Performance Anxiety is NOT an illness
Updated: May 14, 2019
One of the questions I often get from clients looking to overcome performance or audition anxiety through our coaching work is, “How do you know when you don’t have it anymore?” It’s something I’ve reflected on a lot lately, especially after a recent session I had with a client who performs frequently at the Metropolitan Opera. She mentioned hearing another artist share in an interview that she used to have terrible stage fright, but now she doesn’t. You could hear a bit of disappointment in my client’s tone of voice, wondering why she hadn’t seemed to get to that point yet, and what the “secret” was to overcoming her nerves.
My reply surprised her and even surprised myself, as it was something I hadn’t ever said before and seemed to just come to me via the innate intelligence and wisdom which flows through each of us:
“Performance Anxiety isn’t an illness. We need to stop treating it like one.”
I explained that with illnesses, we tend to think we’ve been “cured” when we no longer present any symptoms. For example, someone is generally considered to be “over” the flu when they no longer have a fever, aches, nausea, congestion, etc.
I think we innocently treat performance anxiety the same way. Somehow, we got the idea in our minds that “getting over” stage fright means that we never feel anxious or nervous about performances or auditions, and that we stop having negative, unwanted thoughts. Maybe it’s because society constantly sells us the idea that we must always be happy and think positive in order to have a fulfilling life. Perhaps it’s the marketing buzzwords some mental coaches use, enticing potential clients with the prospect of becoming “bulletproof” or “fearless” performers. In any event, I’ve noticed a belief in many artists that if they even have one “bad” thought or feel nervous for any performance, then they must still have performance anxiety because they still have “symptoms”.
But in my mind, I don’t think overcoming performance anxiety means being “symptom free” at all. Nor do I think it requires learning to be bulletproof or fearless. I’d comfortably say I don’t have performance anxiety anymore, and the same is true for many of my clients. But ask any of us if we ever feel nervous or have negative thoughts when we audition or perform, and I’m confident all of us would say, “Of course”.
How can this be? How can we say we’re “cured” of performance anxiety if we still present with “symptoms”?
The answer is fairly simple. Every performer I’ve worked with who has overcome stage fright still feels anxiety or nerves sometimes. They still get distracting or negative thoughts. The difference?
They don’t see that as a problem.
If you’re like my Met client and thinking, “I’ll have what they’re having!”, I’ve got great news: it’s totally possible. This mental freedom is available to all. What might surprise you though is that it isn’t the result of “doing” anything. No mental strategies, tools, or techniques required. No cultivating “mental toughness” or resilience needed. Rather, it’s seeing something for ourselves about the nature of how we work that makes all the difference.
In my experience, people who have overcome performance anxiety realize that they don’t have to take everything they think so seriously. They start to catch wise to the arbitrary nature of our thoughts – that our mind is much more like a random thought generator than a ticker tape of Breaking News From The Universe that we need to listen to or do something about. They get that just because a thought is there doesn’t mean it’s true, real, our thought, or even what we actually think. And because Thought is transient by nature, it’s neither up to us nor necessary to change our thoughts. Left alone, they will all eventually pass on their own.
Similarly, people who have put stage fright behind them understand that their anxious feelings aren’t a sign of their inadequacies or how something will actually go. Our feelings simply tell us about the kind of thinking we have going on in the moment- never about the performance or audition. Recognizing that our feelings are a barometer for how clearly we’re seeing things (or not) means we’re less inclined to act on or believe any thoughts that arise when we feel anxious, because we know we’re probably not seeing things clearly. And like our thoughts, our feelings will come and go on their own. I imagine any performer has had the experience of feeling anxious before going on stage or into the audition room, and then without doing anything, the feeling suddenly vanishes once they step on stage or start playing. That is the mind's natural tendency to settle in action.
As people see the true nature of their thoughts and feelings, it stops making sense to try and control or manage them. In fact, they realize – as many performers have likely experienced – that trying to control them is the surest route to feeling more caught up, because anxiety perpetuates itself by trying to get rid of itself. This distinction leads to what has been a powerful realization for many of my clients:
Our thoughts and feelings have never been the problem.
It’s our resistance to them and efforts to control them that give them more energy, weight, and legitimacy.
Simply put: Minus the resistance, we have no problem.
When our thoughts and feelings stop being a problem, we see an even deeper, more game-changing truth:
We don’t need to be in a certain state of mind or feeling in order to perform well.
In the exact same way that not feeling motivated, inspired, or energized to go to the gym doesn’t mean we’re not capable of going and having a great workout anyway, we’re capable of creating beautiful, authentic art even when we don’t feel our best.
With managing our “symptoms” off our plate, we’re free to lean more on the deeper instinct and in-the-moment intelligence we all have to guide our work. From that space, all our preparation, musicality, artistry, and the colors that bring individuality to our art will effortlessly rise to the fore.
Here’s how I’ve come to “diagnose” overcoming performance anxiety:
Overcoming performance anxiety doesn’t mean you no longer present any symptoms.
It's realizing you’re capable of performing no matter what symptoms you have.
I’m no Doctor, but if you even get a glimpse of what I’m pointing to here, my prognosis for you is very, very good 👍😁
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