Obstacles to Confident Performances, Part 1: Performance Anxiety. 

By  Judy Fine

This post is the first in a three-post series, covering the most prevalent culprits that stand between people and their best-performing selves. I have dealt with all three to varying degrees and at various times in my life. So have many others, maybe including you. They are performance anxiety, imposter syndrome, and the social chameleon.

For now, I want to talk about performance anxiety, since it is the mother of all demons standing between you and your best everyday performances.

And notice I say everyday performances. Not just artistic or business presentations. I’ll tell you what I mean by that, but first, a little about my dance with this demon.

When I was a kid, a had a crappy little tape recorder. Yes. That’s how old I am. I loved singing in my bedroom and had a rich fantasy life where I owned a theater that produced musicals using the latest pop hits. I’d listen to the radio and when each next hit from one of my “musicals” came on, I would “practice” that “scene.”

One day, I decided I wanted to record myself singing one of these songs on my crappy little recorder. I practiced the song over and over again until I felt ready. Then I hit record. Immediately, my throat clenched up, my voice squeaked, and I could no longer remember the words.

Welcome to the world of performance anxiety.

Nothing changed regarding my ability when I hit that button. All that changed was the knowledge that I was being recorded. It triggered my fear of stinking at things that are important to me.

So what, if you didn’t like it? you may ask. Couldn’t you just delete it and try again?

Well, sure. That’s logical. But anxiety isn’t. Besides, it wasn’t just a fear of other people thinking I stink at singing. It was a fear of me finding out I stink at singing. A recording would be proof!

Now, if you’re saying to yourself, “This has nothing to do with me. I’m not a singer,” hang in there. I’m getting to you…

This performance anxiety followed me into my musical adulthood. There’s no nice way to describe it. As a singer and keyboardist in the cover band world, my performance anxiety made me an asshole to myself.

For days leading up to a gig, I was an impatient stress-case who hated how I looked and who was getting a cold. I mean it. I got a cold every time. I wasn’t faking it. The symptoms really came.

At my early performances, I would start the first set being the semblance of a normal performer. But with each little mistake, which to me were all huge and boldly telegraphed to the room, I would turn down the volume on my keyboard. Some nights, I’m not sure anyone could hear me at all by the end of the third set. Then I’d go home, and instead of sleeping, I’d rehash all the ways I had been inadequate at the gig.

See? I was an asshole.

Circa 2003 playing keys in Brattleboro, VT.

Honestly, I don’t know why I kept gigging. But fortunately, I did. And over time, I learned to work through it all. I promise anyone reading this that you, too, can learn to work through it (even if you’re not a singer – still getting to you!). The things I learned to help myself manage that anxiety became the methods and tools I use to coach others to more confident performances today.

But how does all this pertain to you? Especially if you’re not a performer (finally, we’re here!)?

All the world’s a stage. So said Shakespeare, anyway, and he was right. But it’s not just that we’re born, play our role, and then make an exit. It’s because most everything we do is a performance. Giving a speech. Being interviewed for a job. Asking someone on a date. Saying how we really feel when we know it’ll disappoint someone. These are all kinds of performances.

As with music, I struggled with everyday performances like these well into my thirties. Believe it or not, the music performances were sometimes easier to deal with. After all, they were rehearsed, and I had tools on stage (aka, cheat sheets) when I needed. But put me in a real-time situation where I needed to tell someone intimidating what I charged, or a guy I was dating that I wasn’t that into him, and I really struggled. No lie, I went on quite a few dates I didn’t want to go on because I couldn’t just say, “Yeah, no. Thanks.” And these are the small but oh so important things that a life is made up of. If you rack up enough of these seemingly inconsequential moments, it becomes a whole lot of not my life.

The majority of the most important performances in our lives barely register as a thing. And most are unscripted.

Imagine being out to dinner with a friend and she runs into someone big in the field you’re trying to break into. She introduces you. Lights, camera, action!

Or you find yourself in a situation where you need to stand up for yourself. Or set a boundary with a loved one. Or correct an important misunderstanding about something that happened at work. All of these are important everyday performances where you want to keep your head and communicate clearly and concisely. People with performance anxiety can struggle with any of these situations.

If everything is a performance, you may ask, why doesn’t everything I do trigger my performance anxiety?

That’s a great question. Thanks for asking! Something has to be at stake. Your reputation. Your self-worth. Your emotional or physical safety. Something important to you must be at risk.

If this resonates with you, the natural next question is, “What do I do about it?”

Improved performance skills don’t come about from reading one blog post. They develop over time as you practice performing. One way to accomplish that is to join forces with an experienced performance coach (I can recommend one!).

Meanwhile, below are some tips to get you started in the right direction whether or not you go the performance coach route. Start incorporating them into your everyday performances, and you’ll watch those performances become better and better.

  • Confident performance always begins with the messages your body is sending to both your brain and your audience. Control the messages by relaxing your shoulders, slowing down, breathing deep, cracking a smile, if it’s appropriate. Basically, hold your body the way you would if you were feeling relaxed and confident.
  • When your mind goes to a place of panic, ground yourself. Noticing your points of contact is the fastest way to do this. How do your feet feel against the floor? How does your bottom and back feel against your chair? Grounding yourself will hold you in the present.
  • Jettison any concern about the other person or people liking you. Even at a job interview, the only thing that matters is communicating your message. How it’s received is out of your hands, and wasting valuable mental energy worrying about that detracts from the power of your message. Focus on the message, not their feelings.
  • Similarly, don’t put too much stock into any performance. Your life never hinges on any one performance. I swear.
  • Don’t sugarcoat, pad, or apologize for your viewpoint. All of those things come across as wavering and uncertainty. Just say what you mean without disclaimers or too much explanation.
  • Approach any everyday performance as an opportunity to practice performing better. Performance is a skill that needs to be practiced, like every other skill. Note what went well and what needed improving and then apply that information to your next performance.

There is so much more to confidently executing your everyday performances. For example, to unabashedly speak your truth, you have to get clear about what your truth is. But that’s for another post. Meanwhile, I hope these tips help. Break a leg!

Judy Fine

Judy Fine has been a vocal and performance coach since 2007, specializing in artist development coaching for aspiring singers and confidence coaching for everyone.

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