How to Deal With Performance Anxiety?

by Will Power on Thursday, December 15, 2016

Performance anxiety affects or has affected everyone, from novice spoken word artists to seasoned orators.  The feelings of apprehension and fear, of nerves jumping and scrunched up brows dripping gallons of sweat, are in many ways natural and to be expected.  The question is, how to feel what you’re going to feel but still perform what you intend to perform – how can one not be derailed by such paralyzing anxiety?

I find great joy in looking up word definitions. Perhaps most would find this a boring chore, but I’m a writer and love words. When I looked up the word “performance,” there was one definition that really stuck out for me:

Performance: The Execution of an action, something accomplished

It occurred to me that here in the definition lies the very reason that we experience performance anxiety.  We have fear that we will not be able to properly and successfully “execute” the action. We worry that what we’re trying to accomplish (i.e, what we want to say in the sermon or dramatic monologue) will fall hopelessly short. This fear of public speaking is for me a metaphor for life. We worry that what we want to do in life, what we want to say and how we feel 1) will not be taken seriously by others, 2) will be ridiculed and considered unimportant, 3) will, even if perceived as important, woefully miss the mark due to our inadequacies of expression.

It is important to recognize that many of the greatest public speakers and artists of our time have at some point in their creative trajectory experienced these very same feelings.  Believe it or not, this fear presents an incredible opportunity.  For if metaphor does in fact reflect life, and a performance is a highly charged, poetically-heightened version of life itself, then if we can master our fears and groom our abilities to perform effectively, we can apply that same spirit to our lives and to our ever-special and unique life journey.  So don’t worry, that sermon or theater performance you have coming up – you’re going to be fine! And if such assurances don’t help, don’t fret. Here are some practical considerations to ponder.  When it comes to performance anxiety – the following can greatly help:

Experience and Being Prepared – There is nothing like experience to ease the tightening of the throat and the loathing of the moment when you are to take the stage and perform that speech you’ve been working on.  Ask yourself, how many times have you practiced the performance – in front of a mirror, while jogging through a park, in front of friends or a small group of colleagues. Practice the speech until you can’t count how many times you’ve gone over it – and go over it in different ways.  Try laughing all the way though the speech, now do it in whispers, now naturally, now perform it while vigorously moving.  Do it so often for so many people that it becomes like breathing.  Personally, I like to over-prepare. By that I mean that if I’m writing a piece to be performed I do extensive research, not just on the actual piece, but on the venue where I’ll be performing, as well as the organization that will be producing the event.  I try to get into the venue early and stand on the stage and explore various angles.  I get a feel for the stage, and I say a prayer, asking the room to lift me up not tear me down.  I try to contact others who have performed there in the past, asking them “what it was like, what were some challenges they faced,” etc.  I then pay extra close attention to those challenges. Though they might not be my pitfalls, still, I want to be aware of them.  Leave no stone unturned.  Know your subject well, so well that if someone in the audience rose from their seat and began an impromptu debate with you on the spot (a performance is live and therefore always somewhat unpredictable), you would have enough preparation to engage with the person or continue on with your performance undeterred.  Preparation won’t always cure all the anxiety one may experience leading up to and during a performance, but it can ground you in strength, and help keep you steady.

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable – At some point in my creative career I realized that some discomfort was ok, and from that point on I became comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Think about it.  Often times, the nervous performer attempts to fight off the feelings of fear, and when the fear doesn’t subside he/she pours in more energy, attempting to drown out those fears when in truth fear is fed by fear and will only grow with the attention and power you give to it.  But what if you didn’t feed the overinflated monster?  What if you acknowledged the creature’s existence, but didn’t allow yourself to be consumed and paralyzed by the fact that you’re feeling these feelings?  Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and it will all flow for you.   In this way, usually the fear retreats, especially once you step on stage.  And if it doesn’t, see that it exists and continue bravely on.

Faith – A performance is a sacred experience. To engage in it the performer needs faith, not hope but faith.  Hope says you think it maybe could be all right.  Faith says you know it’s going to be all right, and it’s all right now, here in this moment.  When performing on stage, take God with you, or whatever spirituality you believe.  Know that God will never leave you, even in times of extreme fear.  God is always there.  Also, take your family with you, not literally, but spiritually as well as metaphorically.  Take your community with you, the ones you grew up with or now live with.  Call on them when you are feeling worried about speaking or performing in public.  For many years I was fortunate to tour the world as a solo performer.  Throughout the United States as well as many cities in Western Europe and Australia I made my way with nothing more than a bag of costumes, a book of light designs, and my stories.  It was just me out there in Scotland, in England, way out in Germany, through the rural mid-west, traveling alone and expected to perform a whole evening’s worth of material to a room of complete strangers.  I was alone out there, or was I?  At the core of performance is a ritual in which you as the performer call forth the energy of the characters you portray.  All the people that had a hand in raising me, all the individuals that sacrificed so that I could do what I now do, a whole multi-faceted community walks with you always, and when you step in front of the audience to perform you are never alone.  In times of great fear, call on the abundant energy of those that believe in you, even if they are not physically present.  Always remember that.  And don’t forget to breathe.  Now it’s time for you to accomplish something.  It’s time for you to perform.


Photo by weatherbox from FreeImages

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