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don't make your partner look and feel good...

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

These days, I am pondering the idea "make your partner look/feel good" which we share as one of the key tenets of (theatre) improvisation.

"Make your partner look and feel good."

This phrase has been with me from very early on in my practice of improv theatre and has had a profound influence on my ability to sense other people's needs. On stage, this instruction generally helps me shift my focus towards being a generous scene partner. As a trainer and facilitator, I have often used this phrase to much delight in the room. I made it my guide to be present with my participants' needs.

Just recently though, I was reminded of an experience I had some years ago during a workshop: We were practicing making suggestions for scenes which our partners would enjoy to participate in. We would enter the space and start by doing or saying something which our partner could build on or reject with a simple "nope." When they said "nope," we would start over.

While the first few times, I thoroughly enjoyed this process, I gradually became more self-conscious and slower at making spontaneous suggestions. Spontaneity here referring to the ability of letting that which is felt on the inside be expressed uncensored. I got so caught up in guessing what my scene-partner would enjoy (i.e. making them "look and feel good,") that I could barely come up with ideas, especially not interesting ones. I told them that I was working really hard because I wanted them to have a good time. We had a good laugh about it but the experience stuck with me.

I learned that day that on stage, I can get really busy thinking about my scene-partners because I want them to have fun. Off-stage, I can also get so (over)concerned with how others are doing, that I can no longer get in touch with how I am feeling and start to over-think everything I do and say. I dissociate from my own needs and over-empathise with my partner to the point of self-obstruction. Like trying to help a drowning person and starting to drown myself.

Earlier last week, I attended my coach-training with Phoenix Opleidingen where we are exploring the topic of intimacy in contact with other people. A phrase the trainers used was: "how do we meet each other in the eyes of the other?" (In Dutch: Hoe komen we elkaar tegen in de ogen van de ander?). How do we relate?

"How do we meet each other in the eyes of the other?"

One of my main inquiries of this year is how I enter into symbiosis and co-dependency with other people. How much my own feelings of happiness and safety depend on other people's. And how important it is to me that they signal that they are happy, they mean no harm and I am safe.

Expressed a little more bluntly: how busy I can get regulating my own behaviour in order to influence and manipulate the behaviour of others around me for my (and their, but let's be honest, at this stage mostly my) benefit.

Of course this makes sense from a survivalist perspective and isn't necessarily a 'bad' thing to do. But neither is it an inherently 'good' thing. My interest here lies in when my behaviour turns from being nourishingly social to getting in the way of intimacy and, even further, to blocking off the connection entirely. My connection with myself and the other.

Practices which are supporting me on this journey are Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Qi Gong. I practice in groups and every day on my own, learning to recognise miniscule signals travelling through my body when I move and when I am in touch with someone else. I say 'in touch' to include both touching and being touched, two very different kinds of sensations.

Entering someone else's space feels very different to someone entering mine.

This kind of learning takes me through my inner blockages which hold painful memories of the past, all the way from awkward interactions to dangerous breaches of my internal and external boundaries. They are the same blockages that prevent me from being truly present with someone else in the here and now by being vigilant, regulating, and dissociating. The irony here being that the more I seek to control, the less influence I have on the situation.

As I now become increasingly conscious of my own existence, my senses for balance and grounding are being honed. Thereby, when in contact with someone else, my self-awareness has more chance at remaining in tact while my edges become more fluid. My need for "taking care of" others makes way for my knowing and tending to myself while curiously tending to those around me. And that usually leads to both/all of us having a reasonably good time.

I've heard an improvisation teacher riff on the first-aid advice to "take care of yourself first" by saying: "Take care of yourself but not at the expense of your partner. And take care of your partner but not at the expense of yourself." (If you know who said/wrote this, let me know and I will credit accordingly) Whoever it was, I would like to explore this as: expand your awareness of yourself and your partner(s).

"Expand your awareness of yourself and your partner(s)."

"Expand awareness" because aside from all of the confusion of our personal boundaries mentioned above, I can only ever guess at my partner's real needs in that moment. When I ask them, I hope that they are able to express themselves honestly towards themselves and me. And even then, while I can have the best intention of holding them with care, I may accidentally cross a boundary that I wasn't aware of or that they were unable to uphold.

Conversely, I may get anxious or frustrated when I notice my partner not taking care of me in the way I would like them to. They may even attempt to step over my boundariers. It makes sense to expand our awareness in such a way that we become ready to deal with whatever our partner might bring to the scene. And should they bring something that threatens us, we can make decisions to engage with our vulnerability, protect ourselves or leave before we sink down too far.

I initially wanted to write that the phrase "don't intentionally cause harm" is taken as a given throughout this piece, however, with an increasing awareness of our inherently interdependent community of lives and the vast complexity of my own inner workings that make me do things the way I do them, it is becoming difficult for me to draw a clear line between intention and unintended consequences.

And finally, "partner(s)," because I think it is time to start looking beyond other humans out into our world of animals, plants, fungi and elements. When we become aware of our needs and untangle our unhealthy co-dependencies, we will inevitably become aware of our symbiotic relationships that nourish us and uphold our life on this planet.

We are social beings living in an ever changing and adapting ecology of species. We are being cared for. We all need each other. And we all need to be custodians of our shared spaces, respecting our own and each other's needs.

In essence, expanding our awareness takes a lot of practice and can hurt, a lot, as we face what is (still) here with us right now. Which is why I find it important to attend classes and trainings regularly where I can fall and get back up. First together with help, then alone. Then help someone else do it together until they can do it alone. Now we can choose.

focus on your partner. We expand our awareness of ourselves and others. We provide protective intervention and open spaces for mutual reflection.

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