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The Understudy

By Michael Barmak, CSW, LCSW, Copyright 2003
December 31, 2006

In this humorous article Michael uses the analogy of the understudy in the theater to help you understand and appreciate the job of your wounded self.

I love Broadway. I grew up on Broadway. My mother took me to every musical that opened from the moment I was conceived. I think she secretly hoped that this would cause me to be born with an ability to sing like Robert Goulet in 'Camelot.' I wonder if she knew that all babies are born with perfect pitch. I saw 'Gypsy' with Ethel Merman, 'Mame' with Angela Lansbury, and 'Chicago' with Anne Reinking just to name a few. My mother made sure that I always saw the actor originating the lead role. Nothing was too good for her future musical genius!

So you can imagine my disappointment when I went to see 'The Producers' (and yes my mother bought me the ticket) and both stars of the show, Mathew Broderick and Nathan Lane were out that night. Now the only thing New York City theater goers hate more than the leads being replaced is being on a local train and finding out that it is now making express stops, or that your train is stuck between stops because there is a "police investigation" on the train ahead of you. Opening your playbill and having a small white piece of paper with the cast changes for that performance fall out is the kiss of death.

I go into shock before the paper hits the floor. How am I going to break this to my mother? The only thing that she's been talking about since she bought my ticket is how she can't wait to tell all of her friends that her son saw Mathew Broderick and Nathan Lane in 'The Producers.'

So I already hate these understudies. I don't even know these guys and yet I'm looking for something to throw at them and all I have is that little white piece of paper. So I start folding it into a paper airplane. Not just any paper airplane mind you. We're talking B-52 Stealth bomber. Maximum humiliation.

The lights in the theater flash on and off. Someone with epilepsy once told me that flashing lights triggered his episodes, so I'm looking around the theater to see if anyone is holding up a piece of white paper and feigning a grand mal seizure just to stop the show.

The theater goes dark and the announcer reminds us once again that the parts normally played by Mathew Broderick and Nathan Lane will be filled by their understudies. I turn my cell phone volume up as high as it will go and pray that someone calls me.

So I'm cocking back my right arm, ready to let sail this beautiful white projectile carrying not only my frustration but also everyone else's in the theater and all the generations before me that had ever been subjected to understudies, when I see Mathew Broderick's understudy walk out.

I figure I'll give him five minutes to get into his role and then he'll never know what hit him. This is fool proof. The only way they'll know it was me is if they ask everyone to show them their white piece of paper. I smile as I look at the extra program I've placed underneath my seat. This is going to be what we therapists call a "corrective emotional experience." The way I look at it, I'm doing the rest of the audience a favor. They should be giving me a standing ovation.

Ha Ha Ha...Hey, did you see that...I can't believe...I never...Oh my goodness...Wait till I tell...HOLD IT! What's this? I'm enjoying his performance?

Fast forward to intermission.

Mathew who? By this time I'm hoping he's taken an ongoing role in 'Sex in the City' so that he can spend all of his time with Sarah Jessica Parker. Both he and Nathan Lane's understudies rose to the occasion. They filled in the best they could so that the show could go on.

It hits me then that my inner wounded child has been like an understudy in my life.
He took over when I was very young to help make sure "the show" would go on. Only my childhood was the show and the cast included my father, mother and an older brother. Now I'm not saying that my family would have "closed down" if my wounded child hadn't taken on this role, but he helped me to survive. And even when I was old enough to take care of myself, he continued in the lead role because the star of my life, my inner Loving Adult repeatedly abandoned him. Now that I'm building a strong Loving Adult who wants the job of learning how to love him, my wounded child doesn't want to give up control. Who can blame him? Why should he trust someone who has been giving him away all his life? Why would he want to go back to standing in the wings waiting for another opportunity to be in the spotlight?

I realize now that my responsibility as a loving parent is to help my wounded child accept that an understudy needs to learn many different parts so that he can fill in wherever he is needed. I need to share with him the truth from my Guidance that what is best for our "show" is that he works together with my core child and let my Loving Adult reclaim his rightful role.

And knowing how much my wounded child loves getting good press, I need to constantly tell him what a great job he's done. I know he needs a lot of my compassion for the pain he had to endure. As a Loving Adult, I need to fulfill my responsibilities as the lead by showing up consistently for my inner cast and by learning all of my lines: the Six Steps of Inner Bonding. Not just memorizing them but living them as my truth.

Our wounded children deserve recognition for the show stopping performances they gave as our understudies. They didn't get into performing initially just to hear the sound of people clapping although they definitely thrived on the attention. They ultimately wanted something deeper. They wanted and still need love. Our love. That's why other people's approval was never enough. They have always only needed our love. They didn't audition for the Adult roles and they weren't even given a script to learn how to act like Adults. They did what they had to do so that we could survive. So let's give them the gratitude they deserve. How about a Tony Award for "lifetime achievement by an understudy?"

Now that's loving.

Michael Barmak, CSW, LCSW is an Inner Bonding Facilitator in private practice.
He works with individuals and couples in person and on the phone
and can be reached at 908-276-8191 or

Michael Barmak, Copyright 2003


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