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Personal Responsibility

Acting Is Reacting

Acting Is Reacting

Behavior. That’s what personal development is about. Although we may not articulate the question quite this way, almost all of us want to know: How do I consistently engage in the behaviors that result in better things for me and my life? Of course, thoughts are a big emphasis in personal development, but that’s to the degree that right thinking triggers the behaviors we desire and wrong thinking fuels the behaviors that take us in the wrong direction.

And what is behavior? To answer that question, let’s consider a synonym of behave: act.

When we engage in a certain behavior, we are acting a certain way.

Now, let’s define acting.

If you’re an enthusiast of the performing arts, you might appreciate this simplified definition of the extremely complex process of stage or screen acting, credited to Lee Strasberg: “Acting is responding to imaginary stimuli.” 

Then there’s this. In a long essay in the Tulane Drama Review over a half century ago, writer/director/producer Dan Mullin defined what it is to act. He summed up his long and thoughtful essay thusly: “Acting is reacting.”

I know good stage or screen acting when I have what I call an “unreal experience” while I’m watching the performance. I describe an “unreal experience” as “believing” the performance so much that I forgot it wasn’t real. Sometimes this “forgetting” happens for a fleeting moment in just one scene. Sometimes the experience covers the balance of the performance. And it might relate to just one of the actors. Sometimes all the performers – the entire production, stage or screen – achieves this for me. It’s rare. And of course, it isn’t real. But it is an experience. A wonderful one.

I know that you’ve had those experiences too. And while an exciting movie or an engaging play can help provide a little escape once in a while, reality returns when the credits roll and we resume our starring role in the drama called real life. But before going back to our real life drama today, let’s quickly look at how we might apply the above definitions of acting to the various “parts” we play every day.

The following are two rules you might consider owning; principles that work every time they’re applied:

1)     In order to consistently engage in the behaviors that result in better things for me and my life I must become an expert at correctly differentiating between stimuli that is real versus stimuli that is imaginary


2)     In order to consistently engage in the behaviors that result in better things for me and my life I must become an expert at reacting to life events only in ways that are in congruity with the role I’ve chosen for myself in the drama called “My Life”  

To the degree that we can successfully navigate, and respond to, the real detractors to what we say we want out of life, we’re engaging in the kind of right thinking that triggers the behaviors we know will get us there. The high achievers among us have either stumbled upon, or just intuitively know, what has been a big secret to the rest of us; that most of life’s success detractors are imaginary!

You and I have got to become skilled – through practice (practice, practice, practice) – at the art of reacting (acting) so well that we start to create something our former self would describe as unreal! You need to become so convinced of the “performance”; so fall in love with it; that you realize you’ve actually found the “real” you… the amazing actor who was “in there” all along.

Perhaps the most talented, and certainly the most recognized and awarded actress of our time, is Meryl Streep. She fully immerses herself into each character she portrays.  I love her definition of acting. I could not sum up this topic better than her way of describing her craft: “Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”

In future posts we’ll discuss real vs. imaginary stimuli. The topic will be aptly titled “Real Vs. Imaginary Stimuli.”


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Author Jim Aitkins

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