How Can Elite Performers Overcome Nonstop Criticism & Find Strength?
When it comes to the ways we address issues of mental health and self-care, we’ve definitely come a long way … but much of that progress centers on regular people. We know more about how stress and trauma impact doctors, office workers, and teachers, and have adjusted our reactions and language accordingly.
But we don’t often think about the unique challenges faced by actors, musicians, elite athletes, and other performers who live their entire lives in the spotlight. These people are rich, famous and supposedly have it all… but they may face crippling anxiety, stress, self-doubt, rejection, even self-sabotage. In fact, many performers grapple with a whole slew of mental health pressures uniquely associated with being at the top of their profession.
Consider this: many actors are required to excavate the murky depths of their own souls to bring authenticity to their roles … and may still be met with lukewarm or dismissive reviews. Athletes give their entire selves to their sports, but may face angry derision if their performance somehow falls short or teammates fail to rally. Dancers, singers, and other artists are constantly expected to pour their most vulnerable selves into their work, yet fans feel perfectly free to trash the resulting art across social media.
Top performers of all types walk a perilous tightrope between giving their all to their work and jeopardizing their mental health. They balance creating unforgettable art with maintaining their personal wellbeing. Being famous means being criticized. Being a performer means learning to live with rejection.
How they keep their sanity in-tact is a mystery to many … but not to me. As a coach who helps actors, musicians, and elite athletes navigate the challenges of life in the public eye, I’ve seen how performers learn to cope with negativity from casting directors, peers, producers, and the public. Not to mention themselves! And to illustrate how resilient these gifted individuals can be, I interviewed seven prominent artists and performers about their experiences with criticism—both internal and external—and how they’ve kept it from impacting their mental health. The insights they shared confirmed so much of what I already knew to be true.
Not only do performers operate in highly-demanding, highly-visible industries with unique pressures, they are often naturally empathetic, emotionally attuned individuals. This is what makes them so great at creating evocative art .. but it’s also what makes them vulnerable to the nonstop rejection and negativity that accompanies their vocation.
“We’re naturally more sensitive creatures, we artists,” says actress, dancer, and singer Emilia McCarthy. “So it’s interesting that we’re the people who put ourselves in the most vulnerable profession. Actors are asked to do the craziest things. I don’t think there’s another profession really, where you’re asked to be so vulnerable in front of an audience of people.”
McCarthy told me she’s seen colleagues whose depression and anxiety have been triggered relentlessly by the pressures of the acting industry, and that facing rejection can wear on their mental health. Daniella Monet, actor and founder of Kinder Beauty Box, agrees that offering up your best performance and being met with dismissal can be disheartening.
“I wasn’t always very good at [coping with rejection]. When I was younger it was a lot harder and that showed up in various ways,” Monet explains. “My mental health wasn’t great. I struggled in school. I was young and I was being spread a little too thin. I cared about what I was doing and I wanted to win. So anytime a door closed on me, it hurt and I took it personally.”
Since I want my clients to thrive at the highest level, create their most authentic and profound work, and find lasting fulfillment, I urge them to acclimate to constant feedback. Performers will never exist in a vacuum, and learning to manage the input they inevitably receive—both positive and negative—is a hugely important coping mechanism. Even just accustoming themselves to being observed and seen is a skill worth cultivating.
“You get this crazy extra-perceptual thing based on the people that are watching you and how you’re performing,” says former extreme sports athlete Jeff Lavin. “Eventually you get into the state as an athlete where you see how other people see you.”
There’s no question that criticism, rejection, and never ending scrutiny take their toll. But performers are becoming increasingly savvy in stewarding their mental health in the face of these negative energies.
Be yourself, protect yourself
Singer-songwriter Olivia King has had her fair share of critique and disappointment. From fan comments to canceled record contracts, she’s had to cope with the gamut of invalidation. But, as she told me, she’s learned to ride the waves in her own way.
“I’ve gotten to where I hate showing people my music before I put it out because someone could hate it and someone could love it, and then I start doubting myself,” King explains. “So I’ve started to just zone in, do my thing, and release it. If you like it, great. If you don’t, you don’t. People just have different opinions about it. It’s so subjective.”
It took a lot of self-reflection to realize that she didn’t need to share her new songs until they were released to the public, but now that she knows that, King has stepped fully into her confidence.
As a film and television actor, Bill Oberst Jr. may not have to contend with pre-release criticism of his work, but he does have to wrestle with another tough opponent: social media. Oberst has worked hard to ground himself in self-acceptance and wisdom, but ten minutes on Twitter can erode that confidence.
“Suddenly, you are connected with 100,000 people who follow and wait for you to say things. Invariably, out of 100,000 people, you will have 2,000 who will comment negatively on what you say and pull it apart,” he says. “It makes you not want to say anything.”
He admits that he’s often tempted to overreact to online goading, but has found his personal key to managing the negativity: a combination of detachment and empathy.
“The easy familiarity with which we hurl insults virtually, it’s very human, but it can be very damaging if you don’t realize that ultimately, it’s not real!” Oberst says. “You realize that we’re all children, and this is just another sandbox.”
Actress Kelly Rutherford navigates rejection and criticism by redirecting her focus. Over time, she’s realized that dwelling in the negative just creates more negativity, but that the opposite can be true, too. Rutherford shapes her reality by elevating the positive in her life.
“Now I’m focusing on what I wanted to create, versus continually talking about and focusing on the problems,” she says. That was a huge shift.”
Dee Wallace, whose acting career spans multiple decades, agrees that the key to living with critique and scrutiny is mindfulness and authenticity. That making choices around how you think and feel can completely transform your experience of the artistic professions.
“It’s so important that you choose to define yourself,” Wallace insists. “It’s not anything about what somebody else thinks about you. You have to say, ‘This is who I am.’”
As a former elite international showjumper myself, I’m no stranger to the spotlight and the unique pressures faced by those ascending to the upper echelons of their profession. But I was so grateful to these successful creatives for sharing their tactics and insights with me. Performers have a tendency to look inward when we feel distressed … but clearly, we can learn a lot from each other about how to protect our boundaries and access our confidence in the face of a tough and trying industry.
If you’re an artist or athlete and would like bespoke guidance, please reach out to me! Through my own lived experience in this space, I have become a world class-coach to professional performers, artists, actors, and creatives. My methods push far beyond mere performance coaching; I use the Claim Your Shine modality to help highly-sensitive artists seeking deep personal development to live a life of both massive professional impact AND lasting fulfillment.
Written by Cathy Spaas.
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