My stint with Performance Anxiety: How I’ve learned to overcome it, and how you can too

A friend once told me that playing music to strangers is the same as getting naked for them. I’ve never stripped to a crowd of people. I do know the fear of performing can be terrifying. I can’t say for sure if his saying is true.

Once, I watched a street musician who made performing look effortless. It was unreal. He could arrest the attention of anyone who came into his presence, always holding his composure.

“I want to get to that level. Whatever it takes.” I thought to myself.

After seeing the musician repeatedly praised and paid, the objective was set in my mind. I would do my first live street performance. I wouldn’t have to work my day job again.

That was the plan at least.

The day of my first performance, confidence was high. I knew exactly where I was going, and what I was going to do. As I started playing my guitar, the emotions caught up with me. I felt the burning in my gut. My fingers shook uncontrollably. I forgot most of the lyrics to the song. After finishing, I looked around, expecting someone to say something.

The traffic of pedestrians continued to pass by.

No one noticed anything. I felt discouraged.

The next tune, “Across the USA” was an original. I had a better reception. People paid attention, and I made a few bucks. I kept playing for a few hours. Some people paid attention, while others didn’t pretend to care.

My emotions followed suit. If no one paid attention, I felt anxious and insecure. If people engaged at all, I felt renewed confidence.

This emotional rollercoaster was not helping my performance anxiety.  I was always preoccupied with what others were thinking about me.  Maybe they were judging the music–or they were thinking about themselves. The next few months, I continued to perform, but the constant rumination and anxiety continued to plague me. Frustrated, I decided to research the condition and learn effective ways of managing my symptoms.

What is performance anxiety?

“Stage Fright,” is one of the most common phobias affecting Americans. Everyone experiences performance anxiety in different forms and with varying degrees of intensity. The causes are straightforward– social anxiety, lack of experience, and a strong aversion to failure.

Social anxiety often presents itself as thought distortions. When we dwell on our mistakes, and others reactions, our anxious thoughts are often blown out of proportion. We become consumed by a single mistake or the person in the audience who looks bored. (Hint: He might just be a dud, to begin with)

This habit of thinking is counterproductive and self-defeating. Underneath our obsessive thinking, we experience the emotions and bodily sensations associated with performance anxiety. The process happens so quickly that before we’re aware of it, we’re fixated on our anxiety, instead of engaging with the task at hand. Do we plan to get up in front of people and feel anxious, while thinking about how others are perceiving us? Surely not.

Managing symptoms

The good news is you can start to gain control of your condition, and perform your best even with anxiety. As David Carbonell, Ph.D. explains “Performance anxiety is very treatable. However, many people just suffer with it, with all the limitations and negative emotions it imposes. They either don’t realize that help is available; they fear they can’t be helped, or they think it will be too hard.”

The first thing we need to know about any type of anxiety is that “getting rid of” or “fighting” it is futile. This will never work. This mindset stems from trying to appear “perfect” or “experienced,” when likely we’re still beginners as public speakers or entertainers. We should expect and be “OK” with feeling uncomfortable while experiencing self-critical thoughts at times while performing. The more we push away and resist what’s going on in our minds, the more intense our emotions will become. A gap will persist between our expectations of how we should be performing, and how we are performing. Perhaps we’re upset that despite our experience and knowledge, we’re still dealing with performance anxiety. Yet, these expectations only set us up to feel more of the same.

A great way to build a practice in managing your symptoms is gradually increasing the level of anxiety involved with your performance. Sounds counterintuitive, right? For example, if you know you’re giving a speech to a large audience in a few months, start by giving the same speech to a small group of friends and family. Gradually, increase the size of the group you are presenting to—maybe it’s a group of coworkers. Be creative. The idea is to expose yourself to trigger situations before the actual event. Gradual exposure along with sufficient practice will ensure you’re not entirely overrun by your emotions when the time comes to present.

If you are giving a speech, it’s essential that you get involved with the audience. This means asking questions and framing discussions that encourage participation among viewers. By increasing engagement, the focus becomes less on what you are saying, and more on the topic itself. In performance, involvement can be helpful as well, but it’s not as important. It doesn’t hurt to crack a joke occasionally. Most people just want to be entertained. Instead of resisting emotions you’re experiencing on stage, direct that energy into your show. After all, you’re not trying to persuade anyone directly. Get into it.

Keep in mind no matter what the event requires, no one is expecting perfection. While playing open mic, I purposely made mistakes. Often, I’d play with old strings, left them out of tune, or bluffed entire sections of songs. After all, open mic events are a place to make mistakes. It’s not the Emmy’s. This had a beneficial impact on my anxiety. No one cared when I purposely screwed up. That is the main idea, no one cares. And neither should you. Making mistakes is ok. When you expect to be perfect, you’re setting yourself up for failure. We’re humans, perfection is not real. Get up there and have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously.

Being “OK” with anxiety does not mean that you are “OK” with performing substandard for the rest of your life. It means becoming more compassionate towards yourself, and more realistic about the way in which you view yourself. Think of performing in any context as a medium for something more than you. A song, skit, character, or an idea. People are looking at what you are offering them. Know that if your product is gold, then you don’t need to worry about the minutia. If you are standing up there, then you have something to offer. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.  Before and after you give a performance, remind yourself in writing the positive attributes to your work, and how it benefits others.

I hope some of this information will help you along your way in performing, whatever your goals might be. And remember that you have something valuable to offer others, it is merely a matter of getting yourself out of the way and letting others see it!

To this day I still experience performance anxiety but have learned to separate myself from the thoughts and emotions that arise, and experience greater joy and fulfillment when performing.


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