Green Shirt Studio

The Art of Taking Things Personally

Marlon Brando

If you google the phrase “taking things personally,” you are going to come up with page after page giving you advice on how to stop doing it. The ability to not take things personally is a valued character trait in our world, the mark of someone who can play it cool and navigate social interactions unscathed. Many of us spend a lot of time trying to cultivate this ability to detach from the things that might hurt us. We remind ourselves to not be so sensitive and not to let our feelings get in the way of our happiness. And it can be helpful at the office or the Thanksgiving dinner table but, unfortunately, our efforts to stop taking things personally in life also cuts us off from the source of our power as actors: our truthful point of view.

When we’re told to stop taking things personally, what we are really being told is to stop feeling so much. To calm down. To be reasonable. To get a grip. There is also an implication that the things we are feeling are destructive to us and to others. Like many of the ways we are socialized, there is a certain logic in the message. It would be very difficult to get work done (and to get to work for that matter) if everyone took everything absolutely personally all the time. But there is a flip side to letting everything slide off our back, which is that we begin to become numb to each other and to ourselves. A fog lowers and we drift past each other relatively unaffected by one another and our days float past without incident.

The trouble, of course, is that plays and films are not about the days that go by without incident. They are about the days when everything changes. And the characters that inhabit these stories are not drifting through life. No! They have been woken up by major events, by given circumstances that shake them awake and demand their action. Hamlet takes things very personally. Blanche DuBois, Willy Lowman and Walter Lee Younger do, too. They rage at the injustice of the world around them, they feel deeply and they act without particular adherence to rational thought. They love hard, not politely. They demand satisfaction. They live as raw nerves in the world and they take everything personally! So how are we, who have breathed in the ether of politeness, supposed to play those roles?

The answer is that we must begin, in our work and our lives, to take things personally. We must open up and let ourselves be vulnerable. You may be thinking that I am asking you to take offense at everything, but that is not really true. What I am challenging you to do is to let the world in, to notice it, to pay attention and BE IN RESPONSE TO IT. This can be good and bad and everything in between. Because it’s not just the negative stuff, the criticism and the hurt that we shut out when we stop taking things personally. It’s also the compliments and the flirtation. The kindness and the tenderness. When we stop taking things personally, we remove ourselves from fully experiencing our world and the people we share it with. And the truth is, that the life of your acting depends on your ability to effect change in the world while simultaneously being in response to it.

None of this is easy. There is a cost to staying present and letting the world affect you. You will feel things more deeply than most people allow themselves and sometimes it can be painful. But other times it can be wonderful. That is the cost and the joy of being an artist and an actor. Our job is to be awake in a way that not everyone has the courage for. We must be awake so that, in our work, others can feel more fully if even for a moment. When you begin to take things personally, you will learn that being sensitive doesn’t stand in the way of your happiness. It only stands in the way of your apathy. To be a true actor, you must experience the richness of the world in the way that only you can. Because it is only through your eyes and your heart that you will connect.