Jesse Williams on setting boundaries with fans: 'If I didn't, I would never be present with anybody'

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Jesse Williams on the importance of supporting teachers — and setting boundaries. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Jesse Williams on the importance of supporting teachers — and setting boundaries. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Jesse Williams may be best known for playing a doctor, but in real life the actor and activist got his start as a teacher, spending six years in Philadelphia public high schools. Though he's since found fame in Hollywood — recently ending an 11-season run as Dr. Jackson Avery on Grey's Anatomy and producing the Oscar-winning Two Distant Strangers ahead of his lead role in Take Me Out — education remains close to his heart. 

To help back the back-to-school experience smoother for under-served communities, the 40-year-old father of two is teaming up with and Subaru for Subaru Loves Learning, an initiative that will furnish school supplies for K-12 students in need. Here, Williams tells Yahoo Life about his own experiences with teaching, and why therapy, mediation and setting boundaries are crucial to his well-being.

As a former teacher, how has the Subaru Loves Learning initiative resonated for you? Do you have memories of your own struggles with getting school supplies?

Absolutely. Not only do I have memories as a teacher at under-resourced schools, but also as a student in drastically under-resourced schools as a young person in Chicago. What connected for me when I saw this partnership between Subaru and was my kind of visceral memory as both a student and a teacher and watching how many of us simply don't have the basic tools that folks take for granted. [You need] pencils, pencil boxes, erasers, markers, pens, the book bag and food and lunch boxes and folders and binders and all these things that are easy to lose, easy to break, easy to get stolen... So many of us don't have the resources to quickly replace those or have the time to get off work to go shopping and go get these things that are so easily misplaced, ruined or broken. 

It's a lot that we take for granted, on top of classrooms themselves that are under-resourced and the teachers that are stressed. I've been a student of those teachers and that teacher myself. So when you have a company that's stepping up by helping more than 114,000 students that could really use it and almost 5,000 classrooms across the country, through the Subaru Loves Learning program, it's critical to student achievement. Inadequate classroom resources are constantly threatening the success, and just the ability to sustain, for so many students in schools and teachers across the country. I know well enough that it's really tangible, measurable, material help for human beings around the country [that's needed]. In a world where a lot of corporations give a lot of lip service to things. It was refreshing to see Subaru step up in a real measurable way.

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What did being a teacher teach you about yourself? Like what did you learn about yourself during that experience?

Being a teacher taught me a great deal. It's certainly helped me refine and expand the ways in which to communicate an idea. We all process information in different ways, with different timing, different language, different information bases. Logically, emotionally, we're all dealing with such a different range of trauma and drama and experiences and attention spans and health and nutrition and all these things that allow us to even be present, to have the luxury to even sit through a class — never mind seven of them a day — and have the luxury of the time and space to complete those assignments, with all the different stresses people deal with in the home, et cetera. It helps me kind of form and shape a more solid personhood as an adult, as a friend, as a partner, as well as as a performer. 

Ultimately, later when I chose to explore acting, it's a very similar skillset, frankly — to be able to keep the attention of the whole group of people that may or may not want to be there and to be creative and be able to figure out ways to connect to them, even though they're all coming from different spaces and be able to speak a language that has a common denominator in the center. Very similar skill sets, it turned out. Anything that can help foster not just learning, but learning how to learn for students makes a world of difference. [It] really helped me as an adult to return back to those classrooms that I was in as a kid and helped me appreciate that just keeping them there and keeping them enthusiastic in their experience with you in the classroom is a springboard for anything else they want to do in life.

How do you prioritize your mental health? Are there any therapeutic practices that you follow?

I go to therapy. I think it's really important; it's transformative for me. I love it. I have a meditation practice. I've created a kind of minimum distance with my phone usage and its role in my life and in my relationships. As a person who's become recognizable to people in public, I have rules about allowing myself to be distracted or interrupted when I'm present with people I care about. I'm really gracious to fans, I like to think, but I've also created rules for when I'm present with people in my life. I don't allow interruptions and I try to stay with them. If I didn't, I would never be present with anybody, because I'm constantly being interrupted or grabbed or people are sneaking pictures or asking for pictures or interrupting and telling me their life story while I have a fork in my mouth and having a meal. You have to figure out ways to both be gracious and grateful to your fan base, but also be present with the people in your lives and your life. So yeah, I create some pretty meaningful parameters both personally and professionally, as well as my own, meditation and therapy practice. 

The former Grey's Anatomy actor will soon star in Take Me Out on both Broadway and in a TV adaptation. (Photo: Gilles Mingasson/ABC via Getty Images)
The former Grey's Anatomy actor will soon star in Take Me Out on both Broadway and in a TV adaptation. (Photo: Gilles Mingasson/ABC via Getty Images)

What does self-care mean to you?

It means going to therapy. It means reading more and more about self-improvement, and I gain greater access and understanding of myself as a human being, as a man, as a father, as a partner, as a person. It also means putting the phone down. It also means returning to allowing myself the luxury of just sitting on the couch and watching something without feeling guilty. I'm a workaholic; I work non-stop. And I, for a very long time, wouldn't allow myself to really just sit and recreate and without feeling guilty that I should be working: There's something else I could be doing, some other email I haven't gotten back to, there's another way to create more financial stability for my family, et cetera. As of late, I've gotten more comfortable just giving myself a break. It's OK to just sit down. It's OK to just read a book that's fiction. It's OK to just have a two-hour conversation with an old friend that I haven't spoken to or seen in too long. 

[It also means] staying connected to people. Making sure I'm asking more questions than I am making statements. Putting myself in spaces to learn and be present for others. And resting. When I get a chance to take a nap, don't feel guilty about it; do it. You can't pour from an empty cup, and mine was empty for quite a while. So I'm certainly learning how to take better care of myself. Everybody does it differently, but those are just things that worked for me. 

Do you have a go-to mantra that sticks with you when you're going through a tough time or just need a little motivation?

It's almost like sometimes I choose emptiness. When I find myself about to get stressed out or am feeling the compulsion to react to something negatively, I put it away and remind myself that it's really between you and you — it's not really between you and the other person or you and the opposition or you and the thing that pissed you off. It's really a test between yourself and yourself. That's something that comes to mind. I don't fight; I don't argue anymore. [It's about] kind of relinquishing that need to react. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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