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Backstage Experts

3 Times Actors Must Silence the Comparing Mind

3 Times Actors Must Silence the Comparing Mind

A wonderful teacher of mine started a session of classes recently by showing us a flower and asking us to describe it. We said it looked strong, pretty, and red. He then showed us another flower, this one slightly bigger and again asked us to describe the first flower. We said it was delicate, small, pretty, and red. He held up one more flower, this one quite large and exotic and again asked us to describe the first flower. We now described it as being small, frail, red, and plain. 

That poor flower! It did noting but sit there being its pretty red self, only to be diminished when put beside larger, fancier mates.

This is a perfect example of the comparing mind at work. And if you think we were mean to that flower, that’s nothing compared to what we can do to ourselves. 

The first thing to know about the comparing mind is that it’s not your fault. It’s part of the reptilian/survival part of the brain and was very important in keeping the species alive. 

The problem comes when we use it in situations where it’s not needed. We’re often encouraged to do so as children: “Why can’t you be more like Susie? She’s so pretty and polite.” You compare badly with Susie. “Don’t be like Billy, he’s a jerk.” You compare favorably to Billy. In school, maybe you worked hard on a project and got a B, which was great. Instead of leaving it at that, the comparing mind, aided many times by teachers and parents, would have you see your B as not as good as the A the really smart kids got, and better than the C that the other kids got. 

There is a real end of innocence when you realize that nothing can just be just what it is.

And it continues throughout our lives. Maybe you worked out this morning and felt great. Then you left the house and saw someone a little younger and thinner and suddenly you didn’t feel so great. Or you saw someone older and heavier and you felt even better. You see a Bentley in front of you in traffic and your perfectly amazing Prius feels cheap, until you pass a 25-year-old pick-up truck and your Toyota feels amazing again. The examples, from shallow to deep, are endless.

I’ve always thought that there is something violent about the comparing mind. It’s as if when we compare badly to someone it becomes OK for us to beat ourselves up. And if we compare well, it’s OK to beat them up. 

The truth is that we just are. If we could leave it at that, our internal and external worlds would be much happier places. 

The comparing mind insinuates its way into the life of the actor in a variety of unproductive ways. 

In an audition it can become activated immediately after reading the piece for the first time. “Oh, I see, this role is just like all the nurse roles I go out for.”; “Sally usually gets these parts, not me—what would she do with this?”; “I booked a similar role last month; I’ll try to do the same thing.” The comparing mind is not creative. Being entirely unique scares it to death because originality sparks no comparison. Instead, it is contractive—it puts ideas, people, and thoughts into boxes where they live with similar ideas thoughts and people.  

In preparing a role you need to give the comparing mind a rest because the immediate truth is that this particular role has never been done before—this is the very first time this nurse will exist on television or film ever. Your job is to show the people in the audition, with great skill, self knowledge, and creativity what they don’t know. Show them the present moment connectedness that grows out of strong, resonant choices. Show that you have the ability to make those choices personal by exploring the color, temperature, and texture of each choice, so that the audition has the intimate feeling of a person revealing themselves, and all they have to offer, moment by moment. Show them you have the skill to make the words so much your own that they feel like they are hearing them for the very first time. Show them the nurse who breathes with your breath, speaks with your voice, and compares to no other nurse that’s ever existed.

Another place the comparing mind kicks into high gear is in the waiting room. Again, maybe you were feeling amazing on the way to the audition, but now that you look around: that person looks taller and they might want tall, another looks prettier and they might want really pretty, this one over here looks more “nurse-like” they’ll probably go with her, the one next to you looks totally wrong for this, thank goodness. 

At this point it’s important to come back to reality and realize that all of these people are just who they are. The fact that they are taller, prettier, plainer, than you is not a part of their identity, it’s who they are in comparison to you and that is nothing more than a fabrication of your comparing mind. So, relax and let them be who they are. Your job is to accept your entire self for who you are in that moment, because that’s who you’re bringing into the room.

Everything seems to go better when we quiet this agitating part of the mind. 

So maybe it’s time to stop basing our opinions and actions on how we do and don’t measure up to every person we meet, and ask the more essential question, “Who am I when I stop comparing myself to others?” 

The answer to that question is the beginning of the deep awareness and acceptance that could make you incomparable.  

Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!

Craig Wallace is an acting teacher and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Wallace’s full bio!

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