The Singaporean actor bravely opens up about his mental health struggles and figuring out the emotional hollowness in his heart.
“What planted the seed of love for acting was watching TV with my family. I grew up on a lot of Hong Kong movies and Channel 8 dramas. I had a lot of admiration for the people on TV, and I always fantasised about what it’d be like to be part of that family; to do what they do.
But I had a very traditional, Singaporean upbringing. In my head, my life was already planned out. I would go to primary school, secondary school, JC, army, university and eventually, I’d find myself a corporate job. That’s the direction I went in, and I strove for that.
There was no emotional connection to the choices I made at every stage of my life. Every decision was rational. So halfway through university, I was feeling miserable. I was in NUS Business School, and I didn’t understand why I was so miserable.
And then it hit me that I was not doing what I liked. When I thought about being stuck behind a cubicle for the next 50 years of adulthood, I felt sad. I asked myself what I really wanted to do, and I kept going back to that fantasy of being part of a TV family.
But there was a negative voice in my head that said, ‘Ben, that’s so stupid. Who do you think you are? What made you think you could get into that industry? You know you are not a star. You are nothing. You are destined to go into the corporate world and just live normally.’
It sounds so harsh, but I genuinely felt that way. An alternative way of living just seemed so impossible, but when the unhappiness was too much, I told my parents that I didn’t want to do this anymore. So after I graduated, I moved to LA to study theatre for two years.
My very first acting role was in a Jack Neo film called Long Long Time Ago. To this very day, I can safely say that it’s a film that I’m most proud of. All my life, I wanted to be part of a TV family, and I actually debuted in a Jack Neo movie. I did it! I made it.
I should have been happy. But what came after was a sense of emptiness that I can’t quite explain. And through the many different highs and milestones in my career, I came to realise that…my happiness was always followed by this hollowness that’s just so haunting.
Over the last year, that sense of emptiness and loneliness was so strong. I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I went on a journey of trying to figure it out. I spoke to different people who were either into mental health or spiritual healing, and I did a lot of self-help work.
I explored different healing methods. And I wouldn’t say that I’ve completely figured out what that hole in me is, but I have an inkling that this hole cannot be filled by something outside of me. I think that’s something a lot of us know, but we don’t really come to terms with it.
One of the quotes that I heard during this journey of self-discovery was, ‘The longest journey is between the head and the heart.’ And I think my entire life, I’ve been trying to fill this emptiness with accomplishments, relationships or validation from people.
Of course I want to be financially stable and still take on roles that are right for me, but I’ve stopped having goals that are hinged on superficial milestones. And if I had any wisdom to share, it would be that if you’re unhappy, you don’t have to live like how you’re living now.
I think a lot of people don’t understand that there is a choice. It may not be easy. It’s going to take a lot of effort to stop what you’re doing and essentially deconstruct your entire life to rebuild something healthy again. But you have a choice, and the choice is up to you.” – Benjamin Josiah Tan
Interview by: Arman Shah