In a recent Creative Block Beaters community call, we discussed the widely experienced, widely ignored phenomena of performance anxiety.
The gig culture of music is now expanding across much of Western Society. Performance anxiety is likely expanding across an insecure and highly competitive work environment where we’re probably holding ourselves to perfectionistic standards.
Ignored because the standard narratives of performance include an acceptance of stress and fear. The audience often expects perfection. Some may suggest that excellent performance cannot exist without some stress, pain and fear. There’s an expectation on performers to bear the brunt of the creative endeavor. There’s often a sense of flagellation around creating or performing.
As a live sound engineer in the music industry, and a life coach specializing in creativity, I’ve seen this repeatedly. I’ve coached people backstage just before they’re due to perform to thousands of people, or a select few people, who’s opinions mattered to them.
Some of them were nervous wrecks. Stepping out on the stage transformed them into someone else. What would it be like to feel that sense of assurance on and off the stage?
There is an existing competitive nature of performance between performers also; the fellow performers are often in a state of competition with one another. They don’t want to show weakness. They don’t want to lose the gig. They don’t want to be the ‘weak link’. The irony here is that performing in joy will make it more likely that you perform in excellence, making it more likely to sustain your valuable place in the performance.
This state of fear is legitimate considering the culture that we’ve grown up in. It’ll take some time to rework these things.
So what is performance anxiety?
It is a form of stress-based performance. Expressing in a state of stress uses our competitive nature. We use the sympathetic nervous system — fight or flight, along with the stress hormones.
Stress hormones are good in the short term, designed evolutionarily to avoid physical danger, they narrow in the sensory information to the perceived threat. Good if there’s a tiger, not so good if it’s your boss, or an audience you want to connect with. The thing is, they are intended for quick bursts, returning to a resting state to replenish. Too many of us live our lives in a chronic state of stress without ever experiencing true relaxation. We narrow our perspectives to focus on perceived threats that turn into lifestyles, such as keeping our jobs or our homes, keeping our spouses ‘happy’. Turning this conversation around into a joy conversation — more of this later on, will lead to the question of what Joseph Campbell describes as:
Follow your bliss.
Or what I like to call: “following your Creative Essence.”
What lights you up in life?
If we don’t find that, we get severely fatigued, and the body takes on the consequences. It can compensate, yet the rejuvenation ability is lost to continued stress, often leading to disease.
The parasympathetic nervous system is designed for replenishment and rejuvenation. Anxiety systems quieten once you work out that you’re ‘safe’, you begin to express yourself fully.
How do we cultivate more safety?
Stress is a standard narrative in performance cultures. We all ask each other if we’re busy or not as if it’s the marker of whether we’re good at our craft. I’ve worked in the live music industry for ten years.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve hyped myself up, told myself to get through this performance then deal with the rest later. It has consequences.
Pushing through pain barriers is a great way to discover the vastness of the depth of energy resource available to you, necessary to surrender to the next level of resource and energy, yet, it can also lead to burnout cycles or foster substance abuse or, more likely, substance dependence. It has to be coupled with rest.
Too often, performers credit the substance to the higher state of life and connection that they achieved. A feedback loop of the perceived need of the substance, they can’t perform without it, rather than recognizing that they accessed that state from within themselves, that the state is always available. This fosters more anxiety, especially if the dependencies become addictive or abusive to the performer. Sadly, I’ve seen this many times.
Let’s talk a little about blame, shame, judgment and criticism.
Why? Because anxiety is born from fear. That fear-based response comes from a competitive nature, an understanding that we might be rejected, abandoned, criticized, blamed, shamed, or judged for the way we authentically express.
Shame is a healthy part of humanity that is not very present in everyday society. Shame allows us to know our finality. It fosters spirituality, a sense that we are part of something greater than we intellectually understand so that we can accept, surrender and seek to unfold that mystery slowly and curiously. It encourages asking for help. It nurtures a sense of community. Knowing that we need others, knowing that we need to ask for help. The only way a parent can abuse their child, say beat them harshly with a belt, is if they’re shameless. They don’t know their strength or responsibility.
Modern culture nurtures a kind of shamelessness in its individuality and search for endless progress. Each individual seeks to be fully celebrated as a complete other, and we don’t learn how to share those achievements fully and authentically. Many of the celebrities and successful business owners that we idolize lead deeply isolated and troubled lives. They are fragmented, disconnected from their heritage, ancestry and personal story. They cannot express themselves fully.
Shame also acts as the force behind taboo, which keeps undesirable things for society, like rape, torture or murder, in the unacceptable zone.
Traumatized people often have a sense of shameless grandiosity as a survival technique, either that or they are deeply ashamed of themselves in the form of toxic shame; an internalized belief that they are not worthy or broken, that they’re bad people.
The shadow side of shame; toxic shame, shows up in this manner, and it drives performance anxiety. If we perform to seek approval, validation, or attention that we lacked in childhood, we will perpetuate and strengthen these patterns in our psyches every time we go on stage.
Feeling ashamed of performance is essentially saying I wasn’t good enough to please you. I didn’t make you feel what you wanted to feel — alongside the belief that making people feel something is possible.
It’s O.K. to evaluate your performance in terms of excellence — I’ll touch on this later, yet that has to come from a space of self-enquiry, striving to actualise yourself more fully and authentically connecting to others.
Don’t forget that genuine connection comes from vulnerability, which triggers the state of empathy.
We may be tempted to blame ourselves for bad performances or another person’s opinion of our performance that made us feel bad.
Even if you evaluate a performance as not being up to scratch, there are many ways to understand that this is part of life’s journey.
Failing forward is a way to realize that taking bold steps, stretching ourselves and leaning into the edges of uncertainty are ways to grow. We won’t always know what’s on the other side of that edge, and that can be scary.
If we cultivate a relationship to uncertainty, then we can begin to find that aspect exciting. What emerges from these spaces cannot be outside of our life experience. It has to spring forth from within us and our story. You are in the right place at the right time.
I always think of Alicia Keys here. She has such a beautiful and powerful expression. She describes releasing one of her singles in the past and getting feedback that was a little dull and negative. I think that’s one of the worst fears for performers, getting nothing back. Keys goes on to ask this person what she could change to please them, then she catches herself and thinks: ‘Why am I changing myself to please them?’
Remember, it is your expression, and their judgment is their judgment.
It can be challenging to reach that space if a person holds a position of authority or value for you and where you perceive you want to go in life.
Just know that you’ll get to where you need to get to, and if your true authentic expression brings disfavor with someone you expected that you’d need, then that is a sign that misalignment is present.
What you’re here to do might be something else that you’re not aware of yet. How many times have you looked back five years and put all the pieces together of things that made little to no sense at the time?
Have faith. Life can unfold unexpectedly.
Criticism is rife amongst artists. Sometimes I don’t understand why we can’t be held in a supportive environment while celebrating and creating alongside each other.
However, I recognize that life’s journey includes friction, upset, pain, grief and sadness. This must be expressed. The artist’s role is to express authentically to allow other’s to connect to that feeling within them so that they can process their life story in reflection to the artwork.
Expressing these things may make others uncomfortable; it may elicit criticism. That criticism is authentic to their life experience. It’s up to you to work out constructive feedback and what needs to be let go.
I would finish this section by saying that if they’re true friends, mentors or guardians, they will find a way to express it compassionately and constructively, at a time where both people have the space to process it.
Meaning well is not an excuse to impart badly delivered career advise or character defamation.
Are they trained and credible in the field that they are giving advice in? Are they part of your trusted support network?
Having said that, some of our most prominent teachers do come in the form of tremendous pain. There’s some gratitude in there.
How can we evolve this?
Authentic expression comes from a deep sense of self-knowing. The care circuit of nurture, kindness and compassion is called ‘rest and digest.’ A misunderstood physiological state because of the West’s connotations that rest is stagnant and for the shame that has come in around the term ‘lazy’.
Rest and digest states can include joy, bliss, play, connection, laughter, grace, faith, awe, wonder and many more.
The most important thing is to celebrate where you are. Celebrate your performance for the successes and limitations. Be kind. Know your limits and edges and lean into them compassionately. That doesn’t mean the cult of progress. It doesn’t mean work your arse off until you collapse in fatigue and then push through some more until you burn out.
It means intentionally resting, knowing when to put the deep work in to stretch and grow passed your limitations, knowing that your value and worth is not dependent on other people’s subjections or objections. Yet, those things can be valuable reflections from people you trust. Essentially you’re learning to be your mentor. You’re learning to guide yourself.
Once you can separate yourself from others’ approval, you can create and perform from an authentic, fully actualized and joy-filled space. Alive, vibrant, vital, shining energy.
Life is full of paradoxes, and one of them is that when you let go of approval seeking, judgment, blame, shame and criticism, you can begin to fully receive connection and approval in a space where you know that it’s deserved.
It’s not false approval. It’s real.
Excellence over perfection
Perfectionism is often used as a synonym for excellence. Whilst excellence can come from pushing yourself in a super-achieving state, it is not the only way to achieve it, and it’s not the same as perfectionism.
Perfectionism is an endless need to be someone else, to be better than you currently are so that people will like you more. Excellence can come from a compassionate and caring space, from an inspired expression of beauty.
Striving in the space of authenticity creates an environment more aligned to empathy from the audience. When we are vulnerable, others can respond in connection. When we are shielded and boundaried, others can only recognize their experience of those shields and boundaries in themselves, understand them just from their perspective, and guess at their meaning for us.
Being vulnerable takes courage, though. I believe that courage comes from a solid and trustworthy support network. People who can hear and hold our story in empathy, translate that in active listening, see the next steps that we need to take as our soul unfolds in the physical world.
Without this, we are floundering, splashing, kicking, flailing in the sea of consciousness.
We risk burning out and finding ourselves exhausted and alone. A dangerous place that can lead to self-destructive behaviors. Every time you create something, ask yourself:
What resources do I need to do this the way I need to? What support do I need? What wants to emerge?
Progress over perfection
Not to say that excellence is necessarily the point or purpose of performing or creation. I wholeheartedly reserve the right to make art as an expression of my humanity. Both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjections. Art is playing with perspectives of aesthetics.
The subjective opinion comes from whether the person resonates with the particular aspects of the aesthetics and perspective within their life experience. This includes cultural perspectives on good and bad.
So make progress over perfection. It will resonate with someone. The worst thing is to stall. The first step is always to take one.
If you get blocked, change it up, work on something else, journal your insights, or try surrendering more to the process.
Alignment to authenticity
I’ve been cultivating an alignment to authenticity. It’s hard to describe intellectually. It’s more of a feeling of intuition. I had to get clear on my values, my purpose, and where I’d been. Doing this enabled me to understand where I was going. I had to clean up my past of any anger, sadness, hatred, resentment, grief. I’m still in that process, I’ve got to a stage where I can feel the energy of alignment. Every decision I make, I check in with myself to see where it makes me feel aligned — excited or content, peaceful, like I’m connecting to something greater, or doing myself a favor.
Feeling aligned to this gives me a sense of certainty, especially around significant fear and uncertainty.
I have faith, a belief in timing, the culmination of every factor, experience and resource in a moment. That timing elicits a sense of awe and wonder.
It’s incredible to think about how many things had to align to bring me to this moment of expression.
During the call, I asked a question to the creatives present:
Can you recall a time that you were in total joy, that felt electric, where the audience was utterly with you?
All their faces lit up with the biggest beaming and genuine smile. A joyful performance. Electric magic in the air that bristles with connection and excitement.
Performing in stress is possible, and you can reach high levels, the highest, yet performing in joy will allow you to, well, enjoy it.
The performance becomes pleasurable, and pleasure is an entirely different state from the stress state. We must build our pleasure muscles to deliver this kind of performance.
So many musicians I’ve worked with have come off stage flat. Even from vibrant and successful performances, they haven’t been able to give themselves the space to enjoy that fully.
Another common state is coming off stage wanting it to last forever. What they’re seeking in those moments is the crowd’s approval and adoration. It’s a feeling that they’ve externalized onto the object called the crowd.
To be in true joy creates visceral, crackling energy in a room or a field!
I’ve experienced this in spaces of thousands of people.
One memory I can recall is mixing a show for Tom Misch in the Republic of Korea. The energy was coursing through my nervous system in that room.
Everyone was connected, the slow songs were dreamy and calm, the upbeat songs were raucous and the points of connection were all shared with the whole audience.
It was truly magical, and I remember coming back from Front Of House and Tom asking me: “What happened out there?”
We’ve both reflected with each other that that was a special night. Transcendent in its nature, when a crowd become a living organism, a living entity of its own — a being.
There are many techniques to connecting to joy physiologically, including simply focusing on the breath; either ‘box breathing’ where you imagine the breath as a box, in-pause-out-pause in equal measure, or allowing the out-breath to take a longer time than the in, or activating your belly intentionally in breathing. Breathwork that gets you used to the stress response so you can navigate it without freezing. So you can hold joy amongst the challenge.
There’s no substitute for taking a breather if you can, recalling your happy place, or scheduling some time to spend in nature. Build your body up somatically, with practice, so you can handle these heightened states.
Joy is available to all of us. We just have to recognise it in each moment.
Facing performance anxiety takes a reframe in the purpose of creating and performing.
Find a deeper resonation and calling within yourself. Treat expression as a sacred right of passage; authentic connection.
Understand yourself through the eyes of another’s story, let their voice resonate through your life experience.
In turn, take this influence and integrate it into your understanding, then serve the collective with your version of this power.
It isn’t an easy journey. It’s thick with the shadows of the human experience.
To perform in genuine authenticity, you must turn and face all the shadows of your past; enter the cave, descent into the waters of the subconscious, clean them up in your awareness, navigate them, embrace them, translate them and find the purpose and meaning within them. Find gratitude, faith and service within those experiences.
Know that it’s all unfolding in its right timing. You can’t be somewhere you aren’t aware of. Be kind.
The rewards of reaching these points of consciousness are rich. There is more connection, pleasure and joy than you could have ever have imagined.
There’s also more pain, yet it doesn’t bother you as much. You can share it authentically in your art, help others understand it. You get to share your gift of performance with the world!
You get to celebrate your story and how it unfolds in alignment with your life’s journey.
Give it a go, and I’d love to know where you’re at on your journey in the comments!
This post was previously published on Medium.
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