- What is being perceived
- Sample Contexts in which you are Perceived
- Personal Examples from “Life”
- Add your Justification or Explain Thyself, Jen
- In the middle of the spectrum: indifference and a mask
- Now Masking is Involved? What’s That?
- Remember this is an Improv Site? Oh yeah.
- It's a spectrum - we might share a neurotype but we'll improv differently
- Skills might matter a bit: give your improv learning a chance
- Learning makes perception easier
- Recommendations you can take for your improv, or tell to take a hike
- Tell me: How does it work for you?
This is an article to accompany the podcast episode originally published on my Neurodivergence & Improv Substack and Podcast at jdehaan.Substack.com. There is a transcript available on the episode page at Substack.
You can also subscribe to the podcast (it publishes weekly on Substack).
There are a few people already lined up to join as guests and speak about their experiences, so… check it out.
These articles and podcasts are not a substitute for therapy, nor should they be used to diagnose yourself or anyone else. Please seek professional resources by subject matter experts for those things.
What is being perceived
This isn’t about how neurodivergent people are perceived by someone else, or ways that we don’t like people looking at us or something. Like side eye, or someone glaring at us.
This is about the various contexts in which neurodivergent, particularly autistic I believe in this case, dislike being perceived or seen in a specific scenario. Physically. This doesn't have to do with being "feeling seen" (as in, I feel invisible or someone is seeing me in a negative light because I'm weird.) This is just about a neutral, trusted person looking at you while you are on stage, while you're eating or working, or when walking into a room and your reaction to this happening.
Yeah. Might seem illogical, but it's a thing.
So it will take some explaining in order to explain what this means, and then I’ll talk about how it applies to improv and improv classes.
Again: CONTEXT IS KEY. It’s not who or what a look is like, it’s completely for me about the context in which I am being perceived. And I know that what’s okay for me is absolutely not fine for someone even within the same neurotype.
This is NOT a sensitivity - like something I can undo if I have more exposure to the activity or use therapy (or at least, it sure doesn't seem that way). I am fully aware of how it doesn’t make logical sense. I feel pretty odd and uncomfortable even talking about this because I know it could be perceived as entirely wild by those of you who don’t experience this thing.
I don’t find it controllable in any way, an automatic feeling like a gag reflex or goosebumps, although there might be ways to work on being perceived. But I don’t know them. Because it sure isn’t exposure. The ways I don't like being perceived are wired in to my fabric, as far as I can tell.
But there are things you can do.
Sample Contexts in which you are Perceived
Being perceived: what is it. Let's imagine a few scenarios, and I invite you to think about how you might feel being looked at or noticed in these situations. These things might help you understand where you're at with being perceived (which will help you understand for improv contexts!)
- Grocery store shopping. There is nothing of note in your cart or anything. Imagine someone you know and trust seeing you and your cart. Now imagine the other person is a stranger, and see if that makes a difference.
- You're in an office, working on a boring spreadsheet. Someone you know and trust at work simply walks up and watches you work over your shoulder.
- On your couch at home. You're reading a book or watching a show your trusted friend or partner knows you are a fan of the subject or whatever. Mundane for you. How do you feel with them looking at what you’re doing?
- Now you’re on stage. You're in front of a friendly group teaching something you are good at or confident about.
- Now you're in the audience or class. Do you notice a difference? What about if everyone suddenly started looking at you doing exactly the same thing you were doing on stage a moment ago?
You might have different reactions to all of these even if you’re in the same neurotype. Your reaction might be pretty indifferent to some of these, and strong to others. And it might, really and truly, not make logical sense. Because sometimes the activity you are DOING is the same, the people are the same, it's just a different context. You are performing, vs. watching or working for example.
Personal Examples from “Life”
I feel more comfortable on stage than off. I’ll provide a couple examples of this to see if they might resonate with you. These are the ends of the spectrum: the strong reactions to specific scenarios.
Working for a client
I have built websites for a long time, and it's an activity that I feel very confident about just due to the length of time doing this kind of work. I don't mind teaching people to learn these kinds of skills. They often sit next to me and watch me as I show them how to make or edit their sites, or do other technical tasks.
One client asked me to instead just build a website as they watched. I could, for example, just build something for myself as they paid me to observe! That's it! And I had to turn them down as this was just not feasible to me. There's nothing I dislike more than having people watch me work or do things.
Despite being a teacher since I was a teenager, a performer on stage, and I would be observed doing something I was very confident about!
It makes no sense!
Oh yeah, this is the same thing or idea of disliking having people see your unfinished work. But that one I've been forced to endure handing off drafts to clients. And no, it doesn't get any easier after 25 years!
Dance Fitness Workshop - in the group vs in front of the group
I took a dance fitness workshop to learn how to teach classes. Part of the workshop involves practicing how to cue and teach as a group in unison before we went up to the front of the room, one by one, to practice teaching the class. I had been in dance fitness classes for almost a decade at this point, so dancing in a group was no big deal.
But I was melting as I was learning to teach as part of a group of dancers. I guess it was like being watched working? Learning? Presenting unfinished work? I'm not sure why but the entire experience was horrendous to me, and I tried to leave the workshop! Luckily a coach stopped me beofre I bounced, and encouraged me to stay.
Thank goodness I did, as going to the front to teach caused all of that intense anxiety and dread to melt away. And I loved it. It was such a wild and unexpected experience I remember it like a movie still, today. I had been thinking "there is NO WAY I can ever perform in front of the group if I can't even do it while I'm in the group." But it was the opposite.
Socially anxious with performing as the comfort zone
I eventually started doing sketch on stage, and that's when I truly realized how anxious I was socially but more comfortable on stage. I'd stake out a corner in the green room and avoid people. I'd desperately want to get on stage because it was safer than small talk. I think I realized how very weird I was as a human, as everyone else had jitters about going on stage and I had them when hanging out back stage.
But it makes sense in this context. We know what to do to perform, even if it's improvised. We aren't ourselves performing. Even in improv, there is structure, unlike in social settings. A sense of order. We're much more in control of how we are perceived when we are controlling our "character" on stage, or there is a plan to teach something specific that we know. Or in the case of work, the final product.
It can be exactly the same person, reaction, or action you are doing. The who and where is the same. But that what makes all the difference. Again, CONTEXT IS KEY. For someone else I know very well, also autistic, they don’t mind people watching them work, but are unbelievably stressed out doing work presentations or teaching.
Add your Justification or Explain Thyself, Jen
When you are teaching, improvising, or doing a sketch the act you are doing is a performance. The expected outcome is you are being watched.
However, when you are working or preoccupied doing a task the performance isn't the central focus of what you are doing. You are fixated on the work, not on the fact you might be watched.
And when you are working you might be unmasked - you are vulnerable. You are yourself, and might be doing something that others find strange. I talk to myself in a constant stream almost while working. Dictating what I'm doing (think of a usability study when they ask you to say each thing you're doing. I do this. It's weird.) And I'm usually completely hyperfocused, all to be as efficient as possible.
But if someone came and watched me? Nope. Work stops.
In the middle of the spectrum: indifference and a mask
Many or most scenarios I am quite indifferent to. Like most people. The previous contexts are the ends of the spectrum, with a fairly wide middle ground of indifference.
Also I think that even the ends of the spectrum, above, will be felt by neurotypical people. They might just be much more extreme or notable for someone neurodivergent.
Most scenarios are generally fine, like the examples of being in a grocery store, or whatever generic social setting. I'd prefer not to be seen, and there are things I do quite dislike (gathering at a table eating, for example. Hate it.) If I had a choice, I'd be invisible. But mostly it isn't any kind of extreme reaction like mentioned previousl.
But this indifference might be due to the effort I put into being a social chameleon. I'm in performance mode in social situations! I'm blending in, busy acting "normal." This is called masking.
Some days we are too strapped to "perform" (mask). On these days being indifferent is not possible, because you can't perform. So the grocery store, or being in a class, might be too hard to pull off. People will see your weird, and this can be uncomfortable as a result.
Because some of us are still kinda in a mask for social stuff, always. And you can’t mask on these harder days. So being perceived is simply too hard.
Now Masking is Involved? What’s That?
Not an N95, bro. And it’s also not really a character!
- Being comfortable or being indifferent to being perceived is, for me, due to masking.
- Masking is partially being aware of your body position, facial expressions and the like. We match those around us to seem more normal. We do it because it makes us more comfortable.
- It's a little bit like peas-in-a-pod character matching. But I still do feel like myself. I'm still Jen. I'll still tell you what I think and be all opinionated, but maybe less monologuey and I'll smile more. I'm just a revised version that's... kinda more normal passing.
- You probably still think I'm weird and kinda roboty and afraid of people, maybe just a bit less.
Remember this is an Improv Site? Oh yeah.
That’s right, this is about improv. Okay, I’ll explain how this works for me in classes, on stage, and so on. I’ll pull from what I know and have experienced (I mean, what else would I pull from. Yeah. Ok. Good point, you. Moving on.)
For each of these, think about your experience. What do you prefer? What's more difficult?
- I am 100% fine being perceived on stage or in a video. I’m a character. It’s not me. I think that’s what makes it easy.
- It’s also why playing grounded SPECIFICALLY AS MYSELF with the direction to only react “honest and truthful as you” and you should in theory pick up on normal social cues and react as neurotypical is way more of a challenge.
- In improv classes, between scenes I believe I have some kind of performance version of myself. I do this normally, but maybe a bit more in improv classes adjusted to each class space. It's still ME though. All of this is just a form of masking, but I find it's a little bit more prevalent in improv classes for whatever actor-space and maybe zoom reasons. Is it the fact you can see yourself in a camera?
- Most times if I had a choice, I'd choose not being perceived. I would wear that invisibility cloak if it was ever invented.
It's a spectrum - we might share a neurotype but we'll improv differently
Other autistics will hate being perceived on stage or presentation to a group, even after trying it a lot. Other autistics might not mind someone walking into the room and watching them work.
I will also say I always thought I would hate being perceived dancing and performing on stage before I ever started doing it in my mid-30s. Obviously, I didn't hate it at all.
I forgot how teaching and presenting was something I was always fine with since I was a teen, and didn’t understand the overlap with performing on a stage. I didn't put the two and two together.
So… in the unlikely event anyone reading this hasn’t performed before… I do suggest trying it out if you have the opportunity to perform doing something you are highly skilled at already (say, a special interest) - perhaps a few times - to just see what gives. For me it was a revelation and lead to my life’s biggest passion(s).
While perception preferences or issues might be wired in, and that will probably stay the same in some way, my comfort in being perceived will change as a skill set grows. For example, while I have never felt particularly nervous being observed in an improv scene my comfort increases about the skill being perceived. Same with dance fitness, or building a website in front of someone looking over my shoulder.
Ugh. Just the thought. THE THOUGHT! How did I ever work in an office?
Skills might matter a bit: give your improv learning a chance
If you are newer to the skill and still very uncomfortable, wait for the skills to set in. See if that helps. When I started teaching fitness I was incredibly stressed out for the first few months (I taught about 100 classes during that time to learn how to teach). Teach or take 100 classes before you decide? Wow, that sounds ... intense.
Okay, moving on from that. See if you notice any underlying preferences. You probably do. Do you have that little nudge underneath "maybe I'd be interested in doing what they're doing up on that stage... but I'm... shy. I'm not like that.. or am I?"... try it out. It might be in you.
If the nudge is definitely not there, don’t force it. If you've learned a lot, tried a lot, and just don't like it perhaps look for something to transfer the skills to. Making yourself miserable is just not worth it for any hobby, which is supposed to be fun and pain free. Life is hard enough.
But do give things a shot, I think. Just don't be afraid to adjust. Improv skills are wildly transferrable to adjacent hobbies.
Learning makes perception easier
I reckon the experience of being up on a stage for many years before improv made being in scenes in front of others easier. BUT: I started dance from scratch and had stress diarrhea for those 100 classes getting used to a stage. Even though it was something I loved!
I sucked at improv from the start, but I didn't need to get used to failing in front of others because I had already made a million mistakes on stage (I've split my pants more than once, had sweat look like I peed myself way more than once but joked it was pee, and I've tripped over my feet or forgot the moves more times than I can remember. Failing is fun.) Gotta make those mistakes and learn how to fail and get out of it.
The core part of performing is wired in, but the other elements will probably adjust over time with your skill development and experience. This of course also relates to confidence, and I’ll do a separate episode/article on that some day.*
*Preview: If I seem confident, it's my best mask yet because inside I am a god damn unconfident mess and just have zero problems playing a fool.
Recommendations you can take for your improv, or tell to take a hike
These are some things you can do in improv around perception (or not do! I’m not your boss! Hi PDAers!)
- Remember your teammates or students might be experiencing this kind of thing and can't help it. Just be understanding if perhaps they go camera off, or are quiet sometimes.
- Zoom might be easier if the sense of being watched by an audience is particularly hard for you. Or maybe you're learning the skill and find not seeing the audience is easier during this time. I’ve heard that not seeing your audience can help while you learn skills. Notice if that is true for you. Maybe you can make self adjustments like this to make the process easier. And when you have more developed skills, try an audience you can see.
- Communicate! If there are things that might help you, ask for them if this is available to you. It can be hard for others to guess. Honestly I have a hard time reading people sometimes, and know it goes both ways. Clear, blunt, etc can be good.
- Realize some activities might not be for you, and THAT IS OKAY! Like hosting a show that involves audience engagement. Maybe that is harder for you because it's performed a bit more as yourself. Personally this is my fave thing of all (despite hating speaking, say, at a dinner party table or even being at a dinner party or even eating at a table), because I can be performance Jen and that's fun for me. But for others it might be their least fave, and the show itself is where the shine happens.
Tell me: How does it work for you?
This is just one person’s experience with being perceived. We’re all different, of course. How do you feel when you’re being perceived by others? Let me know in the comments, or you can also leave me a voice note (and even contribute it to the podcast!) on THIS PAGE.