staying emotionally safe while still vulnerable can be a challenge.
“Most actors are highly sensitive people," Nicole Kidman has said, "but you have this incredible scrutiny. You have to develop a thick skin, but you can’t have a thick skin in your work. So it’s that constant push-pull of going, How do I stay human and vulnerable and real, and how do I, at the same time, not let all this affect me?”
She has also commented about the emotionality of the work - which can be especially intense for sensitive people:
“You live with a lot of complicated emotions as an actor, and they whirl around you and create havoc at times. And yet, as an actor you’re consciously and unconsciously allowing that to happen."
Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain are both powerful in their acting performances, and both have commented about being sensitive, introverted or shy.
Elba commented in an interview: “I wouldn’t say I have much of an outgoing personality. I’m pretty shy.”
Chastain said, “I walk the dogs, I play the ukulele, I cook. I’m not a girl who goes to big parties – I’m shy.” She has also commented, “I’m very sensitive in real life. I cannot not cry if someone around me is crying…even if it’s not appropriate. I have that thing in me, a weakness or sensitivity.”
That comment about "a weakness or sensitivity" may be a reflection of how many people (perhaps including agents, casting directors, entertainment journalists etc) view sensitivity in negative ways. These negative views can lead to many of us thinking there is something "wrong" or "deficient" in our personalities.
But as many actors show in their work, you don't have to "toughen up" or stop being "so sensitive" to be a dynamic and powerful artist. Emotional awareness and responsiveness, embracing your personality traits like being highly sensitive, can help fuel that power. Of course, you also should also respect your needs for emotional health, especially when you are highly sensitive.
Psychiatrist Judith Orloff explains, "Empaths take the experience of the highly sensitive person much further. We can sense subtle energy...This capacity allows us to experience the energies around us in extremely deep ways."
As an actor or other artist, you may even be an empath, as well as highly sensitive. You can learn a lot more about this form of high sensitivity from Dr. Orloff, who has published many articles, books and videos.
Heather Graham expressed one of the most valuable and positive reasons for therapy or counseling for an actor: knowing your emotions and inner dynamics better, so you can portray being a human more authentically.
She said: “Acting is telling a story, and you’re part of telling that story. In some ways therapy helps more than acting class. You realize why you operate in certain ways.”
A final quote from musician Alanis Morissette that can apply to actors and other creative people being more aware of who they are, to gain more power to express themselves:“Being a sensitive empath is a beautiful thing as an artist, and it fosters a deep burning curiosity about why we do the things we do.”
I hope this article has been informative for you, and sparked some interest in learning more about your emotional life as an artist.
Douglas Eby is a writer and researcher on creative people, personality psychology and emotional health. He is author of the Creative Mind series of sites including *The Creative Mind; *Talent Development Resources; *High Ability; *Highly Sensitive and Creative; *The Inner Entrepreneur; *Anxiety Relief Solutions; *Personal Growth Information, and other sites providing information and inspiration to enhance creative expression and personal development.
Exploring our inner life as creative people has been a passionate interest of mine for years, and I have published many related articles on my various sites and other media.
For a few titles, see list on my main site The Creative Mind: “Articles and resources for actors and performers.” http://thecreativemind.net/articles-on-actors-and-acting/
Like this blog post? Please share it on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email etc) by using social media buttons at the top of the blog. Or post to your personal blog and anywhere else you feel appropriate. Thank you.
As always, we welcome thoughts and remarks on ANY of the content above in the Comments section below...
Got an idea for a post? Or have you collaborated with Stage 32 members to create a film?
We'd love to hear about it. Email Joleene at email@example.com and let's get your post published!
|Free AMA with Our Very Own Stage 32 CEO Richard "RB" Botto|
|Marked For Success: Networking on Stage 32 Leads to Feature Film Collaboration|