Everyone has some sensitivity to inner experiences and emotions, to the moods of others, and to many other sensations. But highly sensitive people have unusually strong awareness and reactions.
Artists, including actors, are often highly sensitive and use this personality trait to be more creative and effective.
But since the trait can also lead to being overwhelmed, you need to take care of yourself. It can show up in many ways, and actors have different ways of dealing with their high sensitivity.
Renee Zellweger says when she expresses something, it’s through the filter of her character, so she never feels exposed. She thinks of making movies as “private experiences” and avoids thinking about disappointing people.
Many other actors have identified themselves as highly sensitive, including Ellen Muth; Heath Ledger; Amy Brenneman; Mandy Moore; Alison Pill; Naomi Watts, and Brittany Murphy, who once commented, “I’m a very oversensitive, vulnerable person. You have to be to do this for a living.”
“I get emotional all the time,” Jennifer Beals once said. “Every now and again, my heart just explodes and expands.”
Laurel Holloman, her castmate on the tv series “The L Word,” has commented, “My theory on that is all the best actors have a couple of layers of skin peeled away.”
Scarlett Johansson has noted that sensitivity can have a dark side: “I think I was born with a great awareness of my surroundings and of other people. Sometimes that awareness is good, and sometimes I wish I wasn’t so sensitive.”
And Winona Ryder admits there have been times when she has thought, “I’m too sensitive for this world right now; I just don’t belong here. It’s too fast and I don’t understand it.”
One way to help yourself is to look at how you describe your feelings. Are you “too sensitive” to work effectively or be with people who are more “normal” or less sensitive? Acknowledging yourself as being highly sensitive may help your self concept and confidence much more than saying you are “too much” something or other.
Fame can be an assaultive experience for sensitive people. Johnny Depp has said he felt so intimidated by his celebrity status during his early career that he was often drunk to “be able to speak and get through it.”
But fame can also be strengthening, as Kim Basinger explained: “Because I’m such a shy person, having to live it out loud in front of everyone has made me a stronger woman, so much stronger, that it’s been a gift to me in a way.”
Shyness is a common experience for many highly sensitive people, including actors.
Nicole Kidman identifies herself as “really very shy” and notes it can be confusing to people, because as an actor, “you are meant to be an exhibitionist.”
Jane Fonda admits she didn’t get over her shyness until she was about sixty.
Evan Rachel Wood says, “I used to not even be able to order pizza on the phone because I was just so shy.’ She thinks acting allows so much to come out on-screen, “because that’s my time to let go in a safe place.”
Frances McDormand has talked about the “mental scar tissue” that helps us deal with emotional pain in life, and thinks, “An actor’s scar tissue really never covers over things the same way, not if you’re going to be sensitive. With good technique, an actor can do that and walk through life without going insane.”
One strategy she suggests is to simply get away from the theater or the set, and live life in the real world, not a fantasy world, especially one like a film set that can be designed to be emotionally intense.
The stage or film set can be a “safe place” in many ways, and a workplace environment where sensitive people can express themselves much more freely than in the “real world” outside.
But wherever you go, sensitivity does not disappear. You will help support your power as an actor if you make sure you aren’t getting overwhelmed with excitement, stress, discomfort or even anxiety while acting.
Douglas Eby is a writer and researcher on the psychology of creative expression and personal growth, and author of the Talent Development Resources series of sites, including The Inner Actor http://theinneractor.com