Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Real Acting

A psychologically oriented person's guide to acting in the real world.

Pxhere, Public Domain
Source: Pxhere, Public Domain

We tend to think of acting as something done on stage, in the movies, or on TV.

But we’re all acting, all the time: at work, in relationships and, in that this is Psychology Today, of course, in psychodrama but also in standard counseling, whether you're the client or counselor.

Off-stage acting is viewed as unseemly, phony but, framed more accurately, it’s the appropriate adapting to your counterpart's needs, the opposite of the narcissism so often written about here on

Of course, acting can be used for nefarious as well as benevolent purposes but that’s true of most tools--from intelligence to a pocket knife. That doesn’t obviate the value of learning how to be a better actor. To that end:

As preeminent acting teacher Konstanin Stanlislavsky stressed, acting is reacting. You must fully focus on receiving what the other person is saying, in words, tone, and body. Take the time to take it all in before responding. Then respond, not viscerally—and this is where the acting comes in—but as you deem wisest. The trick is to, as actor Spencer Tracy said, “Never let ‘em catch you acting.” Usually that means not overacting—less is more. So, for example, let’s assume the person you’re conversing with says, “I don’t really care.” But the tone and body language suggests s/he really does care. Perhaps deep down, you don’t particularly care that she doesn’t care but it’s your job as a therapist to act like you do. So after you’ve taken in the message behind her message, you decide to use a tone of voice that conveys just a bit of empathy, not so much that it seems contrived, and ask, “Are you sure you don’t care?”

Your natural self might be phlegmatic or exuberant, intellectual or emotional, sensory or abstract, but if you are to interact successfully with different kinds of people, you must flex. In other words, you must be an actor. Again, the trick is remembering that usually, less is more. If you’re naturally laconic and interacting with a bubbly sort, if you try to mirror that person, it will likely come off as phony. The secret is to remember that everyone functions not statically but within a range: a taciturn person is sometimes moreso, other times less-so. The good actor would, in that situation, turn up the energy level to the top of his or her natural range, so it makes the other person feel more comfortable but not suspect that it's acting.

Save big emotions for when it will do the most good. A classroom teacher who screams at the class all the time quickly becomes impotent: The class inures to the yelling and continues to misbehave, probably even moreso because the students resent the teacher's antipathy. In contrast, that teacher who, despite internally screaming, acts calm (easier said than done) and reserves yelling for rare times when it’s particularly justified, will have a better-behaved classroom. If you watch great movie actors, even if they have justification for anger through much of the film, they'll explode maybe once or twice. An example is Al Pacino in the underrated Godfather III. The advice to limit extreme emotional displays applies also to positive emotion: The chipper, giggly type quickly gets blown off. Unless dealing with a true kindred spirit, s/he’d be wise to keep the inner Pollyanna under wraps until it’s unusually justified.

The Takeaway

Effective, usually understated, acting is not intrinsically nefarious. Used to benevolent end, it is the appropriate adaptation to others’ needs. It’s an oft-disparaged skill that's worth cultivating.