Saving the Icky for Those We Love

I was recently given homework in my improv class to notice which daily conversations begin in the middle (i.e. skip over small talk) and which conversations stay on a surface level.

One thing I noticed is that I'm often my most pleasant self with acquaintances, but when my husband gets home I skip the pleasantries and unload the junk.

Similarly, many of us have kids that come home and have saved their 'worst' for us. It's the meltdown after school over having to take our shoes off at the door, or the prompt to start homework that devolves into tears.

We unload our pent up emotions on those we love because they are safe, smushy and unconditional in their love. It's totally essential to have those outlets, and we build trust and connection through sharing the hard stuff. But it is hard. And tiring. Especially to be a receptacle of the icky (as all parents are).

I've found that improv can ease some of the burden and stress of these interactions. If I can conjure the energy (a big if) and put on my improv hat (or big girl pants or clown nose) I find that these moments are smoother. 

1. Improv helps ground me in the moment. Improv has trained my brain to say 'yes' to any given moment. I am there. I am noticing what is happening. I recognize the emotions (mine or others) hiding behind a behavior, or I notice a facial expression I may not see when I'm checked out or distracted. 

2. I am more likely to look for the positive because improv is rooted in collaboration. In the case of a grumpy child, instead of immediately reacting with my own strong emotion I'm more likely to say Oh, so this is where G needs to just vent. My job is to be here and hold the space for him. I am able to see constructive, nurturing and supportive opportunities in an otherwise fraught or difficult interaction.

3. Improv helps me be creative. When I unload on my husband I sometimes feel stuck in the grumpiness. Improv can help unstick. An improviser's mindset is to build, to see things through and be open to an unknown ending. In this case I more readily tap into flexible and divergent thinking, even in the most entrenched interactions. Same old fight about leaving dirty pants on the bathroom floor? Sometimes even after my initial annoyance or vent, I can find gentle or playful ways to interact. With my son, after giving him space to unload the icky, maybe we'll co-create stories about a grumpy horse coming home from school. We'd explore all of the silly, friendly and unfriendly ways someone might show their grumpiness (teaching him about emotions, acceptance and adaptive behaviors).  

So yes, we all have negative emotions. It's essential to accept them as part of being human. And it's important to notice the hard stuff for what it is, and how and with whom we share it. Improv helps us notice and make room for all of it. And it helps us find constructive ways to communicate and model a healthy emotional life. 

*Thank you, Brian Rice!

Keren Gudeman

Minneapolis, Minnesota