Survival energy

When Patsy Rodenburg started teaching young actors, she also worked with prison inmates. Her fellow teachers at the drama school discussed how some actors had presence – the magical quality that makes you notice, connect with and remember someone – and some actors didn’t. Patsy noticed that all the prisoners had presence.


Re-reading Patsy’s book, called Presence, I’m struck by how her lessons – used with all types of people – are invaluable during those strange first months after a bereavement and the years that follow.


Surviving the sofa

Here is a thing nobody tells you: that sofa, where your visitors line up and drink your tea, can be a treacherous place. You won’t need prison yard wiles or the charisma of a Broadway star but a few skills will serve you well. Practice them now and they’ll also help when you go back to work and back out into the world.


Some of your visitors will genuinely have your best interests at heart but others will have a different agenda. Some will just be nosey, others may be trying to manage their feelings of helplessness by telling you what to do. However, chances are that the opportunity for people you barely know to pour into your house will attract one or two you could do without. Maybe they just want to stir up a little trouble for their own amusement but some could be hoping they can steal or persuade you to part with something: goods, money or your support or influence.


This might not seem like a big deal at the time. Compared to the loss you’re trying to get your head around, very few things seem like a big deal. But the longer you let insensitive or opportunistic people walk over you, the harder it becomes to get back up again.


Patsy notes that the prisoners were more likely to have presence than the performers because presence is “the energy of survival”. It is a keen awareness of your surroundings and of how best to use your energy accordingly. It is about how to read and how to deal with these new people in your life.


Circles of energy

Patsy describes three circles of energy. The circle is how your energy moves through your body, breath, voice, mind, heart and spirit and how far it reaches out into the world. We intuitively sense the type of energy someone has and they sense ours.


First Circle energy is about withdrawal. This is when we pull ourselves back from the world around us. Our focus is on ourselves so we aren’t as aware of our surroundings. It is our natural response to pain, shock, trauma and loss. We slump, look downwards and our voice trails off.


It can be a useful survival technique if we’re trying to hide, or, say, sneak out of work early, but we should also be aware that it is the energy of the victim. Others will assume they can ignore us or push us around. This is why your visitors don’t pick up on what you think are your very clear signals that they should leave. Partly, your signal is not actually that strong and partly, if they are grieving too, they’re more tuned in to themselves than to what you are saying.


Third Circle energy can be a response to pain too but is at the other extreme. It is noise and bluster and the front of bravado. The people who respond to upset with an explosion of feelings and then might or might not later apologise for venting on the wrong person, explode in Third Circle energy. It is what you need to call to a friend across a busy street, but if most of your words are coming out in shouts and wails, most of the time, and no one is listening because they’re trying to calm you down, then maybe you’ve got stuck in Third.


Second Circle energy is where we should be when we want others to understand us. In Second Circle we stand tall but relaxed, we talk clearly but without force, we use the power of our breathing and we use eye contact to get others to focus on what we need them to hear.


Interestingly Patsy writes, “Any stranger entering your home should put you in Second Circle – even if it is your doctor or a postman you vaguely know.” She goes on to say, “It is important that you enter every new situation, job, meeting, party, etc in Second to clearly signal you are not a victim before you ever relax into First.”


Clearly, learning how to switch into Second when you need it, can protect you from situations that would otherwise add to your current problems.


Survival energy in practice

In Colm Tóibín’s novel, Nora Webster, the opening lines describe how Nora’s neighbour “was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.” Many widowed people get frustrated at being spoken down to. It’s because we are in First. The story of Nora Webster, a new widow, charts her progress out of First Circle to taking a new and stronger position in her family and in her community.

In Bouncing Back, the late Joan Rivers describes how she and her daughter re-built their lives after the suicide of Joan’s husband and Melissa’s father. Alone, they both collapsed into First Circle but around people, they went in opposite directions: “Melissa … began to withdraw, while I came out of my shell and talked and joked endlessly to the well-wishers who filled the house.” The book is a good description of recovery by using all three circles.


Patsy’s book has lots of gentle exercises that enable you to strengthen your energy flow and your awareness of it so that you get better at using the appropriate energy for the situation.


Simple things like moving your weight from your heels into the balls of your feet, made me feel instantly more alert. After ten minutes of doing the breathing and posture exercises, I felt a calm focus. I hadn’t thought I was feeling unfocused or anything less than calm and alert before but my dog noticed the difference and until I dropped back down into First, he took me seriously. Doing the exercises each day would clearly make it easier to stay in Second for longer.


At the start of this I said I was re-reading the book. I bought it years ago in the hope that it would help me do better in meetings. I was juggling too many things at the time and didn’t finish it. If I had I would’ve got to the bit where Patsy says with typical directness that some workplaces do not want your Second Circle energy. Some families and some relationships also would prefer you to stay in First or Third Circle. You will be able to tell this for sure if you practice the increased awareness of Second Circle. Being able to choose and use your energy gives you more choices: you can look for a better workplace or better friends and you can decide how you want to interact with your family: withdraw, push them away or stay open to connection. Becoming aware of and building your survival energy means you always have more choices in every situation.


First published in Widows and Widowers magazine, Issue 11

Image by istock/kotangens




This article from The Telegraph newspaper includes film clips of Patsy demonstrating some exercises


You can see Patsy in action in some clips on YouTube and here she is explaining more about her approach


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