Actors and Self-Sabotage

Contributed with thoughtful hindsight by 2nd Year Student Allison Spence Brown

 Why We as Actors Need to Get Out of Our Own Way for Our Work to Shine

If you’re an actor, chances are you enjoy emoting. (I know I do.) After years of training and being surrounded by actors, there seems to be a belief that being “dramatic”, “broken”, and/or “tortured” is what makes an interesting artist. I used to subscribe to this way of thought…


But, honestly? It gets exhausting.


For me, this mindset manifested itself into self-sabotage. I wound up undermining my own success by thinking my emotions were equally as important as my work. It’s taken me years to realize that this whole “tortured artist thing” is extremely detrimental to my acting.



I will probably always struggle with self-sabotage. It’s a sure-fire way to create heightened feelings. But the danger in allowing ourselves to slide into “self-sabotage-land” is creating one note behavior: Panic. In my experience, panic is intrinsically linked to chaos. Even if it “goes well”, it’s dang near impossible to recreate a chaotic performance. And here at TK Studios, it’s all about clarity.


If you’re training as an actor, chances are you want to do well. You’re aiming for gold stars, constant praise, artistic home runs… and you want those things now. (I know I do.)


But the longer I train (and watch others train), the more I realize: failing at this work is just as important as succeeding. With that said, you’ll never knock it out of the park if you continue to set yourself up to fail.


It’s a vicious cycle: we care so deeply about doing top-notch work that we wind up paralyzed, unsure of how to move ahead, wanting to “get it right”. Often times it’s unintentional. Artists tend to be extraordinarily sensitive — failure can be easier to stomach when we hold back a bit instead of putting our whole hearts and souls into something.


After all, we will always have an excuse to fall back on: “Well, I didn’t try that hard — it’s no wonder I failed!” It’s so much scarier to fall flat on your face without a safety net, so we find a way to craft one into our work — even if it’s an unconscious choice.



I came to this work with zero performance training (well, except for improv). I love the skills improv has given me: being present, listening, catching moments, flexibility, character work, ensemble work, wit, etc… Deep down, I believe these skills are equally as valuable for “dramatic” actors as they are for comedic performers. But I used to rely on my emotionality and my ability to “think on my feet” rather than the importance of deep and detailed crafting. I was sliding by, but I wasn’t pushing myself. I was playing it safe. I wasn’t growing.



I thought I was taking risks by (as my Southern grandmother would say) “flying by the seat of my pants” … but I was just being lazy. Like many, I was (and still am) scared of failure.


Terry tells his students to “run towards the cannons”. The nerves we feel indicate that we care. But courage requires fear. Go ahead and let yourself feel terrified! But instead of allowing it to dig its claws in and hold you back, give it space to propel you forward. Double down and commit!


Now, you might be like “Whoa, that’s dumb! Cannons are deadly! What a horrifying analogy!”


But in acting… honestly? What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’ll feel stupid? You’ll look dumb? You’ll be labeled as untalented?


None of us want to seem like we don’t know what we’re doing up there. But we will never reach our full potential as actors if we’re content with dipping our toes. Why not dive into the deep end and see what happens? If it doesn’t go the way we hoped it would, we can choose to look at that as an opportunity to learn and then try again.


Let’s aim to make our work as tight and clear as possible. That will never happen if we don’t do the work ahead of time.


With that said, once we’ve done the work, it’s incredibly helpful to shift into “f*** it” land. If you’ve laid the track for yourself — take the ride. Trust it! Sure, we may be terrified — but focusing on the terror, rather than the work, will only derail us straight into our heads.


We already have our impulses. We already have our emotions. We NEED the “container” of our homework to keep our work precise — otherwise, we’re in danger of venturing into “deer-in-the-headlights” territory when it doesn’t work out how we’d (half-baked-ly) hoped.



I am the first to acknowledge that it’s a delicate and confusing balance act. We can’t just show up with the “f*** it” attitude: (I’ll say it again) we have to do the homework first. Crafting outside of the classroom is the most important part of what we do. And, from my experience, it makes it that much more rewarding when our work goes “right”.



There’s a reason you were drawn to acting: you care deeply about the art form. (Or, maybe, you only care about fame and success and money and adoration from the masses, in which case this article is probably not for you. And I’m willing to bet you’ve quit reading by now.)  


Art is precious, but we HAVE to have a sense of humor about ourselves — otherwise, we’ll go nuts. We can’t grow if we can’t acknowledge our failures, dust ourselves off and climb back on that wild bucking (b)acting bronco. (#alliteration)




I admire actors who make their work appear effortless; mostly because I’ve learned that acting is never “effortless”. It takes a lot of work to make what we do seamless and natural. Audiences see the finished product — they aren’t privy to the hours upon hours their favorite actors spend busting a** behind the scenes.


I used to think the biggest risk was going up to work and crossing my fingers that things would go my way. Now I see that the greatest risks (and greatest rewards) can only come from doing the work ahead of time and then standing by what you think is interesting and worth exploring.


Truly excellent actors are risk takers. All of us are capable… We just have to be willing to put in the work.


Want to be more like Allison?
Terry Knickerbocker Studio offers comprehensive Two-Year Conservatory rooted in the Meisner technique, in a state of the art facility in Brooklyn, New York.
Interview Today for the Two Year Conservatory
Fill out an Application Here
Or Call 718-801-8999