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Music is playing and I can hear the audience chatting. I’m standing in the dark behind the curtain, taking deep breaths in an attempt to quiet the unfamiliar feeling infiltrating my body and mind. I’ve never felt it before and I don’t know how to calm it down. It’s not nerves. It’s not excitement. It’s anxiety.
I started performing comedy at 27. Without any prior stage experience, besides the occasional Indian singing and dancing my mother forced me to do as a child, my introduction to the world of live comedy shook me in every way—testing my ego, challenging my creativity, sharpening my observational skills, and pushing the boundaries of my limits for failure.
I grew up feeling pretty secure in my worth as a human being, my confidence and self-esteem rooted in a deep connection with my soul. My ability to calm myself in stressful situations helped me dodge the debilitating anxiety plaguing so many around me. But feeling good about myself based on internal factors rather than outside forces wasn’t so easy after falling in love with comedy—especially when I earned some early success.
A funny reputation
After taking improv classes for a year, I auditioned and was cast on an improv team with a weekly performance slot. Within a year I also started performing weekly on stand-up, sketch, and variety shows. I co-hosted and produced a monthly comedy show at one of the hottest theaters in Philadelphia. I was later hired to teach improv classes and direct improv teams at the same theater I learned how to do improv in just a couple years before.
But a new, distinctively immobilizing sense of anxiety was rising as fast as my career.
I began to feel enormous pressure to always live up to my reputation of being funny. All comedians know it’s impossible to have a good show every night, but my fear of bombing took over the initial joy I felt while performing comedy as a somewhat anonymous newbie.
A good show felt like floating in euphoria, while a bad show felt like having food poisoning.
I had never wanted to be good at something as much as I wanted to be great at comedy. It became my world. I wrote during the day and spent my evenings at rehearsals, open mics, teaching or directing improv, and shows. But if I wanted to have a long-lasting career in comedy, I had to address my anxiety.
Because for the first time in my life, I started having trouble sleeping. I would toss and turn for hours, incapable of stopping my brain from replaying and dissecting my performance every night. I spoke with my therapist about my increasing anxiety surrounding writing new material and performing.
The seven-year grind
I began to learn ways to cope. My heroes talk a lot about finding joy and peace in “the process,” but I had always hated the process, preferring immediate results and gratification. I’m more of a sprinter rather than a marathon runner. But I researched the career paths of my favorite comedians, who all describe grinding in the comedy scene for at least seven years before getting a nibble of success that would actually help pay the bills.
I began to understand that occasional bad shows didn’t mean I wasn’t talented or funny. I accumulated enough solid performances to know that I was good at this. During my first year performing, a good show felt like floating in euphoria, while a bad show felt like having food poisoning. With time and daily meditation, I learned to let go of every show as soon as I stepped off stage, no matter if I slayed, bombed, or was just wildly mediocre. I practice staying present before, during, and after performances. Six years deep into my own process, I’m trying to return to the pure joy I get from doing comedy, rather than the anxiety that says I have a better chance of winning the lottery than succeeding as a comedian.
“You are already complete”
Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle believes anxiety is a form of fear caused by worrying too much about the future and not enough presence in the now. Tolle advises non-attachment to the fruit of your action and understanding on a deeper level that “you are already complete, and when you realize that, there is a playful, joyous energy behind what you do.” No longer pursuing your goals driven by fear, “neither your happiness nor your sense of self depends on the outcome, and so there is freedom from fear,” says Tolle.
I have found peace in letting go of the outcome and focusing on the process. It keeps me living in the present rather than the past or future. Do I still feel anxiety? Most definitely. But with time I have developed tools and practices to let the anxiety pass instead of letting it magnify. The vulnerability it took to place myself in situations where I had no idea how things were going to go on any given night was terrifying, but anxiety management isn’t just for performers.
The power of less control
My own particular battle with anxiety was linked to my desire for control. Whether it’s my job, relationships, or mental health, I always wanted to be in charge of the narrative. Now, I’ve internalized the belief that I can’t control everything, and that’s actually okay. It grants me so much freedom, and I feel so much more secure in myself.
People are going to be who they are and things are going to happen as they happen. I’m choosing to focus simply on being who I want to be—both as an artist and a human being. My initial fears ultimately led to powerful growth in the form of newfound patience, self-awareness, and clarity. Identifying the root causes of my anxiety instead of avoiding them has made me feel like the strongest version of myself, and I embrace new challenges not just in the process of comedy, but of being human in a complicated world.
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