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An Important Distinction: Owning Your Work Without It Owning You

It turns out there’s an important distinction between loving your work and being ruled by it. Here are some tips and techniques to utilize at work to stay grounded in calm and stormy seas alike.

Working in theatre can be full of ups and downs. You get some jobs; you lose out on others. You don’t always get to know why. Some production processes are smooth; others are nightmares. Since I resumed working in live theatre in 2021, I’ve had my share of all these experiences, and everything else in between.

But one thing that has changed for me post-shutdown is how I approach those messier situations. And learning to survive them and still do my job well has taught me an important lesson about letting go of some of my emotional attachment to my work.

This is not to say that I don’t still love what I do! I remain deeply passionate about mixing musicals. There’s almost no place I’d rather be than behind a console in a theatre. However, working in theatre isn’t just a source of joy for me; it’s also my job and primary source of income.

And when this huge part of my life and livelihood went away for a while, I saw that for me, it can be unhealthy to tie my emotional wellbeing to something as fleeting as any one show. When I think back on how I approached my work then versus now, I can see that I’m in a much better place mentally.

It turns out there’s an important distinction between loving your work and being ruled by it. And my success at doing the former without falling into the trap of the latter is key to my current healthier overall psyche. Here are some tips and techniques that I utilize every day at work to stay grounded in calm and stormy seas alike.

Practicing Gratitude

Even within a dumpster fire, there is good. I try to remind myself each day, or even each hour, to take a moment to name one thing I like about my current job or situation. It could be anything from “I am grateful that I’m getting along well with my colleagues” to “I am grateful that tomorrow is payday.”

Any small, active acknowledgment of gratitude can help to simplify what’s going through your head, and can be a great aid in re-centering yourself in moments of chaos. I use this technique when I catch myself falling into bad behavioral habits, such as getting impatient or passive-aggressive about things outside of my control.

Lane Departure Warnings

We may think of this as being a safety feature in fancy new cars but checking yourself or asking others to check you when you begin to let your emotions rule your actions will help you resist the pull of the drama and tension around you. I’ve worked hard (with a lot of help from my wonderful therapist) to learn what my emotional defense mechanisms are and to recognize them before they get out of hand.

For example, I know that when I’m stressed or low on sleep, I can turn into a bit of a control freak and micromanager. At times earlier in my career, I also tended to accidentally overstep my departmental boundaries when I thought I could help with a problem, even when the issue at hand was totally outside my responsibilities.

I’ve learned that this behavior, while well-meaning, is ultimately counterproductive because it can hide flaws or issues that need to be solved by the team organically, and not fixed with slapdash “band-aid” solutions.

So, learning to stay in my lane has proven to be both a gift (because it allows me to feel pride and ownership of that which is my job), and a relief (because I can let go of everything that isn’t).

Set Good Goals

Another way I try to cultivate a feeling of satisfaction at every job is by defining for myself what would constitute “victory” or “success” in this situation. For example, on a recent out-of-town show, my primary goal was to develop a good work relationship with a sound designer I’d never mixed for before. On a different show that I supervised back in March, my goal was simply to get paid and save money for a future cycling trip.

So, regardless of what happens on any of my shows in the end, I can consider them wins for me because I have met my personal goals. Anything more than that is gravy!

Work-Life Balance

I’m generalizing here, but I’ve found that because of our long hours, atypical work schedules, resultingly small social circles, and overly cultivated sense of “family” or “community” among each individual theatre company or show team, we (the denizens of the theatrical workforce) are especially prone to letting the work-life scale tip in the “work” direction. Find things you value off the clock and give them the time, attention, and emotional value they deserve.

Some tactics I use to maintain my balance are intermission phone calls with my spouse, taking my cat with me when I travel for out-of-town shows, going out on walks or bike rides on my days off, or cooking a simple meal at home that I can bring in to eat on my dinner break. All these things and more help me to remember what I really care about and what makes me happiest, and as a result, I am not expecting work to provide a sense of completeness (or to fill a void) in my life.

Leave It On The Field

One of the great things about being a stagehand is that most of my work can only be done at work. I can’t exactly EQ a microphone or hang a loudspeaker from home. For this reason, I try to take the act of clocking in and out very literally.

When I’m at work, I commit to being there fully, doing my best, and devoting my complete attention to the tasks at hand. When I leave the theatre, I try my best not to take any of that home with me. This applies on breaks too.

Of course, the existence of modern technologies like smartphones, email, and push notifications can make that hard, but at the same time, especially if you’re paid hourly, then you don’t owe your employer anything when you’re not on the clock. Try using an app timer or similar feature on your devices to limit the times of day that you can check work email. Leave your show paperwork and mix script at the theatre so you aren’t tempted to look at them after hours.

If there isn’t enough time in your scheduled shift to get all the needed work done that day, then it’s OK that it must wait until your next workday. And that’s not on you.

Accept Reality & Measure Expectation

We all know that just existing in a stressful situation is easier said than done. Here I’m preaching about detaching emotionally from work, and the next moment I’ll be texting a friend to vent about how frustrating some part of my workday was. Being emotional is an extremely logical human response to stressors. It means your body is working as intended!

But acknowledging emotions and then letting them go will allow you to keep a cool head and not get stuck in a state of burnout. As my meditation app put it, “Acceptance doesn’t mean apathy. It means seeing clearly from a place of calm, knowing when to act, knowing when to let go.” Someone might come up to you and say something like, “The show is so behind, we’ll never be ready in time!” And that might in fact be the case.

However, unless one of you is part of the show’s upper management, then all you can do is acknowledge that yes, the current situation is less than ideal, but it’s still OK. Know it’s not your job to fix everything, just to ask for what you need to do your job well. And if that isn’t available to you, at least you’ve made your issues known in a calm and rational way and can now go back to focusing on the here and now of the situation.

It’s OK To Walk Away

This article was intended to dive a little deeper into tactics for maintaining good mental health and objectivity in stressful work situations. However, I want to emphasize that I’m not writing this to condone improper work conditions in any way.

Everyone deserves a workplace where the expectations of their job are laid out clearly, where each employee is treated with humanity and compensated fairly, and where issues that arise can be brought forward without fear of repercussions or retaliation. That is a bare minimum of what one deserves when one enters the theatre to work on a show. And if your current employer is not meeting those standards, feel free to go find one that will.

While not every job will be ideal in every way, you’re not “weak” or “a failure” for deciding that a situation you’re in is not the best for you as an individual and that the appropriate solution for your own mental health is to extract yourself from the project. It’s hard to remember at the moment, but it’s always true that the ultimate power you have as a worker is the power to walk away, and no one can take that from you or make you feel bad for using it.

Above All, Take Care Of Yourself

Theatre is a job, but theatre is also objectively interesting and fun. That’s part of why I and many others choose to put on plays for money instead of seeking employment in other fields.

However, “love of the art” does not mean one has to be married to it, as the saying goes. Any emotions that come up because of work are just emotions, no different than the rest of the time. I hope this article has highlighted ways that creating an emotional separation from your work can ultimately make you a better worker because you will no longer be counting on a show to make you happy. It may do that anyway, but that’s a perk, not a job requirement.

Conversely, you also won’t feel like you’re carrying so much of its baggage if it makes you sad, angry, or stressed. If you can live by the philosophy that your job is to show up, do your work, get paid, and go home, you’ll hopefully find some level of satisfaction even in less-than-ideal situations, and feel pride in your work at the end of the day regardless of what else happens.

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