If I say “performance anxiety” – what do you think about?
The word “performance” probably conjures traumatic memories of a middle school production of Annie.
But even if you don’t don a wig and go onstage, chances are you perform in your everyday life.
Think about it.
You are performing when you:
- Lead a meeting
- Submit a written project or design
- Write a blog
- Record a podcast
- Organize an event
- Show up for a client
When you share some skill, talent, ability, expertise or knowledge with others, you are performing a skill or an expertise, whether you’re on stage or on Zoom.
Which is why you may have performance anxiety even if you’ve never been to a drama class.
If you’ve ever been anxious or afraid about putting yourself out there – whether it’s for a Broadway crowd or your company’s senior leadership team – you know exactly what I’m talking about.
A racing heart.
Heat in your chest or face.
An internal monologue full of doomsday prophecies:
I’m going to sound dumb. I’m going to forget what I’m supposed to say, or miss something obvious, or seem unprofessional. Everybody will think I’m a fraud.
And on top of that, you get preemptive anxiety about having performance anxiety in the first place.
You anticipate that you’ll get anxiety when you perform, and so you get anxious about it ahead of time.
You exacerbate performance anxiety by dreading it and thinking about how the performance anxiety itself will screw up your performance.
It’s like an avalanche of anxiety – but thankfully, you can dig yourself out.
First, by learning to allow and process your anxiety.
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it’s the necessary first step.
Because I’m going to let you in on a secret:
Did you know you can feel sensations of anxiety in your body and still give an amazing talk or write an amazing brief or launch a podcast or do anything you want?
When you allow your anxiety, you can do anything and just take your anxiety along with you.
Feeling anxiety isn’t actually a huge deal. It’s just a sensation in your body. You can allow it to be there and it doesn’t have to impact your life.
What if it was totally fine to feel anxious about performing?
I used to feel anxious for days before performing.
Now I only feel anxious for 3 minutes before a big event (thank you, thought work!) but the way I got here is to allow the anxiety and not let it mean anything about my abilities or my performance.
I accepted that I would feel anxious before a talk and that it was just a part of the experience of giving a talk. It didn’t mean I was unprepared or unqualified.
When you learn to accept your anxiety, you are then free to dig into the thoughts that create it.
These are the thoughts about how you’re not talented enough, you don’t sound smart enough, you don’t look good from that angle, etc.
It’s critical to take a good look at these thoughts, because do you know why you’re worried about other people thinking these things about you?
All the thoughts that you imagine other people thinking and saying – all the criticisms and fears and judgments about you – are things you ALREADY BELIEVE about yourself and your performance.
You’re already thinking you aren’t talented enough or smart enough or beautiful enough.
This is why even if you get compliments about a performance, you won’t really believe them – because you already believe you’ve messed up.
Your brain wants you to believe that other people are somehow an objective barometer for how well or poorly you perform.
But it’s not true.
The only person that matters is you.
Your thoughts about your performance create your feelings about it. This is true for validation AND criticism.
It’s also why it isn’t helpful to try and convince yourself that everybody will love you/your work/your fill-in-the-blank.
Because, firstly, the audience is full of humans with human brains which may get bored or disagree with you or think you look like the third-grade teacher they hated.
But more importantly, it doesn’t actually matter what other people think of you.
Your thoughts about yourself are what matter.
And no amount of feedback from your audience – positive or negative – will change that.
That’s why in order to improve your performance anxiety, you have to clean up your own thoughts about your performance.
One way to do that is to change your thoughts about yourself and work on believing more positive things about your own abilities.
Now, this won’t be easy. You likely have some explicit or implicit standards you’ve set for yourself and your brain will see lots of evidence of all the ways you don’t measure up to your perfectionist ideals.
I have news for you, chicken.
Perfection is a THOUGHT.
It’s not an objective metric.
And using other people as the barometer for your perceived perfection (or lack thereof) doesn’t even work, because people’s impression of you isn’t actually about you. It is created entirely by their own brains.
You can give a talk to 20 people and have 5 of them walk away thinking it was perfect, five thinking it was fine, 5 hating it, and 5 who fell asleep in the first 5 minutes.
No one gives a talk that everyone would agree was perfect. That talk doesn’t exist.
So, one way to resolve performance anxiety is to let go of your perfectionist vision for what you should be like and clean up your thoughts about your own abilities.
Another way to resolve performance anxiety is to get out of your own head.
By which I mean, stop making your performance about you.
When I give a talk, I don’t go in with the goal of making everyone think I’m amazing so I can feel ok.
Instead, I go in with the thought “if one person in this audience is helped by this talk, I did my job” or “if one person here learns something, I did my job.”
Taking the focus off my own ego and onto the people I am trying to show up and serve helps me get out of my own way.
Think of what you could share with the world if you got out of your own way?
If you allowed your anxiety, worked on believing you can be kind to yourself even if you experience it, and shifted the thoughts causing the anxiety in the first place?
When you focus on what’s wrong with what you have to offer, when you focus on believing you will fail before you even try, you deny the rest of us a chance to experience everything that’s amazing about what you have to share.
But you have so much to share with the world.
Give us the chance to learn from you and enjoy what you have to offer.