The actor advantage: What we can learn from actors about managing emotions



I recently had the opportunity to meet over a hundred celebrities in Los Angeles, a large part of which were actors and comedians. They are part of a world I have never had much to do with, nor had I given it much thought. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I heard their responses to my key question: “What role do emotions play in your life?”

“Feelings? That’s what I do…”

“Emotions are everything...”

“Massive! Emotions are my business...”

When I asked them to expand on what they really meant with these responses, they went on to explain: Not only do they have their own emotions that are constantly present, but feelings are also key to all the roles they play. Their job and their art is to convincingly act different emotions and also to inspire these emotions in their audience.

The actor's challenge with emotions

While the rest of us just have to master our own feelings so that they don’t get in the way of our life, actors also need to master their emotions so well that they can act out specific emotions on command when they are on set. 

Many of the actors I met said that in order to to really bring across the emotions in the film, they actually had to feel them. Wow, what a challenge. If you are feeling joyful and motivated, how do you all of a sudden switch the feeling to one of sadness? Or when you are feeling goofy and playful and you need to act angry…? What do they train and how do they manage this so that we, the audience, don’t even think twice about the feelings they are acting? The magic answer: They work with their thoughts. 

I learned that many actors have a set of thoughts or memories that they know will reliably bring them to feel a certain way. Imagining the death of a spouse or child in utter detail, for example, would bring tears to their eyes and the heavy weight of sadness to their chests. A past experience of being cheated on by a lover can instantly bring up the burning feelings of anger. There are no set thoughts that can bring about a specific feeling for everyone. These thoughts are very private and personal and so the art is to know what thoughts trigger which feelings and to be able to access these thoughts at any given moment.

I know exactly how much power our thoughts have on the emotions we feel, so I should have thought of how critical emotions are to actors.

Tweet: Actors master the link between thoughts and feelings - they can feel on command.


Exercise the actor within you

For those of you who want to try a little experiment to see if you can really feel an emotion just by thinking something, try this:

Scan your memories and thoughts for something that makes you feel very sad. Explore that thought, visit it in detail, stay with it and let the feelings come up. Don’t filter your thoughts, don’t block the feelings, just let them come. Keep going until you find that thought or memory that really hits a nerve for you and brings you that feeling of sadness. Just witness the power of your mind on how you feel in your entire body.

Then repeat this with another feeling: Joy, Excitement, Anxiety, Guilt, or another feeling. Pick one emotion and scan your memories and thoughts for something that brings that emotion to life in you. Explore that thought, visit it in detail, stay with it and let the feelings come up. Don’t filter your thoughts, don’t block the feelings, let them come. If the feelings aren’t coming, look for another thought or memory and make sure you are not blocking the feelings. Really go there.


This isn’t some mean exercise that is meant to play with your mind. Actually it’s a very powerful way for you to prove to yourself how influential your mind is and how your thoughts physically affect your body. Practicing this exercise will later help you to do the opposite: To distance yourself from thoughts that are bringing about feelings that you don’t want. It’s not too late to catch up on the masterclass that actors have had when it comes to managing emotions, it's never too late. Give it a try.

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1 Response


September 01, 2017

Wow, I think this is a really powerful exercise but it is also really challenging, at least for myself. I’m not sure if I’m blocking my feelings or I just haven’t found that thought or memory that really hits a nerve for me… I think this would also be really useful (if successful) to be aware of the physical signs that my body is giving for that specific emotion (: Thank you!

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