Wisdom from Michael O’Keefe on Acting, Mindfulness … and Therapy

homeland_1000pxI almost didn’t read a blog by actor Michael O’Keefe , because I didn’t think I could relate to a comparison of acting and meditation. But I’m sure glad I did.
At first I just appreciated that it was a well-written, thoughtful, and fascinating take on how meditation helps an actor perform and be present.

However, I was also struck by how many of these thoughts could also be applied to being a psychotherapist — and being a better person!

Not that being a therapist is about acting, but O’Keefe’s observations are exact parallels to what I’ve experienced as a meditator and therapist. 

I became a therapist later in life after I gained self-acceptance and self-awareness. I think if I had been a therapist prior to this transformation, I would not have understood what he was talking about. 

I remember being in conversations with people when I was younger and compare that to my present experiences as a therapist. I don’t think I really experienced emotional attunement with others back then. 

That’s because I was so busy worrying about the other person liking me. Or I was judging and criticizing myself, or making judgments about the other person. I had no emotional bandwidth left for connecting with others.

With mindfulness and self-acceptance, those mental activities and the accompanying anxiety fall away, leaving me free to truly be with someone, whether in therapy or out. 

I really LOVED this very true O’Keefe wisdom: “The practice of self-observation and inquiry leads not only to an informed self but to a self that can be forgotten.”

Also: “…we begin to realize that nothing separates us from others, and the entire universe, but how we engage with ourselves.” This speaks to the Buddhist concept of common humanity. It also links that to mindfulness and self-acceptance). With self-acceptance we stop being both judge and criminal. We  integrate the self and lose the separation of self and self-hater. 

The following comment speaks to a self-accepting therapist’s ability to let go of her own worries, self-criticisms and need for acceptance to be fully empathic with another: “In order to get to this place you have to have the capacity to be not only your best self, but to forget that self entirely and momentarily become another.”

While the next quote is about acting, it sure applies to the need for therapists to be accepting, empathic, and supportive as they develop an alliance with clients: “What better way to ensure that than developing a mindfulness practice that allows you to include, embrace, and empower others while you work together?”

And: “Mindfulness allows us to take care of ourselves so thoroughly that we have no more need to be concerned about ourselves.”

This is essential for therapists, because if we are thinking about ourselves during therapy we are not fully present emotionally for the client. If I am consumed with thoughts of “Am I doing this right,” or “I shouldn’t have said that,” or “This guy is boring.” then I will be elsewhere cognitively and this is sensed intuitively by the client. 

I can personally attest to the change I experienced when I became mindful and self-accepting. I lost the tendency to be self-absorbed. This showed up in small ways — I didn’t worry so much about how I looked or what I said. 

But it also led to a subtle, but powerful, change that is difficult to describe. Because I was no longer worried about the need to gain approval from others, my anxiety decreased. I stopped constantly scanning the environment for the disapproval of others or looking for ways that I had screwed up.  Because I no longer had to protect my tender self-image from the opinions of others or from my own self-criticism, I was free to open up my intuition and emotional experience to include the needs of others. This is true compassion, not just a manipulative “people-pleasing” behavior. 

And O’Keefe’s final thought: “Being intimate with oneself, and others, is the key. It unlocks the gates of beauty, which can then flow freely through us, and the stories we long to tell.”

Accept Emotional Experiences to Decrease “Fight-or-Flight”

It may seem counterintuitive, but truly accepting emotional experiences is actually the best way to manage them, as this blog notes.

I’d add some neurobiological information: One reason that acceptance works biologically is that it reduces the threat or fear response, also known as “fight-or-flight.” When a person becomes distressed emotionally by an experience — say they feel ashamed, then criticize themselves for doing the behavior and maybe also for feeling ashamed — this lack of acceptance triggers the “fight-or-flight” response in the brain. The brain is sensing something is threatening, not in the environment (“Look, a bear!”) but due only to the person’s thoughts (“I’m a loser!).

The brain senses physical and emotional threats in the same way and the limbic system “turns on,” triggering the release of neurochemicals such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenalin).

So calming an internal, mental response by being self-accepting also calms the body and mind physiologically. 

Be kind to yourself…


Mindful Self-Compassion Makes Me a Better Therapist

I couldn’t have written this better myself — an excellent blog on how “Mindful Self-Compasison Makes Me a Better Therapist” by Kristy Arbon.

I was also trained by Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer on  Mindful Self-Compassion and it absolutely makes me a better therapist. (Although I had coincidentally trained myself go be self-accepting long before I knew that this training and concept existed formally.)  

I have no “burnout” after even 8 straight hours of sessions with client. This is because I am not fearful of their judgment of me because I am unleashed from needing their approval. So much “burnout” is due to the therapist becoming anxious and judgmental about her abilities.

As Kristy notes, clients also are aware emotionally that the therapist is calmer and more present, not anxious and worried. This makes the client more likely to enjoy and profit from therapy. I can also resonate emotionally with clients, especially during Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, and I can tell when real, heart-felt emotions are being expressed because I can feel them empathically. This is not something I could do before I gained self-acceptance. 

Meditation is the foundation for this process and essential at developing a balanced, centered, fearless  emotional state with which to meet clients.