Performance Anxiety Is Your Friend

Performance anxiety torments many of us. As we prepare to speak, act in a play, perform musically or athletically or in any other way, self-consciousness seizes our minds. We imagine the audience’s gimlet eyes boring into us, judging every imperfection in our delivery and appearance. We fear that we will look or act foolish, say something wrong, stupid or offensive. They will laugh at us. We will not measure up. We will fail.

But then we make the problem worse.   We try to hide the anxiety, to act calm, to pretend. But that doesn’t work. Why? Because we try. Whenever we decide to try something, that word implies the coexistence of an opposing force that may thwart our efforts. And it suggests the possibility, if not the probability, of failure. Whenever you decide to try something instead of doing something, you are inviting your own psychological opposition to the successful achievement of the task at hand. Accordingly, when we try to suppress anxiety, we usually fail. As our apprehension strangles us, tightens our chests so we cannot breathe, wobbles our legs, dries our saliva, generates butterflies and faintness, we sense that we are about to collapse or morph into a babbling idiot or in some other fashion make a public spectacle of ourselves. We may feel we are about to die.

So what to do? The first rule for this and any other anxiety-related symptom is, ACCEPT IT. It is. The Gestalt therapist Arnold Beisser articulated this paradox well. “Change,” he wrote, “occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.”

And how, if you suffer from performance anxiety, do you accept such an unpleasant experience? Here are three tactics, though there are doubtless others.

First, if it seems appropriate to the occasion (e.g. fine before a public lecture, but not during your appearance on stage in Act I, Scene I of Hamlet), simply say something to the audience like, “Folks, I’m nervous as hell, so please bear with me.” Or, “If you notice that my voice is shaky and my hands are trembling and sweat is pouring off my face, that is only because I am so nervous I might faint right here and now.”

When you do this, I guarantee that your anxiety will diminish. Because you will no longer be infusing it with power by fighting it. A further benefit of this self-disclosure is that the audience will sympathize with you. They will be on your side because most of them know or at least can imagine how nerve-racking such a situation can be. Also, your honesty will endear them to you.

Or you can approach your anxiety as seasoned actors and athletes do. They consider pre-performance anxiety to be their friend. It reassures them, for it guarantees that they will bring sufficient energy, focus, and motivation to their performance, making it more likely to succeed. Actors know that the converse experience of zero anxiety often presages a flat performance.

On the TV program Inside the Actors Studio, a student asked the actor Harvey Keitel whether with continued professional experience it has become easier for him to face his fears. Keitel replied that he still faces fears but “that energy that goes into the fear begins to inform you. It becomes an energy you can harness and use creatively, not one you hide from.”

I used to suffer terrible performance anxiety before giving talks. But then I began utilizing a concept that I learned from my training years ago in Gestalt therapy. Gestalt theory says that much anxiety is really excitement that we turn in against ourselves. And so, as my anxiety escalated prior to each talk and I started quaking, I would tell myself that what I was labeling as anxiety but really feeling was passion for the subject I was to present, excitement about the opportunity to share the fascinating (at least to me) material with an audience for their enjoyment and edification. Immediately following this reframing, my anxiety always markedly diminished and ceased to be a problem. I recommend this tactic.

The actor Alan Arkin wrote about his solution to a particular form of performance anxiety. For a number of years he has conducted workshops for the public in improvisational acting. And he noted that many attendees suffer from one of two difficulties that hamper their ability to creatively improvise. Some are simply too tense, too inhibited to be spontaneous. Others try to be clever instead of spontaneous; consequently, they too fail to improvise in a truly creative manner. (One can reasonably assume that both the inhibited and the clever attendees are probably experiencing inner conflicts about being spontaneous, with likely anxiety about revealing themselves to the other participants and perhaps to themselves. So they attempt to suppress this anxiety by being silent or by being clever.) But Arkin, noting these impediments, decided at the start of his workshops to direct participants not to be spontaneous, not to be creative. In essence, he encouraged them to accept the problem they feared and even to intensify it. This direction improved the quality of participation in his workshops, freeing attendees, Arkin reported, to be more spontaneously creative in interesting and fun ways. After all, how can you be anxious that you may perform poorly when you are trying deliberately to do so?

In summary, ally with your performance anxiety, work with it and not against it, and you can discover that it is your hidden, invaluable friend.

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