There will come a time in your career when a personal challenge will daunt you and you will have to muster all your professionalism to perform – even on days when you are emotionally exhausted and just want to cry. In my case, since I’m a motivational speaker and comedian, that means having to not only perform, but make people laugh, motivate them and move them.
Stress happens all the time, whether it’s due to medical issues, financial pressures, an ongoing family situation such as a nasty divorce, or circumstantial events such as your flight being delayed on the way to the biggest gig of your life. The key is, you need to be armed with information on how to handle it.
Last year I was faced with just such an agonizingly stressful situation when the two most important people in my life – my son, Spencer, and my mom, Rose – went into separate New York hospitals with life-threatening illnesses. Spencer went in at 5 a.m. grappling with pericarditis (an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart that can lead to the heart enlarging), and my mom was hospitalized at 8 o’clock that same evening with an incarcerated hernia that could have caused her death in a matter of hours if doctors didn’t remove two feet of her gangrenous intestines.
My son’s hospital was in upstate New York; my mom’s was in Queens, New York – about a two-hour drive away. I kept driving back and forth between the two hospitals. In addition, I didn’t tell my mom or son that the other was in the hospital. Keeping that secret added to the stress.
Two days after Spencer was hospitalized, he was home, facing 10 days of required bed rest. I joked to him, “Spence, I always knew you had a big heart, but please don’t go overboard to prove it.” He smiled.
The following day, my mom came out of intensive care. While visiting her hospital room I joked with her, as well. “Jeez, Mom, I know you’ve been telling me that you wanted to lose weight and stop working...but this was one heck of a way to do it!” She smiled.
Humor has always been a great survival mechanism for people. On both the personal and professional levels, it helps reduce stressful situations.
On the same night my mom came out of intensive care, I was booked for a one-hour speaking engagement – ironically, for a “Social Workers Appreciation Day” at an assisted living home. I was physically drained from three days of non-stop driving to these two hospitals. In addition, I was emotionally drained from all the worry. (Yes, even positive-thinking comedians worry.)
I asked myself one key question: Can I get in the right frame of mind to perform, do a great job and not be on auto pilot? I decided I had two hours until I performed and I could do it.
Drawing from my experience, I offer seven strategies for performing during personally difficult times:
1. Stop and Breathe. That’s basic enough, but many forget to do it properly. (Of course, if you forget to do it altogether this would be a moot point.) I’m talking about taking a few deep, meditation-like breaths to relax yourself. Take a breath, close your eyes and hold it for a count of eight. Then slowly exhale for a count of four. Do this until you feel yourself in a better place physically.
The powers of deep breathing have been known for centuries. You just have to remember to do it. It can stop you from panicking and give your body and mind the time needed to refocus.
2. Look at your situation realistically by asking the right questions. Everything in life depends on your attitude. And that starts with asking yourself the right questions. When you’re scared and stressed out, give yourself a reality check. The answers can be empowering.
In my case, I asked myself, “Are my loved ones out of immediate danger?” Yes. “Do I need to be there with them all night?” No. “Would it benefit me mentally to be on stage, doing something I love, to get me in a different frame of mind?” Yes. “Do I have the energy?” Yes. (We all have sources of stored energy.)
I asked more questions: “How can I make this a win-win situation?” By finding the humor in it. “Can I find humor in something so soon?” Yes, if I refocus my thoughts – not on the victim, but on the situation. “Would it be the professional thing to do?” Yes. “Is there a profound message I can share with my audience about this situation?” I knew there was, but I just wasn’t sure what it was yet. I had at least two hours to figure it out.
Now, I could have asked myself the “wrong” questions: “Shouldn’t I be with my loved ones now?” Yes. “Will the place forgive me if I don’t perform under the circumstances?” Yes. “Will I be too tired to drive home?” Probably.
The key is all in what you ask yourself.
3. Learn to compartmentalize your feelings. There is a time to break down, and a time not to hang tough. At the moment of crisis you need to be strong. I learned to be my own cheerleader. “OK, Capo, you can get this done now…you can cry later.” Always allow yourself the release …just do it when it benefits you. Being strong doesn’t mean you’ll never cry, it means knowing when to cry.
4. Refocus through gratitude and prayer. One of the easiest ways to refocus your mind is by going over a list of things you are grateful for, especially at a time of crisis. My list went like this: I am grateful that my son and mom are both alive. I am grateful that I have a speaking engagement and a chance to change people’s lives. I am grateful that I’ve been given the gift of humor – now let me use it!
Also, it helps to turn to a higher source. I remember sending out e-mail messages during those few days, asking everyone to pray for my loved ones. I personally prayed to God, Mother Mary and Jesus, then I spoke to a few loved ones who had already passed on. I also wrote to a priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk. I wanted no stone unturned! (Besides, I wasn’t sure who had the quickest connection.)
5. Find the humor and trust yourself. Now refocused, I stayed in the parking lot for 45 minutes before my speech and wrote jokes. I was a tad nervous. OK, who am I kidding? I was extremely nervous about whether the jokes would go over. I had to detach myself and think of the funny aspects common to all who have been in this situation. The truth is funny if you just look at it in the right light.
To verify the funny factor of my material, I called a comedian friend of mine, Janette Barber. She said, “Fran, trust me and trust yourself. It’s funny. Do as you always do. Make fun of the situation at hand, not the victim. Trust your heart – you’ll be fine.” She was right. Humor is a gift, and the best time to give a gift – whether to yourself or an audience – is when you truly need it. As long as it’s in good taste, people will laugh. People want to see the human element in a speaker, not just the polished speech.
6. Visualize using your previous successes. It was now 10 minutes until show time. I took some deep breaths, reminding myself that I had done this a million times before, and I visualized being fantastic onstage.
7. Once you are empowered, go onstage. I was as confident as I could be in the situation. As long as no one asked me about my mom and son, I knew I wouldn’t cry. I had one last decision to make: Should I be honest with the audience upfront?
I decided to begin with the truth. So I said, “You know, I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes – OK, 45 minutes – before I came in, writing some jokes for you people. You think I’m kidding…Nothing like a lot of preparation for a gig. But really, the reason I did that was that because my mom, as we speak, is in the hospital; she was just released from intensive care. I’d show you pictures but I know she’d get mad, because she doesn’t have any makeup on.
“But, really, she is in the hospital. Apparently, she had an incarcerated hernia, and, like all mothers, she was stubborn about going to the hospital:
‘Frannie, I’m too sick to go the hospital!’
‘Mom, do you hear yourself? That doesn’t make sense.’
‘Listen to me, the worst thing in the world is to go to bed sick and wake up dead.’
‘Wake up dead! Mom, people don’t wake up dead.’
‘Don’t correct me – I’m sick.’
“Anyway, she wound up going into emergency surgery. As she was lying there on the gurney, she held my hand and whispered, ‘Frannie, remember I love you all, and just in case anything happens, please get an autopsy, and don’t forget to turn off the hallways lights.’
‘Mom, I don’t think we should be worried about the electric bill at the moment.’
‘I don’t want to have to worry about it if I’m in heaven.’
‘I think God will give you a pass on that one.’
“The surgery took eight hours, but I knew she was better today because of two things: One, she told me her doctor was cute – he looked like Doctor Kildare, the TV hero from the ‘60s – and two, she complained that the nurses woke her up to give her a sleeping pill.”
I continued joking. The audience knew I was telling the truth and they were literally laughing ’til they cried. This material turned out to be perfect for my audience at the assisted living home.
Life Is Precious
I teased the one male doctor in the room. I teased the social workers and I teased the director of the facility. I asked them, “Come on, tell me the truth, aren’t there some patients you’d just like to smack?” They all smiled, but no one gave names. I talked about my son, and how I was playing race car driver going back and forth from hospital to hospital…Then I talked about how precious life was, how important their jobs were to the patients lying in those beds, and how important it is to put our hearts and souls into the careers we choose.
I ended my talk the way I always do – telling people to live with passion and laughter, and to go after their dreams.
Then I left them with one of my favorite sayings: “Remember to live every day as if it’s your last…and one day you’ll be right.” I paused and added, “And I’m lucky that today wasn’t that day for my mom or my son.” I got a standing ovation and lots of hugs.
People came up to me and said, “You did a brave thing telling jokes about your mom and son. You were emotionally drained but you gave us your full self (or “Full Fran” as Janette calls it) in your performance.”
I smiled. “I just did what I believe God put me on this Earth to do – motivate people and make them laugh. It’s easy to laugh when things are good; it’s hard to dig down inside yourself and find laughter when all you want to do is cry. But if you can find the power to laugh, you can find the power to heal…because in the end…laughter truly is the best medicine.”
May all your sorrows be framed in laughter and may you always find a way to give it to your audience.
My mom, Rose Capo, died February 6, 2008 – and, yes, I told funny stories of my mom’s life at the funeral. This article is in honor of her memory. Now, less than a year later, my sister has breast cancer. I continue to share the laughter with her.
Fran Capo is a New York-based comedian, professional speaker, actress, author, adventurer and four-time world record holder. Read more about her at www.justlaugh.org.