Jennifer Morrison Swears By This Morning RoutineThe actor and director sits down for a mental health check-in.
Jennifer Morrison has spent plenty of time on our TV screens over the years, with lead roles in Once Upon a Time and House and recurring roles in This Is Us and How I Met Your Mother, just to name a few. But she’s also active behind the camera, directing Season 2 of Peacock’s anthology series Dr. Death, which follows a disgraced doctor who performed experimental surgeries and eventually had his license suspended. (He denies any criminal wrongdoing.)
And after she nails the many monologues she has to memorize, Morrison will grace Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in a stage adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. “When I have something like that where I know it's a stretch and I know that it's going to be a lot of hard work, I get an invigoration from that,” she tells Wondermind.
Despite a heavy workload, Morrison also finds time to tap into her lifelong hobby of reading through her book club, Jennifer’s Bookshelf, which highlights up-and-coming authors.
With a schedule that seemingly never quits, Morrison has learned a few things about work-life balance, making tough decisions, and managing her mental health. Here, Morrison shares what’s going on inside her mind.
WM: What are some things you do to take care of your mental health on a regular basis?
Jennifer Morrison: This can shift a little bit, but many years ago, I started a morning routine that has made a big difference for me, especially in this industry. We have such long, crazy days. Every day is different, and all of that is exciting. I am not saying that as a complaint. But sometimes, especially when I'm acting, there are so many more hours of the day that I'm being someone that's not me. So I realized I really needed to put time aside that was really just for me to touch base with myself and figure out what I was feeling and thinking [and sometimes] just get things off my mind. So I started a morning routine about 10 years ago that I'm pretty devoted to. There are times where I'll go stretches where I don't do it and I'm totally fine, but I always know I can go back to it if I need it.
I get up very early when the sun's still down. There's something about those quiet morning hours. I have my coffee, I meditate, I read for about 20 minutes, and I have a journal that I've kept for years. It's not anything interesting; if someone read this journal, they'd be like, “You're the most boring person in the world.” But it's more to kind of dump my thoughts. … Sometimes it's literally just me writing, “I'm so tired. I can't think straight. I feel really foggy.” I can write that for 30 minutes. Then you get to the end of those 30 minutes, and you're like, You know what? I feel OK now. There's something about just getting it out. Sometimes there's an idea in my mind, and sometimes there's things I'm writing [and] the idea starts in those pages. … Sometimes I mix in a little bit of yoga. It's harder to have enough time to do that. But I have found, especially if I'm working and I get to have that hour to hour and a half to myself in the morning, I just start the day so much more clear headed, and I start the day feeling more sure footed.
WM: When you reflect on your mental health journey, what time period or moments stand out to you?
JM: I did almost 15 consecutive years of network television, which was an incredible blessing and was so invigorating as an artist. But it was really hard to have a sense of myself through that time. … When you're working long hours and you're away, it just becomes really tricky to have that grounding. That's really when I established that morning routine. And the thing that made a really big difference, actually, is that I read The Artist's Way, which I had vaguely heard about from people. … I took it on, and I decided not to feel beholden to the time limits that it has because I knew while I was working on a show, there was no way I could do each chapter in a week. Sometimes a chapter would take two weeks or three weeks or four weeks, but I would get through it, and I did all of it. I really, really committed myself to all of it.
I feel like that was a huge turning point for me in terms of starting to find some balance between my creative life and my professional life and my personal life. I really needed that stretch of time to answer all the questions that that book asks and unpack certain things that I had never thought about before. I really started thinking about being an artist in a different way. I started thinking about creativity in a different way. I started thinking about how that was in relationship with my sense of self in a different way. … That was a really big turning point and something I go back to. I've actually done The Artist’s Way a couple times since then. It's been a while since I've done it, but I do feel like each time I get something different out of it. It just sheds light on different corners of your life in a really productive way.
WM: You directed Season 2 of Dr. Death, and you've talked about how it's a warning for what can happen when people make decisions out of fear. Obviously you’re not like the real doctor the show is based on, but have you ever made any decisions out of fear?
JM: Yeah, thank god [I can’t relate to him]. I feel really lucky to be able to say I don't think I have wholeheartedly made a big decision out of fear. I can say, however, that I've had the temptation to do it often because of the nature of the entertainment industry. You might go a long stretch where you haven't had a job and a job might come up that you don't love the character or you don't really love the project or the people involved aren't people that you really want to be in business with, but you're afraid that you need to make money. There are times where you're like, Oh, should I just do it? Or there's times where it's like, Oh my gosh, this is a person I really want to work with, but this project doesn't feel like a fit. Maybe I should do it. I don't want to lose this relationship with this person.
I feel like I've had the temptation to make decisions like that in my professional life often, and really, my North Star is always: Am I thinking I should do this because I'm afraid, or [am I] doing this because I feel excited and invigorated by it? … It’s been hard to make those decisions at times, but as my therapist says, when you do the right thing for you, you do the right thing for everybody.
When I've made those decisions, even though those conversations were tricky or those conversations were hard or it was scary to be like, I'm just going to walk away from this money because I really don't feel right about this project, or I don't feel inspired by it, somehow it all works out for everybody. You still end up finding the right thing with those people if it was about a relationship. Or another job comes up that you had no idea was coming, and you're like, I'm actually OK financially right now. There's a lot of faith involved in it, but I do feel like weighing my decisions based on whether or not I feel like it's coming from fear or I feel like it's coming from invigoration has helped me weigh how to make those decisions.
WM: Taking that time to step back and really look at the bigger picture could be so helpful, but it’s hard when you feel like you have a time limit to accept something too.
JM: We all have a sixth sense. … And truly, it is scary to make the hard right decision. It does feel scary; it doesn't feel good. I think that's confusing to people sometimes. You think, Well, if this was the right decision, I would feel good. That's not always the case. Sometimes it feels awful to make the right decision, and no one really talks about that. It's more about how you feel on the other side of the decision. It's like, when you make the hard decision that feels awful in the moment, you will feel so good on the other side of that decision. If you make the fear-based, kind of murky decision, you'll feel anxious and kind of off on the other side of the decision.
WM: What aspect of your mental health would you describe as a work in progress?
JM: All of them. … We're all growing and changing every day. I will never be the person I was yesterday and tomorrow. I'll never be the person I am right now ever again. That's good. You want to look back on your old self and think, Oh my God, I can't imagine being that person anymore. And that doesn't mean you're ashamed of anything. It just means you're growing. As you grow and evolve and meet more people and have more experiences and go through more things, your empathy evolves, your understanding of things evolves, your humility evolves. As that happens, you're changing. So there's no way your mental health habits and things that you're pursuing don't need constant attention.
If I were to take one area that I put forward as something I focus on—even though I keep an open mind to all areas of mental health—it's just finding balance. It's just tricky to balance work with family and with personal life. Sometimes I find a really good groove and I feel really good about it, and sometimes I don't.
Sometimes I just have to be honest about it, especially when you have a relationship and a partner you really care about. There's times I'll say to my husband, “This is going to be a hard stretch for me. I have a lot of work to do, and I have more work to do than I have time to do. I know I'm not going to be able to give you the attention I want to give you.” So it's a conversation that we then have. Instead of someone feeling hurt or left out, it's a present conversation. And he feels confident enough to say to me, “Hey, babe, I know you're totally buried, but I need two hours.” And I'll be like, “You know what? I can do that. I can clear two hours.”
I've found that so much of that balance really comes from communication because it's never going to be exactly equal. I think we have this idea that we’re especially giving women that you can have it all and you can have the balance. Nothing's ever going to be exactly balanced. But if you're communicating with the people you care about and you're communicating clearly with each other, then you can find a way to fill those needs of each other and be there with each other and feel that joy of support with each other, even though it might not be exactly equal.
WM: If you could give yourself a pep talk right now, what would you say?
JM: Because I am facing an extraordinary amount of monologues to memorize, I would just say to keep doing a little bit every day and it's going to be fine. That is truly working already. When you look at a two-hour play and you realize you're going to talk for probably an hour and 40 minutes of those two hours, it could feel impossible. But when I went through and I broke the play down into 15 sections and chunks of memorizing, … then I was like, Oh, I can actually do this. In general, I constantly return to a pep talk with myself of: Break it down into small, achievable parts, and you can do it.
WM: What else would you like to add?
JM: It's just so important to stay in touch with the people you care about. … Sometimes it's the littlest thing that makes the biggest difference. I don't need someone to call me and have a two-hour conversation with me. Just the fact that someone sends a text and says, “Hey, I'm thinking about you. I hope all's well. Don't even feel like you have to answer if you're busy.” It means so much when people do that and you feel the warmth of someone's thought.
I think a lot of times we'll think of someone and think about how much we care about them, but we don't actively do something to let them know. This is something I really learned from my husband—he's very, very good at this: It takes two seconds to send a text, and it doesn't interrupt their day. It doesn't interrupt your day. It just lets someone know I love you. I care about you. I'm thinking about you. That goes a long way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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