Reflection after Bouffons course at Gaulier.

If you were to ask me what I’ve learned so far over the last 4 weeks, I’d list a bunch of insights and ideas around on-stage performance skills.

But an emotional theme to my experience? My top candidate is: Rejection.

Why rejection?

Of all the mental and emotional ups and downs that I’ve had during these courses so far, I’ve noticed more of my thoughts have been related to rejection than anything else.

And rejection has a thematic link with the concept of Bouffons too.

In the first couple of weeks here – the Le Jeu course – my major focus was social rejection. My social anxiety. The feeling of being outside the group. I worried that my classmates, in general, didn’t like me.

In the second couple of weeks – the Bouffons course – this changed as I realised that various people didn’t dislike me. Now, the focus narrowed. I found many of my thoughts focused around particular people and what they thought of me. I played and replayed particular situations with those people in my head, looking for “evidence” of what they might be thinking about me.

Along with this narrowing focus, my emotions around that feeling of rejection grew.

“Most people” vs “this person” doesn’t like me

It’s comparatively easy to talk yourself out of the general feeling “most people don’t like me”. Logically, this is almost certainly untrue. You can find evidence of at least one person who surely likes you.

It’s harder to talk yourself out of the feeling that “this particular person does or doesn’t like me”. Because your brain has more fire-power and less clarity.

Your brain can use each new interaction or non-interaction you have with that person as ammunition. You find yourself mentally “running through ALL the evidence just one more time, just to be sure I haven’t missed anything.” (evidence = any interaction you’ve ever had with the person).

After running yourself through this mental ghost tour ride, you feel like shit.

Objectively, all that might have happened was that the person (or people) in question smiled at you or didn’t smile at you today, for example. But this tiny action can cause the brain to go on a hugely tiring journey of emotions all centered on rejection (shame, sadness, grief, loneliness, embarrassment, etc)

Bouffons are all about rejection

It’s interesting that I should be having such a difficult time with rejection while learning about Bouffons.

The history of bouffons is that they were ousted by society.

They were the handicapped, deformed, “weird” people that didn’t conform to society’s strict rules of what was “normal.”

They were banished. Sent to live in the swamps. Many were killed.

The concept of a Bouffon show is that you are playing the part of the banished people. You are playing them at the exact moment they return from the swamps to revisit society… to say “fuck you” to the rest of society.

But there is a balancing act.

If the bouffons were to say “fuck you” overtly to their oppressors, they would almost certainly be killed for it. So the bouffons save their own lives by being funny and being beautiful in their performances… even though their physical appearance is grotesque.

They endear themselves to their oppressors by being lovable. And then, as they have won their audience’s love, they slowly change their performance to “stick in the knife” and turn it slowly. To mock their oppressors at the deepest level.

As a bouffon, you are mocking the audience. But you do it in such a gentle, subtle way that the audience doesn’t even notice.

By the end of a bouffons show, your performance can become completely grotesque. But the progression towards that grotesqueness is almost imperceptible.

The audience should leave feeling “how did we end up here!?”

It’s interesting that I should be concerned so much about rejection in my life during a course that centers on characters that have experienced the ultimate social rejection.

It can’t be a coincidence.

My feelings of rejection haven’t been related to the course directly (i.e. my worried thoughts haven’t been about my experiences in class). But it seems likely that the course could have stirred up those feelings.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria: a confounding factor

A few weeks ago, I read about a concept called “rejection sensitive dysphoria” (or RSD).

This is an experience that is very common for people with ADHD, though it’s not an official symptom of the disorder (it also occurs with other disorders). My sister and I are currently at the start of our journey to explore if we have ADHD or not, so the disorder is a lens through which I view a lot of my experiences right now.

RSD is an overwhelming emotional sensitivity and discomfort caused by the belief that someone important in one’s life has rejected or criticized you.

Nobody in this world likes to be rejected.

But people with RSD often feel extreme pain when they think they have been rejected. They can also compulsively create mental “stories” of what it *would be* like to be rejected, which then triggers the same painful emotional reaction. Even when nobody has actually rejected them.

When I read about RSD, a lightbulb turned on.

Just as lightbulbs have been turning on a lot whenever I learn more about ADHD and mental health in general.

I don’t know if it applies to me or not. But RSD could be a confounding factor for me…

When those “proven positive mindset” strategies fail

I have spent a lot of my life over the last 10 or so years trying to learn and implement strategies to counteract my negative self-talk (i.e. the hurtful way I talk to myself).

A lot of that self talk, I now realise, has centered on rejection.

By rights, I should be an expert in positive mindset by now with all the personal development strategies I’ve successfully implemented over the last decade. I know plenty of my fellow professional speakers who have learned just one of the techniques I use (e.g. mediation, gratitude, journaling, even clowning) and they have created a whole business around that technique because it was so transformative for them.

For me, by contrast, I’m frequently disheartened to find that there seems to be an invisible force pulling me backwards. Whenever I take my eye off the ball for even a few weeks, I slip back and the fear of rejection and failure grows again.

I know that I’m not alone in this.

There’s a reason the self-help industry is so lucrative – usually people don’t implement the strategies they learn about, they just keep reading books and wondering why they haven’t changed. The confounding factor is that I *do* implement the strategies. Often obsessively.

Whenever I’ve learned a new strategy, it’s generally all I think about for weeks or months (to the detriment of other things in my life). The strategy works, but I feel like it only “pulls me up” to the level that “normal people” – whatever that means – experience all the time. It helps me to become more “normal” but rarely “better than normal”.

Knowing about the existence of RSD is helpful.

If it were true that it applies to me – again, this is all hypothetical right now, we don’t know anything – it could be part of that “invisible force” that pulls me back.

It’s easier to fight an enemy when you know their name.

Why has this happened at Gaulier? It makes sense

Looking back over the last years, I now realise rejection has been an underlying theme for me for a while (among other themes).

Some of the social situations that I had after we came out of the Covid lockdowns almost killed me. I would spend 2 days with friends then spend the whole next 2 weeks worrying about what they thought of me.

And let’s add to that… this year, the foundations of my life (i.e. who I am, what I want from life, why I do what I do) are all crumbling somewhat.

This is a unique emotional backdrop that is specific to me.

But Gaulier does seem to have triggered mini crises for quite a few people here. Though I don’t know the details, rejection does seem to be a theme for more people than just myself.

The Gaulier “Method” (even though he claims there is no method) has rejection at its very core…

You get on stage. And you try to do something beautiful, or funny, or poignant.

And, most of the time, he rejects you.

This method, it seems, is to train us to recognize when our performance is “flopping” and develop our intuition to “get better” in that moment. To save our performance from failure and rejection by the audience.

As part of that method, we have to experience rejection many times a day. Even when we understand the rejection and we appreciate the reasons for it, it’s still emotionally draining.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that my theme for the past 2-4 weeks has been rejection.

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