Many years ago now, I attended my very first improv comedy show.
I loved it. It was pee-my-pants hilarious (I was able to hold back the pee, thank you). Those performers seemed so natural up there on stage having such a great time. I was totally absorbed into every scene they played. They were owning the characters they were creating, enjoying every moment. My cheeks and sides hurt from laughing so much.
Then came the part of the show where the improv students came on stage. They had just completed a 6-week class and this was their very first performance in front of a live audience …
And I remember thinking to myself, with an air of haughty disdain, “Oh joy, here come the newbies. This is gonna be awesome.” (Note the dripping sarcasm.) They ran up on stage, all showing their nervousness in different ways. And as they played scene after scene, there were plenty of awkward moments and a few genuine laughs, but through the whole time, I was totally judging … Every awkward joke that wouldn’t land, I’d cringe, shaking my head in disapproval … With every stumble and guffaw, I was just wanting the actual funny people to come back. (Ouch.)
Fast forward a few years later …
My friend excitedly tells me how amazing of an experience he had taking improv comedy classes. Through his excitement, I found myself totally sold, so I sign up to take 6 weeks of classes, learning all the tips, tricks, exercises and “yes-anding” of improv. It was a mixture of scary, hard, fun and fulfilling. It was quite the journey.
But then came the fateful night. It was my turn to be one of those newbie students on stage.
Packed audience. Bright lights. Our teacher announces us. And as I run up on stage with my fellow newbies, I squint out through the bright theater lights and into the audience … and all I could see in everyone’s eyes was … JUDGMENT.
But was everyone actually judging me? (Maybe a few people. I didn’t do an official survey, so no way to know for sure.) What I do know for sure is this: I felt judged by the whole audience because I was once in their seat. And I judged those awkward newbies. And now I was one of those awkward newbies that I once judged.
My judgment from years ago was still alive and well.
And now it was magically boomeranging back at me.
And it felt like shit.
It was as if all I saw in the audience was different versions of myself from a few years back, judging every awkward move I was making up on that stage.
And this phenomenon is so common for people with herpes, too.
With herpes, the biggest challenge we face is actually our own self-judgment. It may feel like it’s the whole world judging us (and we may even get a few actual judgments thrown our way by a few ignorant, uncaring people), but the only thing we can know for sure is whether we judge having herpes or not. And how we feel about it tends to be projected out into our world and how we assume people are seeing us. In fact, this is so common that when someone comes to me in emotional distress about herpes, the first question I ask is “Before you got herpes, did you judge ‘those dirty people’ with STDs?” The answer 99% of the time is a stunned and sobering “Yes.”
And that’s how I was, too! I was a big judger. It’s sad and embarrassing to admit now, but I sat on my high horse, looking down on those poor, poor suckers with STDs. Then … (drumroll please) … I got herpes. All that shade I had been throwing down on others was now automatically bouncing back at me. It was painful, hurtful and vicious how I treated myself in those days … I got to feel firsthand what it was like to feel judged by me.
Isn’t that fascinating how this “boomerang effect” of judgment comes back around? I always thought that was just a cute spiritual thing that hippies say: “Whenever you judge others, you’re also judging yourself.” But it turns out, it’s actually true. When I judge another person for feeling scared, for being nervous and awkward (or any other human characteristic we all share), then the next time I feel those things in my life, I judge myself, too. It’s the same mechanism at play, the same “mental muscle” being worked.
Practicing judging less and accepting more creates more freedom for us to be human beings together. The more I can recognize my own judgments and shift them, the more permission I ultimately am giving for all of us to be fully ourselves, together.
If I could go back and do it all over again
So now, when I think back to that time I was in the audience, I’d see those newbies come up on stage, carrying all that nervousness and fear … and I’d say to myself with a smile on my face, “What courage they have to get up there and do such a scary thing! I could only imagine what that would be like. Even through the fear and the awkwardness of doing something new, they’re still doin’ it! Bravo.”