8 Things Improv Taught Me About Myself

UPDATED: May 27, 2016
PUBLISHED: May 27, 2016

I’m standing with my nose four inches away from a brick wall, my shoulders hunched forward. I’m speaking to the wall about my fear of failure.

It starts with the little things—“Jamie, you need to re-work parts of this article.” Am I a bad writer? Have I convinced people I’m a good writer all of these years? I escalate to the larger things—Is this just a recurring headache, or is it something more serious?

Then, I puff out my chest, put my hands on my hips and smile at the wall. Of course I will marry you! I’d call that happiness level 9. They have gluten-free food here!—happiness level 2.

I’m not insane. I don’t normally express my emotions in front of a wall. I’m at an improv class at the Dallas Comedy House, where 15 of us are being told to express different emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, lust) on a scale of 1 to 10. While facing a cold brick wall. With everyone else yelling (or mumbling) in the background. The process feels oddly therapeutic and I learn a lot about myself. I have difficulty expressing lust at a level 6-10, while sadness at most levels comes easily to me. Not sure what that means…

I’ve enrolled in this improv comedy class to prepare for a challenge I’m taking on for SUCCESS magazine: performing stand-up comedy at an open mic.

Related: 17 Empowering Quotes From the Funniest Women Alive

I’m an anxious, tightly wound person. I often have trouble going with the flow and relaxing. I’m a Type A personality, tend to be on the serious side and am risk-averse. I rarely crack jokes unless I’m with close friends or family. When I do make jokes, they don’t typically result in roaring laughter.

My editor at SUCCESS approached me about this (terrifying) challenge six weeks ago, because, in his words, I’m one of the more reserved people on staff. This challenge would be infinitely more difficult for me than anyone else and it would require pushing myself emotionally as far as humanly possible.

I signed up for the improv class to help me with the stand-up challenge—I figured it couldn’t hurt to get used to speaking (and making a fool of myself) in front of other people. Some of my other classmates were there for similar reasons. One woman said improv always terrified her. Another woman said she wanted to get better at public speaking.

8 Things Improv Taught Me About MyselfCOURTESY OF SARAH ADAMS

The class ended up helping me in a myriad of ways, other than just prepping me for my stand-up challenge (more on this in the July issue of SUCCESS!). In fact, I even decided to continue my improv journey after I had finished the required classes for my article. Here are some benefits I reaped (and things I learned) from taking improv classes:

1. It got me out of my own head.

I overthink everything. But one of the key components of improv is listening to someone and responding with whatever your gut tells you. Instead of overthinking every last interaction and comment I made throughout the day, I began to just let things happen and respond with what felt natural.

2. It helped me think quicker on my feet in everyday life.

After my second class, I was lying in bed at home and my fiancé plopped down on the bed so hard it shook. Before even thinking, I said: “This isn’t the WWF.” We both laughed uncontrollably for a solid minute. I wasn’t trying to be funny, I was just observing the situation and responding, which is a key tenet of improv.

3. It’s not as terrifying as it seems.

The first day, our improv teacher, Sarah Adams, said, “Congratulations, you’ve done the most challenging thing, which is actually coming to class!” She was right—the scariest moment was the first time I walked into class on day one. Once I realized most of the people in the room were also new to improv, I relaxed. And once I relaxed, I began to genuinely enjoy it.

4. The funniest moments happen when you’re not trying.

In one scene, I was paired up with another one of the less expressive members of the group. But the teacher thought it was funny watching us interact, partially because our emotion level was so even-keel and deadpan. I learned that, at times, it’s beneficial to just be myself.

5. It’s tiring, and then magically, it’s energizing.

Most days, I wake up at 7 a.m. and get home from work around 6:30 p.m. The first few improv classes I took were exhausting—I essentially had three hours of additional “work” every Tuesday night. But then miraculously, around the third week, I found the classes energizing. I could barely sleep afterward—my mind buzzed with ideas and ways to practice the concepts I had learned. I looked forward to leaving work a bit early to go to class. I’m a naturally tired, low-energy person, but the classes began to invigorate me.

6. It improved my communication.

Improv only works when you listen closely to your partner. When people tell me a story, I have a bad habit of wanting to jump in with my own, so I forget to listen to theirs. The day after my first improv class, I listened to a co-worker’s story and thoughtfully responded instead of immediately jumping in with my own.

7. It helped me express my emotions better in real life.

Class after class, I struggled with emoting in front of my peers. I soon realized that improv really does mimic real life—I have trouble expressing my emotions with everyone. I only cry a few times a year and I tend to keep things bottled up. Improv helped me see the merits of expressing my emotions when I feel them.

8. Improv is not nearly as daunting as stand-up.

If you fail in stand-up, you’re up there onstage, alone and left to shrink into yourself in embarrassment. If you fail in improv, you have other people there to catch you when you fall. In the words of Gordon Bermant—a University of Pennsylvania professor I interviewed for my article about the connection between improv and anxiety—stand-up “is as cold and harsh as improv is warm and welcoming.”

Related: Why Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Is Worth It—Even When It’s Uncomfortable

Don’t forget to check out the July issue of SUCCESS magazine to see how I fared in stand-up comedy!

Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former features editor of SUCCESS magazine. Her work has been published in The Cut, VICE, Inc., The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider, among other publications. When she's not writing, she can usually be found drinking matcha tea into excess, traveling somewhere new with her husband or surfing Etsy late into the night.