Performance Anxiety isn’t just for performers.
Well, I take that back. Performance anxiety IS for performers, but we are all performers. Asking your boss for a raise is a kind of performance. Dealing with a difficult family member is a kind of performance. Saying what you really think in a group of potential “disagreers” is a kind of performance.
We are all performers, sometimes on a daily basis. If you leave important gatherings kicking yourself for the good point you couldn’t bring yourself to add, you’re not weak or broken. You have performance anxiety.
And you are in no way alone.
The single most common thing I hear from my voice students is, “But I did it so well at home. Why can’t I do it here?” The answer is, because performance anxiety is literally a part of our nature.
So, what is performance anxiety?
Well, the symptoms can range from sweaty palms to dry throats to severe diarrhea and more. I have heard stories of dancers moving off stage during a show, throwing up in a bucket and then returning to the stage for the next scene.
I remember a boy in my 7th grade English class who, after finishing the last presentation of the class, waited behind the podium for the rest of us students to leave the room because he had peed in his pants and didn’t want us to know. Poor kid.
Many, many famous people have struggled with severe anxiety, Vladimir Horowitz, Barbara Streisand and Adele, just to name a few.
Why does performance anxiety happen?
It may seem like a kind of punishment or weakness when you really, really want to do something and your anxiety gets in the way. It isn’t. It’s actually a built-in mechanism designed as a safeguard. It’s part of the fight-or-flight response and it has been protecting your genes for millions of years.
Fight-or-flight is a physiological reaction to a perceived threat to survival.
It may seem silly on the surface, since singing a song at open mic night will not kill you no matter how badly it goes. But fight-or-flight is more complicated than that. The thing to recognize is, it isn’t really about your survival. It’s about the survival of your genes. Your genes only survive one way, by you convincing another that you are a suitable mate. And the better the mate (the stronger, healthier, more talented, more connected) the better chance of survival for those who will carry your genes into the future. That’s a lot of pressure!
In evolutionary terms, that means being approved of and accepted by your peers (it’s safer to be part of a tribe) and obtaining or maintaining a certain status (to draw a “better” mate) are of primary importance, at least on a powerful genetic level. To your genes, every performance is a potential fight for survival. That’s why someone like Vladmir Horowitz, considered one of the best pianists in the world, can feel more and more anxiety as he becomes more and more acclaimed. Because there is a higher and higher status to risk losing.
Why do I want you to know all this?
I want you to remember not to be fooled by the tricks of your subconscious. I want you to see that feeling weak or stupid or scared is in actuality playing into the hands of your subconscious (if it had hands). You are falling for the deception if you let those thoughts stop you from accomplishing what you want to accomplish. Knowledge is the only weapon against deception. Now you have more of it.
Great. You’ve gained new perspective on a root cause of performance anxiety. But you still experience Montezuma’s Revenge before every staff meeting you run. So, now what? Well, now that you’re privy to the motivation and deceptive nature of your subconscious, you’re ready to move on to the eight steps to improving your performance skills. But they must be backed by a determination to not let the fears of your subconscious trick you and stop you from moving forward. Here they are…
8 Steps Away from Performance Anxiety.
- Be prepared. Be very prepared. Remember, whatever your performance may be, your subconscious is a big wussy and doesn’t want you to do it. It will attempt to prove itself right by undermining your success, so you won’t want to do it again. It will say things like, “What’s the point in practicing? You’re going to fall on your face anyway.” Or, “You should go over your notes but the couch looks so soft and you’re so very tired.” Don’t listen. The more you know your topic, your lyrics, your reasoning, the better you’ll be able to recall them when your nerves are acting up.
- Practice. Don’t confuse this with being prepared. When I still had my music school in NH the school year was 34 weeks long, during which time we would have three student gigs. That meant that each year my students had 34 opportunities to practice practicing and 3 opportunities to practice performing. Performance is its own skill that you have to practice to be good at. Find opportunities to perform while under pressure, like maybe in front of a group of friends or family members (and see number 6 for another way).
- Hold your body like a confident, relaxed person. Yes, thoughts influence our bodies but it works the other way too. If you body is tense, your heart rate is up, if you’re moving around quickly, never smiling, etc… your brain will take inventory of all this and draw the conclusion that you are scared, stressed, whatever. If you stand tall, walk and talk slowly, relax your shoulders, smile, laugh, you will convince your brain that all is fine and your brain will then convince you.
- Watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talks video. Best ever!
- Don’t say that you’re nervous. Not before, during or after a performance. You’re training your body and brain to be better at performing. You need to convince both that performance is something you’re not afraid of. I am known for telling my students that they are not allowed to say, “I’m nervous.” They must instead say, “I’m excited,” even if they don’t think they mean it. Physiologically, excitement and fear are very similar, but excitement has a much more positive impact and can retrain your brain with a new and better attitude.
- Visualize greatness. Did you know that your subconscious mind cannot differentiate between an actual experience and an imagined one? For example, when you imagine lifting your leg, it stimulates the same parts of the brain as when you actually lift your leg. That means that you have almost endless opportunities to practice performing, in your mind. The trick is to do it in strict detail. As an example, last practice for an open-mic performance:
- You imagine yourself walking into the café where the open mic is going to happen. You can smell coffee brewing. You smile confidently as you see the crowd of people waiting for the music to begin. That’s a lot of people to share your beautiful lyrics with.
- You slowly walk to the counter to order a drink. Then you find a seat and pull out your guitar to tune it while you joke confidently with another singer waiting to perform. You tell the other singer that you can’t wait to get up there.
- You hear your name being called and walk to the stage. You say hello with a smile, feeling completely relaxed and confident.
- Then you start your song and sing it from beginning to end, flawlessly, nailing the high note at the end just the way you want to.
- You smile and soak up the crowd’s applause. You thank them and go back to your seat.
- If you do this three times before the show, the show will be your fourth performance and you’ll do great!
- Expect a “bad” performance here and there. If you want to be able to do something really well tomorrow that you can’t do today, you’re going to have to go through a period of time when you do it and it’s not that great. That’s just the way it is. No one moves directly from inability to mastery, so stop expecting to. Lingering over past snafus quickly becomes an excuse to stop trying (which that wussy subconscious of yours wants you to do). Keep your eye on the prize. It’s really not that far away–unless you give up.
- Remember, it just ain’t that important. Did you have a “bad” performance? Did the woman you asked out turn you down? Did your job interview go badly? Get over it, and I mean that in the most compassionate of ways. Move on and work to do better next time. You’ll live. This is your world as much as anyone else’s. You have the right to be imperfect while on the road to greatness. If anyone treats you otherwise, Forget Them. You get one shot at this life and it goes pretty quickly. Don’t waste any time feeling like you answer to anyone else. Answer to you.