Recently I’ve started writing my next book which – surprise, surprise – will be all about authenticity and confidence. While I was writing the main chapter on the power of reflection, I procrastinated by having some lively discussions with friends about performance anxiety.
A heads up: this is a fairly lengthy post because I wanted it to cover everything and be practical. If you want to read the whole thing, you might need about 10 minutes.
What I’ve realised is that this is something that used to affect me almost every single day, yet now plays almost no part in my life. I used to get performance anxiety in all areas of my life. I would worry that my work wouldn’t be helpful enough, that my band’s audience wouldn’t enjoy our music, that my friends wouldn’t want to come to my party, etc. etc.
Of course I had no idea that so many other people out there were experiencing the same crisis. None more so than artistic types who perform in front of audiences, such as musicians, dancers and speakers. Once I entered the dance world in particular, I was struck by the amount of suffering I witnessed as a result of performance anxiety.
It wasn’t just those who performed, it was nearly everyone.
There are plenty of people new to dancing who are scared to try to dance outside of the classes (aka ‘social dancing’). There are skilled dancers who don’t enter competitions or join performance teams, even though they want to. From the very beginners through to seasoned professionals, I see people suffering from an overload of anxiety. Often this severely reduces the enjoyment they get from the artistic activity.
I wanted to contribute to this, because I see so many artistic people missing out on the full experience of their passion-activity. So I started researching what performance anxiety was, and tried to backwards-engineer the changes I had made to rid myself of it.
Don’t get me wrong, I still experience nervous sensations before performances, and sometimes even at social dance events, but it is not to an unenjoyable level. What used to be a crippling anxiety is now just a pleasant, buzzing excitement.
I coach a number of dancers and other artists, and through discussions with them I have come up with a list of 11 secret strategies you can use to rid yourself of performance anxiety, and at least reduce it to a simple excited nervousness that you enjoy. I would like to particularly thank Anthony Zhou (a contributing author for The Inspirational Lifestyle blog) for his insights during experiences in the Ceroc dance competition scene.
So, in no particular order, here is my solution to performance anxiety, and for removing barriers between you and the complete experience of your art:
1) KNOW YOUR REASON FOR BEING THERE
Deep down there is a powerful reason WHY you do what you do.
Whether it’s singing, speaking, dancing, acting or whatever, there is something that the art gives you that nothing else gives you. It’s the reason you do it, for you. This is usually what has been forgotten when performance anxiety takes a hold of you.
Particularly in a competition setting, our focus moves away from our purpose and becomes attached instead to the #1 enemy of self-confidence: the need for external validation. If you take nothing else away from this post please remember this: the only way you can feel ‘pressure’ is if you believe you must achieve a certain outcome. The performance anxiety pressure you feel is your brain’s realization that you want something you cannot control (approval from others usually being the main desire).
I dance because I feel good moving in time with music. I like controlling my body and using it to connect with another person. For me it’s like having a fun and intimate conversation, but without words. It combines my passion for music with my interest in martial arts. Mostly, I just feel great doing it. THAT is why I dance. And none of these things require approval from someone else.
Before any ‘high pressure’ dancing event, I make sure to remind myself of this, as often as I need to. Whenever I find myself worrying about whether or not I will win, or the audience’s approval, or the perfection of my performance, I re-focus on the real purpose behind why I am there.
When I was speaking with Anthony, I asked him about what differences he saw between competitions he enjoyed versus competitions he suffered through. This was one of the main differences. He only felt performance anxiety and pressure when we was focused on getting an outcome. When he reminded himself why he loves to dance, and how this led to him being at the competition, the anxiety dissipated.
At the end of each of these sections, I’ll add a ‘trigger question’. This is something you can ask yourself during moments of anxiety to trigger the rational part of your brain into action.
Trigger question: “Why do I enjoy this?”
2) RELEASE PRESSURE THROUGH FINDING REALITY
Anxiety is only ever present when we have thoughts related to the future or the past. It’s basically impossible to experience anxiety when your focal point of attention is with the present moment. Even if you are falling from a great height, the fall itself is actually quite a pleasant experience. It’s worrying about what will happen when you hit the ground in the future that causes panicky feelings.
The simplest and most effective way to manage anxiety is to focus your attention on the present moment, which will steer your thinking towards the present as well. Worrying occurs when you attach fear to planning. If you cannot discipline your mind to remove fear from planning, i.e. you always imagine the negative scenarios, then planning is not very helpful for you when it comes to performing.
Planning occurs when you make up a fictional story in your head to anticipate the future. Often this is a helpful tool, and it has allowed humans to dominate the planet. But in the case of performing it can become quite unhelpful, as we have often been trained to plan with fear attached.
The key here is to understand that all planning is fictional. It is not real, it is made up. Often, it is a completely inaccurate prediction (look back 5 years and ask yourself “Is this who I imagined I’d become?”)
If you’re thinking about how the crowd will react, or what the judges will think, or anything that there is no current evidence for, then you are creating a fiction that does not exist. However we often struggle to tell the difference. We often believe that we see ‘evidence’, e.g. we see someone yawning and assume they are bored.
When it comes to performing, unless someone is throwing poo at you, there will be no evidence that anything is going wrong. So any evidence you think you are seeing is just your mind playing tricks on you, trying to make your fiction ‘true’. How do we prevent this pointless and unhelpful process from happening?
We look for reality.
A simple way to find reality is to focus on your senses. I start with breathing, allowing my throat and nose to register where I can feel my breath. I use these physical sensations to give my focal point of attention something to hold onto. Then I start cycling through my other senses. What can I see? What can I hear? What can I taste?
By doing this I build up a picture of what is real. I can see that no-one is booing me offstage, there are no judgments being openly made, there is no evidence whatsoever that I am in any real danger.
Trigger question: “What is real right now?”
3) WHERE ARE THE “OTHER” OPPORTUNITIES?
At any performance event there are all sorts of potentially wonderful experiences to be had. If you go to a performance only thinking about trying to win an outcome, you’ll overlook all the real wins available to you. And these wins have no competition!
Anthony talked to me about how much more he appreciated the ‘other’ aspects of his latest dance event. Mostly, he spoke about the wonderful social experience it was. He was able to connect with dancers from Australia and around New Zealand, make new friends, and even found his next dance partner. He made the event more about the socialising than the performance.
The result? He won before he even got on the podium!
Even if the performance is something specific and small, like a first date, there is so much more to appreciate than just the main purpose at the event. On a first date there could be just the experience of getting to know someone new; there’s the food and drinks; perhaps there’s entertainment and other lively people around.
If you make sure there is a way for you to gain from any experience, then the neediness you feel to perform perfectly diminishes. Imagine going to an event with the purpose of introducing yourself to five new people, and you complete this before you perform. You get to walk out on stage thinking “I’m already complete”.
Trigger question: “How can I win from this experience without requiring a result?”
4) “IT’S JUST ANOTHER PRACTICE”
In school we were trained to believe that you only get one shot at doing something well. Through the bullshit standardized-testing model, you are put under massive pressure to get everything you learned in an entire term doing onto paper within a few short hours. The result of how much you were able to recollect will decide if all the work you did that term was worth it.
I’ve seen dancers have a few mistakes during a performance and then say something like “It was a complete waste of time”, like somehow a two-minute performance measures the hours and hours worth of effort put into preparing for it. Its complete lunacy, but we all do it, because we’ve been taught that way. The ‘final assessment’ is all that matters, and the preparation for it is somehow seen as less important.
The truth is that there is never just one shot. As long as there is breath in your body you will always have another chance to participate in your passion. And every time you practice, watch, play and perform you are engaged in your art.
Every moment of time spent doing it is as important as any other moment. They all contribute. I’ve noticed that when my dance partner and I have a ‘challenging’ practice session where nothing really goes well, we learn a lot from it. There is no dancing experience that I haven’t benefitted from.
This is why I see everything as just another practice session. Big competition? Just practicing how to compete. High level performance? Just practicing dancing on stage with skilled peers. Asking someone better than me to dance? Just practicing how to be more assertive.
When you let go of the fiction that this is your only shot, and realize that everything is just practice and learning, the pressure on any one moment reduces significantly. Even if you’re at the Olympic Games, you are still just practicing being at the Olympics!
Trigger question: “What am I practicing this time?”
5) RECOGNIZE YOUR EFFORTS
Our brains are wired to prioritize risk. We are basically pre-programmed to look for danger and anything that might cause us discomfort. When we look at ourselves, this turns into fault-finding and criticism. We a naturally self-critical, so to be balanced we must make a conscious effort to look for what is ‘good’ about us.
School also trained us to look to other people to get recognition. This means we often take our confidence and put it in the hands of complete strangers (e.g. competition judges and audiences), and hope for the best. Not exactly the most effective way to enjoy an experience, am I right?
As years pass by your brain stores up failure after failure, and uses these to criticize you repeatedly. Understand that this is not accurate. Your brain is imbalanced in its perspective, so what you think of yourself is not the objective truth, though it will feel that way.
This process is aggravated by high-pressure performance situations, when every doubt you’ve ever had comes up like some sort of depressing parade. There’s the float for “I’m not good enough”, and here comes the “I need to lose some weight” one, oh, and what’s this? yes, it’s my favourite, the “Everyone thinks you suck” float, right on time! Yay!
We ALL experience this, though few people are willing to discuss it. We think it’s real when it’s actually nothing more than your brain’s chatter as it tries to assess risks to your safety. Trying to fight against it often causes more harm than good, yet this is what most people do. Hiding in the bathroom fighting the urge to vomit, staring at yourself in the mirror “C’mon, you’re the man, you can do it, you’re the best!”
Nope, says your brain, not buying it buddy, sorry but I’m still nervous as hell…
I recommend redirecting your focal point of attention once more, by investigating your strengths. After all that effort pointing out your imagined weaknesses, it’s only fair that you spare a thought for what you’ve done well, right? In particular, what you done well that does not require recognition from others.
Try focusing on the efforts you’ve made. How hard you practiced, how much courage it took for you to get here, how much passion you have for the art. These are things no-one can judge or take away from you, as they are strictly subjective internal measurements. Focus on these and balance out those unhelpfully negative thought patterns.
Trigger question: “What am I proud of that no-one can take away from me?”
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6) MONITOR EXTERNAL VALIDATION-SEEKING BEHAVIOUR
Thanks to Facebook, everyone is now wired into an addictive and destructive external validation tool. Super!
Anthony raised this one during our discussion. Another big difference between enjoyable and miserable competitions was the amount of attention he tried to get. In the most recent and enjoyable one, he barely told anyone he was even going. And when he won numerous medals, he simply let people know and thanked those who had contributed.
All day long we do little unconscious things to seek validation from others, to feel like we’ve been accepted. This dangerous behaviour probably does more harm to your self-worth than anything else you do! It creates shame. Ultimately it defines performance anxiety; you are anxious about whether or not other people will validate (approve of) your performance.
No need for validation = no performance anxiety!
Again, in systems like school, you have been trained to pathetically seek the approval of others, without really questioning the legitimacy of this feedback. Judging in nearly all artistic competitions is heavily subjective, so no judge’s score can give you a truly accurate measurement on your performance. Audiences are completely swayed by their mood, environment, culture and a million other variables, so their feedback can’t be trusted either. Essentially no-one in a performance setting can tell you how well you did.
But they will! Whether or not you care about this feedback is up to you.
Watch for the things you do outside of the performance that indicate you are measuring yourself through other people. Posting on Facebook is a key example; why do you care if other people know about it? Other common examples include dropping hints about it during conversations to see if anyone says something, waiting to hear the results before deciding whether or not you enjoyed the experience, and blaming people/circumstances when you feel upset.
Trigger question: “How can I enjoy this without needing anyone else to verify it?”
7) USE MISTAKES TO HELP YOU
There is only one thing a flawless performance guarantees you: no improvement. Bear with me here…
What is a mistake? Or as we like to call it in the dance world, a ‘fuck up’. A mistake is simply one way to not do something. As is often expressed in the world of martial arts, a master is the person who has made the most mistakes. The more mistakes you experience, the more knowledge you have about what doesn’t work.
“I don’t fear the man who has practiced 10,000 different kicks once, I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times” – Bruce Lee
Imagine if you practiced enough to eventually make every single possible mistake there is to make in your artistic activity. How skilled would you be after that? If you research the people at the top of their fields, whether it be art, business, fitness or anything else, you will see a common pattern. They were willing to fail more often than their competitors.
Every single mistake you make improves your ability, and not making mistakes guarantees that you will plateau and be less skilled than others. Why we teach our children to be afraid of mistakes is beyond me. We should be encouraging as much failure as possible! It’s the only way to get really good at something.
Occasionally, and I do mean on very rare occasions, you will perform flawlessly. Congratulations! This can feel good, there’s no doubt about that. However if this is the only time you’re allowed to enjoy a performance, you will quickly lose the love you feel for your art. I have performed with some of the top artists in zouk dancing and heavy metal music, and I have never seen a flawless performance. I assume that one does exist, I’m just saying I never seen it, not even from the best of the best.
Does this mean I didn’t enjoy watching them? Of course not. Just like people enjoy watching you perform, regardless of the mistakes. Sure, there is a certain level of mistakes that will exceed everyone’s enjoyment, but this usually means you didn’t practice enough or are not really trying.
Mistakes show that you are pushing your comfort zone. If I see a performance without any mistakes or near-misses, I usually assume that it’s easy for the people doing it. Easy does not impress me. When someone does a big trick that goes pear-shaped and makes my rectum tighten, that’s the feeling of genuine respect. I’d rather watch someone push for a motorcross backflip and ‘almost’ make it than see someone jump with ease. I may just also like seeing people get spectacularly injured… it’s a guy thing.
If you’re making mistakes, then you know for sure that you are learning and growing beyond your current skill level. Mistakes are the only true evidence of this. Embrace them!
Trigger question: “What can I try today that is outside of my comfort zone (so it’s OK to screw up)?”
8) FIND GRATITUDE
Being in a situation where you are able to experience performance anxiety usually means you are somewhat privileged. If you’re about to perform on stage, approach new people, or ‘get busy’ with someone for the first time, life could be a whole lot worse.
It’s fast becoming common knowledge that engaging in gratitude-based activities increases self-confidence. It allows us to find reality and let go of the unhelpful fictional story we’ve concocted in our mind.
Last night I watched a Ross Kemp documentary on the sex-slave trade. It hit me hard to think that sometimes I worry about what people might think of me when I’m dancing, while at the same time someone out there is worrying about who their 9 year old baby girl will be sold to. I’m an incredibly lucky person.
In every performance situation you are surrounded by things to be grateful for, and taking a few minutes to recognise this can help you focus and reduce anxiety significantly. There are people who support you, the opportunity to perform and play, great music, inspiring scenery etc.
You are supremely blessed just to be there.
Trigger question: “Why am I lucky to just be here right now?”
9) CHALLENGE YOUR OWN JUDGMENTAL ATTITUDE
Another clear link I see: those who judge others judge themselves the harshest. This is particularly important for competition performance. See people unconsciously seem to believe that you can judge outwards without receiving anything negative in return.
I’m afraid it just doesn’t work like that.
Being judgmental and looking for the ‘negative’ flaws in others simply aggravates your judgmental insecurities. It’s only a matter of time before those are turned inwards and you start inspecting your own perceived failings.
As we discussed before, the quality of any artistic or other type of performance is a completely subjective concept. You know even less than the official judges do! So while you sit there scrutinizing flaws in the other performers, part of you is turning back inside to remember what yours are.
If you watch other people and are actively looking for the negatives, you’ll see them. Confirmation bias in your brain will even create fictional evidence if you can’t find something. But the opposite is also true: if you look for the GOOD in others, you’ll see it. Even better, because your bias is constantly looking for flaws, by trying to look for the good in others you’ll end up with a fairly balanced assessment.
If you’re tired of only remembering your failures, focusing on your imperfections, and dreading performances because you can never do it ‘perfectly’, start training yourself to look for the positives. There are always positives, it’s just they get filtered out by your subconscious if you don’t look for them consciously.
Trigger question: “What are other people doing well right now?”
10) FOCUS ON CONNECTING
Most performers do everything in their power to avoid getting ‘distracted’ by the audience. When I usually watch a video of a dance performance the couple appears to be looking at the audience. Yet when I watch these live I always find it amusing how they are actually just looking at the back wall.
We worry that connecting with the audience will throw us off, or make us more nervous. We don’t realise that this is our best opportunity to focus and become present. Connecting with your audience and others involved in the performance is the PERFECT way to release anxiety.
When speaking, instead of speaking to a ‘crowd’, use eye contact to talk with one person at a time. Have a series of individual conversations, and watch how this captivates the audience while keeping you calm and focused. When dancing, connect with your partner like you’re the only two in the room. This is spell-binding for the crowd to watch.
Performing is about sharing yourself with other people, so why avoid them? I’ve had guys tell me that to last longer in bed they try to distract themselves with non-sexual thoughts (“dead puppies, dead-puppies, grandma’s teeth, dead puppies” – yes, this actually happens). Great move guys!
Now you’ve got a weird-serious look on your face as you stare blankly at the headboard (or ceiling if you’re lazy) and your partner feels like you’re somewhere else. Would your partner prefer a) 5 minutes of deep connection, or b) two awkward hours of a weird-distant-sweaty-bored guy carefully investigating the wallpaper for no apparent reason?
You might worry that connecting with the audience or someone else will make you forget your moves, words or structure. Fear not! Your conscious awareness is NOT where memory is stored, so your performance notes are not kept there. When you try to ‘think’ your way through a performance, all you are doing is distracting the important parts of your brain, like the amygdala, which actually know what to do.
Staying focused on someone else increases the quality of the performance while keeping your conscious attention in the present moment, allowing ‘muscle memory’ to perform for you.
Trigger question: “Who can I powerfully connect with right now?”
11) HAVE FUN
If you can’t enjoy it, then why are you there? You don’t get to take trophies with you after you die. Ultimately all physical rewards from performing are just jerk-off external validations.
The true reward lies within the simple and pure act of doing. We knew this when we were kids, and then we went to school and got told that it’s not true. By people who had forgotten it.
I believe firmly that life can be enjoyed in almost any situation. There are some exceptions that are possibly too much for the human psyche, like the slavery one I mentioned earlier perhaps, but performing is not one of those. Just because we’re nervous doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. I’m nervous before going on a roller-coaster or a date, and Anthony was nervous before skydiving. Guess what? We had fun!
The moment you walk on stage to perform you no longer have any opportunity to practice, train or improve. It’s over, que sera sera, whatever will be will be. At this point all you can do is observe yourself, as your subconscious is now mostly responsible for your performance. You are essentially a spectator yourself, so why not enjoy the show?
Glow with pride when it goes well. Laugh when it doesn’t. Be pleasantly surprised when the unexpected happens, enjoy the chaos of the unique moment. Battle your way playfully through setbacks and diversions.
Performing means you are getting to play at your favourite game to the best of your ability in that moment. Life doesn’t get much sweeter than that, so instead of missing out by wasting your attention on worrying about the result, focus on having fun. FORCE yourself to, it’s actually pretty easy to do.
Which leaves us with the final trigger question, and also one of the most powerful things you can ask yourself at any given time to increase your confidence, focus, performance and authenticity:
“How can I amuse myself right now?”
Thanks for reading. It was a long one! Good luck with your next performance.
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