| 7.5°C Dublin

Comedian Dermot Whelan: ‘When you’re lost in perfectionism, nothing is ever good enough’

The performer, writer and broadcaster reveals how meditation helped him stop sweating the small stuff and better manage his anxiety

Close

Dermot Whelan.

Dermot Whelan.

Dermot Whelan co hosts the Dermot & Dave show on Today FM. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Dermot Whelan co hosts the Dermot & Dave show on Today FM. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Dermot Whelan. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Dermot Whelan. Picture by Steve Humphreys

/

Dermot Whelan.

There’s a scene in Dermot Whelan’s first book, Mind Full, in which he describes the empty streets of Dublin during lockdown: they were so quiet all he could hear was “birds singing and the ventilation fans from empty office blocks”.

A week before lockdown, Dermot had bought himself a skateboard. As a child, he had wanted to learn but had been too fearful.

Now the deserted streets became “a giant abandoned skate park” as he made his way to and from work. With the city so empty, he could fall about and embarrass the hell out of himself as he picked up a new skill. Skateboarding was mindfulness, he explains, that was much needed at that time of crisis.

It’s not something Dermot Whelan, stand-up comedian, broadcaster, and more recently, author and meditation teacher, would have relished in his earlier days – this being-in-the-moment – before a series of life events forced him to examine how he was living, and, more importantly, feeling.

Dermot had, if it’s possible to say such a thing, a good lockdown. While continuing to broadcast on Today FM’s Dermot & Dave show he wrote two books, the aforementioned Mind Full (published in spring and nominated last week for an An Post Irish Book Award and, at the time of writing, the No 1 best-selling Irish book published this year) and his first children’s book, Noni and the Great Chawwwklit Mystery, based on a female character the comic has been performing on air for some five years now. The book was released last week.

He wrote the latter while the former was coming out. “That was quite an interesting, intense period of work. I’m not sure that I would do that again,” he laughs.

Now he’s beginning his second book publicity tour of the year. There’s also a nationwide Mind Full tour to promote, and several TV shows due out.

 

It’s a full-on schedule, and one that previously might have sent him spiralling into feeling overwhelmed. Now though, in large part thanks to meditation, which he took up several years ago, his mind is an entirely different place to inhabit.

“When I sat down to write the two books during lockdown, I had so much faith in my ability to do it,” he says. “My inner critic was now my biggest fan, telling me that this was going to be great. I knew that all I had to do was just turn up every day, sit at the desk, and write it.”

Video of the Day

He had expected the children’s book to be the easier of the two to write. Mind Full was serious and involved a lot of research, whereas comedy is Dermot’s comfort zone. In fact, he found Noni... to be the more challenging, he admits. “Just because it’s a kid’s novel doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow all the same rules of writing any kind of story, where you have character arcs, story arcs, things have to resolve. And I had never learnt that. I really had to work hard with my editor.”

This book places him in the company of other comedians who have turned to writing for kids, including David Walliams and David Baddiel. Was it hard to find his voice in this new medium?

“I don’t think I ever sat down to go ‘Now I am writing a children’s book’. Maybe it’s just my juvenile sense of humour,” he laughs. “But I try and make it as interesting and funny as I can.”

Close

Dermot Whelan has based his children’s book on a character he has played for years. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Dermot Whelan has based his children’s book on a character he has played for years. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Dermot Whelan has based his children’s book on a character he has played for years. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Dermot grew up in Limerick, the youngest of six, with comedy chops initially tuned by dint of trying to get a word in at the family dinner table.

He studied archaeology in college, then afterwards moved into film production, working as an assistant director in TV and film. It was not until his late 20s, having had enough of the toxic world of movie sets – specifically, he was punched by an actor – that he moved into radio. Now 48, he performed his first comedy gig at the age of 31.

 

In 2007, Dermot was on his way to perform at the Kilkenny International Cat Laughs Comedy Festival, when he collapsed. Convinced he was dying of a heart attack, he called his wife, the artist Corrina Earlie. (The couple have been together since their 20s and have three children, aged 10, 13 and 15.) He couldn’t speak, instead he managed to garble a few words down the phone. An ambulance brought him to hospital, where he was told he was having a panic attack.

He didn’t overhaul his life overnight. Indeed, he went straight back to work – performing live an hour afterwards –
and following “a brief period of minding” himself, nothing fundamental changed. Looking back now he can see how fuelled he was then by stress, anxiety and fear, and that he had always been “a socially anxious person”.

“Only when you’re maxed out energy wise, adrenaline’s pumping through your system, cortisol, fear, that feeling of, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be pushed out of an airplane now’, are you at your best,” he says of what he believed back then to be a necessary state of mind in order to create. “Which is a really difficult way to do your job,” he laughs.

Three years later, on a night out, he fell down some stairs and was briefly knocked unconscious. He was on his way to Germany a few days later, about to board a flight, when his face began to swell “like a Klingon”. It was only then that he accepted something in his life needed to change. He was exhausted but never stopping, drinking too much, saying yes to everything, driven by anxiety.

But realising something is wrong, and then doing something about it, can be hard, he reflects.

“You don’t want to feel like a failure, to feel weak. Particularly if you’re a performer, you’ve got your outside face that you want the world to see.”

Close

Dermot in 2009

Dermot in 2009

Dermot in 2009

Not all of us will have a pivotal moment to help us realise change is needed, Dermot says. “For most people, it’s just a gradual feeling of not being yourself, of wondering if there’s something else out there, if you’re doing it wrong, whatever that is. A very gradual sense that things could be better.”

He took up meditation, taught by a neighbour in Howth, Co Dublin, where he and his family had recently moved, and began to develop compassion for himself in a way he had previously lacked. “That’s a massive one for me, I used to eat myself up so much.”

Dermot realised how negative the perfectionist’s voice in his head was, always telling him he should be doing more, feeling differently.

“I would be going, ‘Oh my God, you idiot’,” he says of the inevitable times when something would go wrong on live radio. “Dave [Moore] was sitting across from me going, ‘What the hell is wrong with him?’
I would feel angry at him: ‘Why does he not care as much as I do? I care more, that’s why I’m beating myself up.’ And, actually, the fault was with me. Because when you’re lost in perfectionism, nothing is ever good enough.”

Where did that strong inner critic come from?

“I think I grew up in a very... what I would consider to have been a happy childhood. However, there was definitely a propensity for self-berating as a badge of honour. As a sign that you really cared and were driven. Like, ‘Why am I such an idiot’, negative self-talk out loud,” he says of his family. “Being heard to be scolding yourself, so that it would show that you were monitoring your own behaviour and demanding the best of yourself.”

While that can be helpful sometimes in the short term, to get a project over the line for example, it will, he points out, ultimately wear you out.

“Everything around us is telling us to do more, try more, achieve more, get more, be more, be your full self. Everything we look at on social media is people motivating, digging deep and pushing through. But that’s exhausting. Think what’s the flipside of that. What pressure we feel to... have a rest?” he smiles wryly. “Take a day off. Go for a walk in the woods. Hug your pet. Congratulate yourself for whatever small wins you had today.”

Close

Dermot, right, and Today FM co-host Dave Moore

Dermot, right, and Today FM co-host Dave Moore

Dermot, right, and Today FM co-host Dave Moore

So the meditation worked, but then he began to take the foot off and became what he describes as “a crisis meditator”.

Until one day in 2017, when he found himself sitting on the edge of his bed, unable to move.

Life was particularly intense. He and Dave had begun their mid-morning radio slot, he was touring the country with a stand-up show, and trying to be present as a husband and father of three.

“Because I wasn’t practising meditation, I wasn’t activating those parts of my brain. So as soon as a shit tonne of work arrived in my lap, and this enormous pressure, I had none of the resilience that I thought I was creating by talking about meditation,” he laughs. “Because actually, you’ve got to do it.”

He was burnt out. “The same stuff that had put me in the ambulance 10 years before was back.

“I was exhausted to the point of just not being able to get up. You lose all your fight, you lose confidence in yourself. You’re in a constant state of high alert. You can’t sleep, you can’t function. I used to feel like the ground was wobbling under my feet,”
he remembers.

This time around, he knew what to do. He decided to train as a meditation teacher. At first it was to help him commit to regular practice, but increasingly he has found the work has given him the sense of fulfilment he had been lacking.

One of the concepts Dermot learned was the idea of the ‘winning formula’, a set of methods for dealing with the world that we develop at an early age and then keep with us throughout our lives, even if they are no longer useful.

 

And Dermot’s ‘winning formula’, he realised, was humour. In Mind Full he describes being bullied as a teen and how this stopped when his peers realised he was funny.

“Doing humour for survival stakes was where I was at when I was a teenager,” he says now. “Twenty years later, on a comedy stage in Vicar Street, I’m experiencing the same thing. I’m doing comedy for survival purposes. To survive other people’s opinions of me. To somehow justify my position in the world, through jokes – when obviously that’s not where I needed to be. That was for a 15-year-old me.

“I would love the nervous system that I have today to be in that guy,” he says of his first solo gig 10 years ago in Vicar Street.

“I have an enormous amount of sympathy for that fella. I was running on adrenaline. I had little or no faith, real trust, in what I was writing, or performing. I was just hoping it would all work out. Just so much fear around what other people thought of me, what they were going to say about me.”

 

Close

Dermot with Jennifer Zamparelli during their 'Republic of Telly' days

Dermot with Jennifer Zamparelli during their 'Republic of Telly' days

Dermot with Jennifer Zamparelli during their 'Republic of Telly' days

The meditation training changed how he felt about work, not just teaching, but stand-up, writing, radio and more.

“Having a sense of purpose gets rid of a lot of the unnecessary noise and clutter. I coined a phrase at one point a couple of years ago, ‘I can’t be nervous if I’m in service.’ As long as I feel this is for other people’s benefit, and not just my own, it gives me something to work towards that’s outside of myself.

“Whereas before it would have been a bit of an inward experience – all eyes are on me, judging me, I’m judging myself. In my mind the audience was offering me nothing but potential criticism, whereas now an audience offers me shared experience. It’s not a grandiose thing, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to save the world’,” he adds with a laugh, “but realising that I have something to bring to people through my own life experience.”

At times, Dermot seems a little ill-at-ease talking about the extent of his anxiety, uncomfortable with the cringier sides of meditation and spirituality, as if the old Dermot, who would have found it hard to admit to these things, or cared what others thought, comes into play. It makes his story – and his honesty – even more compelling. He is not preaching at the rest of us from the mountain top. He is still having to work at it.

 

He knows the signs now of when his nervous system is off balance. His sleep will be affected, and he will notice a feeling in his body that he compares to the sound of the humming of a tuning fork. And he will act on it, cancelling things in his diary, trying to get more sleep, getting out in nature, leaning into his meditation.

He has almost entirely given up alcohol too, something he credits to meditation. “It was very obvious to me that regular drinking of alcohol really has a detrimental effect on me.”

And he has come to appreciate the role of play in his life, that “flow state” where you are completely in the present moment.

It seems like it is out of this space that he wrote his children’s book.

“The character of Noni definitely came out of that new-found creativity, that new-found space I had to let those playful thoughts take shape.

“Noni is like a Mary Poppins character that you would run a full background check on. She is wicked, and cheeky, and I’m not entirely sure that you would let her mind your kids... but she has a heart of gold and she’s very faithful.”

Close

Dermot with sons Owen and Mathew in 2017. Picture by Andres Poveda

Dermot with sons Owen and Mathew in 2017. Picture by Andres Poveda

Dermot with sons Owen and Mathew in 2017. Picture by Andres Poveda

He is reading the book at night to his 10-year-old daughter, his youngest child. “She’s a girl who speaks her own mind, highly independent, and does not suffer fools, and she’s glued to it,” he says. “I’m reading it to her, doing the voices, because I created the characters.”

He looks bashful. “I’m trying to tell her, ‘Do you know how lucky you are? You’re getting the author to read the book to you’. She’s like, ‘Meh, whatever’,” he laughs.

Even though things are full on, he
can manage it, he says.

He’ll always be someone who wants to do lots of different things. But that’s fine, he says, “once I can make peace with that part of me that wants to say ‘yes’ right now to everything.”

‘Noni and the Great Chawwwklit Mystery’ by Dermot Whelan, illustrated by Fintan Taite, is published by Gill Books, €12.99, and out now


Privacy