Performance Fear—Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

Several years ago, Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks starred in a movie called Defending Your Life.  Both Streep and Brooks die in the first minutes of the film.  The rest of the movie is set in heaven as they attempt to defend the way they lived as a heavenly tribunal reviews footage of scenes from their lives.  The novel thesis of the movie is that the purpose of the ‘trial’ is not to determine if they have been virtuous or evil, but whether they had learned to conquer fear.  In the movie, conquering fear is the goal in life.

Fear is a necessary part of life.  It is our response to perceived danger.   That word “perceived” is the real sticking point here.   As a performer, you may experience the effects of fear—sweaty palms, dry mouth, quick, shallow breathing, heart pounding, thoughts racing—as you perceive danger when you are preparing to perform or step out onto the stage.   But, is fear prior to performance necessary?  Is conquering fear one of your goals?  Don’t you hope you won’t have to account for the fear you’ve felt or end up defending your performing life?

 “Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are your own fears.”  —Rudyard Kipling

Sport psychology expert, Alan S. Goldberg in Step 4 Dealing With Your Fears of his 10 Steps to Mental Toughness and Peak Performance, states that “Fear steals the one thing you need to excel:  your heart.  It takes away your nerve, fills your head with worries, and kills your confidence.  Fear takes you out of being ‘in the experience’ where peak performance happens and instead puts you ‘in your head’ where absolutely nothing happens.  Furthermore, fear kills your fun, a critical element of peak performance.”

You may debate whether conquering fear is the goal of your entire life, but you must admit that a primary goal in your performing life is to conquer your fear so it won’t rob you and your performances of heart, confidence, and fun.

In order to conquer your performance fear you must:

  1. Recognize it
  2. Understand it
  3. Neutralize it

You probably laughed when you read number one above—recognize fear?  Duh!  How could you not recognize fear?  There is not one of us who hasn’t experienced fear at one time or another.  Fear is experienced physiologically, emotionally, and cognitively.  When we are fearful, we feel it and think it.  The physiological and emotional signs of fear are easy to recognize.  Fear tightens your muscles as your body is trying to decide whether you are going fight or flee.

Fear thinking might be a little more difficult to recognize because fearful thinking can become so habitual.   The most dangerous and insidious fearful thoughts you can have are the “what-ifs.”  Your what-ifs zero in on your fears and cause you to focus all of your attention on the future—on an outcome, what might go wrong, or what someone might think or say about your performance.  Then, your imagination jumps on the band wagon by exaggerating this object of your fear.  Your imagination magnifies what you think could go wrong, or that outcome you desperately want, or that impression you need to make until you can’t think of anything else.

Get familiar with your what-ifs.  They can be the fuel to your fear.  Make a list of all your favorite what-ifs.   Jot them all down.

My What-Ifs:






Don’t let your what-ifs keep lying to you and rob you of a present focus.  This is a recipe for fear.   As Goldberg puts it, “Fears need a steady diet of what-ifs to grow large and become disruptive.  You can begin to starve and then eliminate your fears by recognizing and monitoring the future-based thinking that feeds them.”

Next time we will examine how you can understand that fear tricks you into believing things that haven’t or may never happen.  When you identify the thoughts fear thinks, you can see it for the liar that it is!

We will also discuss how you can take action to face your fear and neutralize it.

Before leaving this page: 

  1. Make your what-ifs list!
  2. Review it and then, RIP IT TO SHREDS as you commit to recognizing when these thoughts pop into your head.
  3. Practice eliminating this kind of thinking and keep the what-ifs from feeding your fear.


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Goldberg, A. S.  (2005).  Sports slump busting:  10 steps to mental toughness and peak performance.  Coral Springs, FL:  Llumina Press.

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