Liz Miele is certainly getting people’s attention. Miele is not only a standup comedian who released her debut comedy album, “Emotionally Exhausting,” but she is also the writer and producer of the animated Web series “Damaged,” and has co-produced and co-starred in another Web series, “Apt C3.”And her comedy routine “Feminist Sex Positions” has been called “hilarious” and “genius” by the Huffington Post.
But Miele’s story is about more than comedy – it’s about her struggle to connect with people in a way that is supportive and nurturing, rather than critical and damaging. And in so doing, Miele is teaching us a valuable lesson: Finding healthy ways of getting attention is one of the keys to a happy life.
Getting the right kind of attention is tricky business. What kind of attention? How much attention? From whom do we want attention?
The stakes can be high. Too little attention is unhealthy: Social isolation is associated with poor physical and mental health and predicts early mortality. And going to extremes to get attention is also unhealthy: People with personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, may engage in unhealthy behaviors such as self-injury in part to regulate emotions and to get attention as a way of avoiding perceived abandonment.
Miele explained how she initially realized that she craved positive praise. “Before standup, I wanted to be like a Sandra Bullock — somebody that’s funny and someone that seemed like she got a lot of attention,” she told me. “I was one of five kids, and my parents were beyond busy. My parents are both veterinarians who at the time owned three animal hospitals. They didn’t have any money and were working 70-hour weeks and stressed out of their minds. It was a really stressful, chaotic, not fun way to grow up.”
Miele described how that environment resulted in her being told to suppress, rather than express, her feelings. Research shows that emotional suppression actually makes negative emotions worse, not better. In contrast, expressing emotions can improve mood and reduce unhealthy stress responses.
“You did what you were told to do, and that was it. I wasn’t allowed to have opinions. I wasn’t allowed to have feelings. I was told repeatedly to control my emotions … . I just felt like every time I cried, I did something wrong,” Miele explained. “So I only had negative attention. Positive attention came from not saying anything.”
This resulted in Miele developing a sense of perfectionism. Perfectionism can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having high standards can drive one to succeed. But on the other hand, unrealistic expectations plus the belief in catastrophic consequences of even slight miscues can result in intense psychological distress.
“I wasn’t allowed to be anything other than what my parents needed me to be at that moment. I’m still working on the fact that I try to be perfect and I try not to hurt anybody’s feelings. And I’m constantly worried that I did something wrong,” Miele explained.
Compounding Miele’s issues in expressing herself was that she suffered from dyslexia. Dyslexic children may be at risk for lower self-esteem than non-dyslexic children. “I always liked writing, but I was too scared to show people my writing because everything wasn’t spelled right and I have the worst grammar.”
Initially, Miele coped by engaging in unhealthy escape behaviors. Avoidant behaviors such as alcohol abuse can temporarily allow people to avoid their circumstances but can cause self-harm in the process. “My first form of rebellion was to talk back, which I had never done before,” she said. “And my second form was to do drugs and drink … . And so it started out with drugs and fooling around, but that was more of a numbing quality than a ‘fuck you’ quality,” she said.
Then Miele found comedy. There is a long history of research investigating the adage “laughter is the best medicine.” And research shows that in certain situations, humor is an effective form of coping. But for Miele, it wasn’t just that comedy allowed her an adaptive way of addressing difficult issues, it gave her a chance to shine.
“There’s a pivotal moment in your life when you decide how you want to get attention … . My mom is an amazing storyteller and is really funny. And I don’t know if I observed it, but saw that was positive attention. Before, it was this equilibrium of negative to OK. Then I discovered standup when I was 13. And I was kind of like, fuck that; I can have all the attention?
“ I knew I wanted to be funny and I wanted people to focus on me in that sense. It was almost like I was split in half, I was this obedient kid who was always trying to do everything right but I had all these feelings I wasn’t allowed to be in touch with. And so when I started writing and trying to get in touch with them, I realized I’m not this obedient person,” she said. “I’m doing this to survive but I’m actually this opinionated person who has a lot of thoughts and feelings. Not only was standup meeting my need for attention and finding the person who I was that I wasn’t in touch with, but it was also this huge rebellion.”
Comedy also had the benefit of coping with her dyslexia. “So I realized way later that what made me drawn to standup was that I could voice my ideas that had never gotten voiced. So I started to realize that it was the most perfect way for me to get my thoughts out there without having anyone actually see what I was physically writing,” she said.
Because Miele loved comedy so much, the stress of comedy didn’t bother her. She explained, “I started to realize that standup in general is incredibly difficult. But what I found interesting was that I was so numbed out, and I was so depressed, and I was so over what my life was at that point as a teenager that to fail in this other realm … at least I’m working toward something that could look like something I want it to be.”
Moreover, despite being afraid of confrontation, Miele was not as scared of conflict in the comedy setting. “I am debilitatingly scared of confrontation. It’s weird, because what I do is cause confrontation. I say ideas that most people would never voice to their best friend and I say it on stage to the world. But I created a safe zone that most people don’t have in their whole life and I’ve cultivated it in public. And for me, it was almost essential, because I didn’t have that safe zone anywhere else.”
Miele found that the attention didn’t just serve an emotional need, but was critical from a business perspective. “They say, ‘Love yourself,’ and you don’t need anybody else to love you. It’s like, yeah, I’m working on that, but I also need people to love me because money’s involved,” she said. “I have to go inside myself and find out how I feel about something, take the risk, put it out there, use the audience as a way to collaborate and get to the real meat of it and edit it and work on it,” she said.
She realizes that much is at stake, as a small mistake can be costly. “That’s the horrible thing about Twitter and social media. People have completely lost their career because they wrote one bad tweet. So when people don’t like what you say and they completely throw you under and they dissolve all the trust that you built up — I think it’s horrendous,” she explained.
“I think it’s the hardest thing I deal with on a daily basis. I’m being criticized right now somewhere on the Internet. And really, it’s rejection — I deal with rejection on all levels — so I’ll deal with rejection from not getting into a festival to not getting picked for some audition, but then I also deal with rejection from people that are supposed to be with me the most, which are the fans.”
Part of her coping is accepting, and asking her audience to accept that in order to do comedy, sometimes she may slip up. Studies also demonstrate that acceptance-based therapy programs that help people accept rather than avoid experience have been effective in improving symptoms of depression and anxiety. “The same muscle that I’ve built up to be funny, to understand myself, to understand why these things are important to me, is the same muscle I had to build to not take things personally, to understand that people aren’t going to like what I do,” she said.
“You have to balance both this need for attention and also the results that some people are not going to give you the attention that you want. If you don’t do the inside work of taking care of yourself, because it’s a toxic environment- it doesn’t matter how good you are as a writer or how good you are as a performer, you are going to be miserable”
Part of it is putting the criticism into context and recognizing that not everyone’s voice should be heard the same. “For every person that thinks I’m the greatest, there’s going to be five people that say I should put a dick in my mouth, and I should not be talking.”
“When people take that risk that they have never themselves taken and throw it back in your face and try to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong and messed up or not funny or not good enough - that’s where it starts to be incredibly toxic” she said. “Before, who had the voice? People who reviewed you. But the voice was somebody — a movie reviewer or TV reviewer — who understood all the risks that I took. But now it’s some 15-year-old kid that’s never taken any risk in his life telling me that I’m not good enough for the 13 years that I’ve been working.”
She is also able to focus on people she values more. “For the most part, it starts to be its own muscle. You learn how to shut off the noise and shut off what you think someone’s opinion is going to be so that you can create. We have friends and family and we decide if they weigh more than somebody who doesn’t do comedy or doesn’t know anything about writing. I had a fan criticize me. He literally was like, ‘I bought your album. I’ve been following you for years. I just wanted to say this, this and this.’ And it kinda hurt,” she said.
“Oh, this is somebody who has been actively supporting me and kind of taking me down a notch. I read it and I didn’t completely agree with what he said, but that held more weight than some misogynistic guy who is telling me I’m not worth anything because I have a vagina.”
As much as Miele is able to put fan reactions into perspective, it is a bit harder to do the same in her personal relationships. “The same way that I understand that this is just a show and I can start over tomorrow, I don’t feel that way in real relationships because that is not how it has worked,” she explained.
“The number one thing that people say to me about my comedy is, ‘Wow, you’re so vulnerable.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I am so vulnerable, and then I look at me being scared to tell a friend that she upset me or not being able to tell a dude, ‘I didn’t like the way you said that to me.’ And all of a sudden, you realize, I’ve played this game all cards in and this one I haven’t even started. I’ve built up the muscle to take risks and deal with the consequences in this one area and not with the other - it’s a different game,” she said.
“If a show doesn’t go well, or a fan doesn’t like me, or a couple hundred fans don’t like me, there’s millions out there. But if you’re really excited about a friend or a person, and for me, when I connect with somebody, I cherish that person. The friends I’ve had I’ve had for 15 years or more. I’m not going to find another person like that. You cherish those people where both you’re excited about them and they’re excited about you so that when you think you’re going to make a wrong move, it’s debilitating.”
But ultimately Miele is optimistic about dating — and she goes into it with a sense of confidence in part based on her years of comedy. “I don’t need you to be the best comedian in the world but I need you to hit it back a little bit,” she said. “Part of you is told that you can’t outshine him in any way; you can’t make more money, you can’t have stronger opinions, you can’t be funnier. You decide, as a woman, am I going to be the person that I want to be and deal with the consequences of that, or am I going to take myself down a level and deal with the internal consequences?” she said.
Miele described a joke from her comedy routine: “Sometimes, when I’m on a date, I want to tell the dude that, ‘If we’re having a bad conversation, it’s you buddy. It ain’t me. I get paid for this shit.’ It’s like I’m playing tennis with a child.”
“I’m tired of chasing balls, and telling them they’re great.”
Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.