Spotlight: Kimberly Prendergast
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’m kicking the month off with a special edition of Creativity Corner, spotlighting clinician and actor Kimberly Prendergast.
Kim and I met through a mutual friend about ten years ago, and she was a participant in my latest book club, hosted here on the site. (You can find the book club posts HERE.) As you’ll soon read, I was inspired when Kim shared that she feels creativity makes her a better therapist–a statement which also got me curious to know more about that connection and how it ties in with her other passion: acting.
I hope this column will inspire you to think outside the box when it comes to creativity.
More About Kimberly Prendergast
Tracey: You shared during book club that you come from a difficult background. Would you expand briefly and in whatever way makes you comfortable about how/if it factored into your decision to become a therapist and an actor?
Kimberly: Growing up I faced a lot of challenges both at home and socially. I don’t share about it a lot because as a therapist I have spent years tabling my own needs. I am conditioned, I suppose, to be cautious in my own revelations. I have also spent years working at the county saying to other clinicians that we are no different than our clients, that we are our clients, meaning we are each dealing with out own struggles, often with mental health. It is the reason many of us became therapists. While we do not call one another peer support, we kind of are. I know that is controversial to say in many settings but I believe it to be true.
My upbringing was solid in many ways and I know that I was loved; however, it also included a lot of fear and anger. My father was challenged with depression and attachment issues that showed up in our family as rage. The rage was directed more toward my mother than myself or brother. The rage would on occasion be violent, but the fear of violence was always present. Unfortunately, my mother used me as a confidant and asked me to participate in hiding things from my father in order control the dynamic. This resulted in hyper vigilance and lack of trust on my part. And then socially, I was just an ugly duckling. I was teased for my red hair and freckled face. My way of coping was to accept that people did not like the way I looked, but I knew I was smart and once I discovered a passion for acting I was going to be good at that as well. Essentially, I found a healthy way to cope before unhealthy coping strategies could take over.
The interesting thing for me is that I did not come into the field of psychology by way of trying to heal myself. My first major in college was theatre. I also had an acting coach who suggested I study something similar to but different from acting while I worked with him. I then changed my major to psychology and stuck with that major through grad school.
I found and still find that the process of acting is similar to the process of therapy. It is real and honest and in the moment. It is showing up to the “scene” with every part of yourself and taking the ride. I think I am a better therapist because of the things I learned as an actor.
I found and still find that the process of acting is similar to the process of therapy. It is real and honest and in the moment.“
Creativity as a Method of Coping and Authentic Expression
Tracey: I’m glad you mentioned coping! I always ask this question because answers are varied and important: Can you be more specific about how creative outlets helped you and continue to help you cope with life’s challenges?
Kimberly: In 4th grade I decided to audition for the school play. This was the same time period when I was being teased about my looks. Every other girl wanted to be the character with the pretty name or title. I counted the lines in the script and decided that being the old lady was a good role for me because she was the star of the show. I came home and my grandfather helped my prepare for the role. “Put some emotion in it” was his advice and we practiced together. I went on to get the lead in that play, and I spent the next 8 years trying to get into any play I could. It became my better identity because it was one that I liked. Being in theatre throughout school helped me escape from the difficulties at home and it also helped me avoid the pitfalls of youth like substance abuse and eating disorders. It was my life raft.
I also think acting lets one explore different aspects of oneself without taking the risks in real life. It is the value of the cathartic experience we have in both stage and film.
Tracey: Can you expand even more on how creative expression has impacted your relationship with yourself? In other words, how it’s helped you become more authentically you?
Kimberly: This is a tricky question for me to answer. I don’t think I am me without the outlet of acting. It is my creative expression and it is me. I think it allowed me to like parts of myself enough to be OK. It gave me something to focus on and have hope for when I could have easily been lost between 8th grade and the beginning of college. During that time frame, everything I thought about came back to the idea of how something would effect me as an actress.
Flash forward to today and I think that allowing creative thinking to occur in my therapy practice and as a supervisor is one of the greatest things I contribute. Of course, it involves some risk and risk does not always play out as we foresee, but I believe that creative living has taught me to trust my gut.
Tracey: In her book, Big Magic, in the section about persistence, Liz Gilbert writes:
“Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process. . .How you manage yourself between bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how. . .equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creating is where the real work lies.”
What do you think about this? Also, “finishing” or “getting to the end” is a topic we writers seem to talk about a lot. At this time in my life, when I thought a huge project was finished but it wasn’t, persistence is just about always on my mind.
This is my long-winded way of diving into the cyclical nature of creative living, how it feeds inner life which feeds outer life which feeds back into inner. What do you think?
Kimberly: I spent 20 years of my life not cultivating my creativity and not acting. I cultivated other areas of my life during that time. I started my career and grew my family. That is a big circle to close the gap on. I tried on different hats and saw other opportunities during that time, but eventually I knew I had to come back to this part of myself. It was a big cut off that I don’t recommend to anyone, but I did not have a role model for another way to do it.
Now, I don’t focus on regrets but rather what I learned during that phase that I can use now as I have gotten back to love for acting. It is all connected. There is nothing that happened that cannot serve a purpose now. In addition to trusting my gut, I would say I grew confidence as an actor and as a woman that I did not have in my early 20’s.
allowing creative thinking to occur in my therapy practice and as a supervisor is one of the greatest things I contribute.“
Creativity as Therapeutic Skill
Tracey: Would you elaborate more on the connection of creativity and your work as a therapist?
Kimberly: Actors use themselves as the tool to create art instead of a brush, pen, or paint. Thinking on my feet, trusting my gut, being fully present and experimenting with what is in front of you in the room is all the art of psychotherapy. The last two decades have been about the science of psychotherapy, and I certainly know that this is valuable. But it is not what makes me a good therapist. As I said earlier, the skills I learned to be good at acting are the same skill sets that a good therapist uses. Connecting and emoting are two invaluable skill sets. Seeing and naming the truth that is in front of you, even when that truth is painful or difficult is vital. So while I did not act for 20 years I certainly spent much of those years using the same skill sets.
Tracey: To me, it seems that acting could be considered an ultimate expression of letting go of control, surrendering to what is–a process that can engender a sense of peace. Do you find this to be true for you?
Kimberly: I have never thought much about this idea of acting as a process of letting go. I see it more a process of becoming, where my true self meets the true self of the character and they become one. That could have a very negative impact on one’s life and we see that in some famous actors, and I think it is because they do abandon themselves in the process vs. find themselves in the process. Finding oneself in the process is also great goal in psychotherapy.
Tracey: Mark Nepo writes in his book drinking from the river of light, “When we lose access to our creativity, we lose access to wonder.” Does it resonate for you that creativity helps you access more of life’s wonder? How so?
Kimberly: I would say that creative living keeps one honest and open. If you are not open you cannot see the wonder that is all around us. Cutting off creativity cuts off the ability to see the world anew or to find a new perspective. Life without creativity is rigid and close minded. Creative outlets belong in all areas of life including math and science. I was just in a play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. It’s a comedy, written by Steve Martin. Essentially, Picasso meets Einstein at a bar in 1904 and all manner of wackiness breaks loose. But beyond the comedy was a deep look at two of the most influential men of the last century and this crossroads where art and science are not that different. To come full circle, creativity and madness are two sides of the same coin.
creative living keeps one honest and open. Cutting off creativity cuts off the ability to see the world anew or to find a new perspective.”