What Is Your Performance Anxiety Trying to Tell You?

Does your heart race or do your hands shake prior to an important performance?  Do you get into your head and wonder what the audience or judging panel is going to think of your performance?  Do you feel so nervous that your head is full of chatter that distracts you from focusing on or enjoying your performance?  Do you feel confident and perform well in rehearsal and recital, but auditions and competitions make you fearful?

Most performers have found themselves in one or more of these circumstances.  Whether physical or mental, these feelings are simply information—information about how we are doing.  They are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, until we attach meaning to them.  However, performers often interpret these feelings as negative because they often interfere with their performances and lead to frustration, disappointment, and even anger.  I would daresay that the meaning most performers attach to these feelings is, “Oh no!  Something must be wrong!” or “Oh no!  Maybe I’m not as prepared as I need to be!” or  “What if  I don’t perform well today?  That would be awful.”

Most performers just want these feelings to go away so they can perform the way they know they are capable of performing.  However, these feelings have a function.  They exist for a reason.  I encourage you to ask yourself:

“What is my anxiety or fear—my performance anxiety—trying to tell me?”

Well, the answer might not be as straightforward as you would like it to be.  The answer depends on your basic mindset.

If you are a performer who is primarily concerned with proving how good you are, having your skills or performing validated, or one who thinks that if you’re smart or talented, things should come more easily, then you will think your anxiety is telling you that something is wrong, that you may not be good enough, and that you are on the path to FAILURE.

If you are a performer who embraces challenge, accepts mistakes as a necessary part of the growth process, and whose primary concern is with learning and improving upon your last performance, then you’ll think your anxiety is telling you that there is an issue or problem that needs to be addressed or solved.  Your anxiety or frustration allows you to cope with the uncomfortable situation and actually motivates you to seek a solution.

These two basic mindsets are the BE GOOD or fixed mindset and the GET BETTER or growth mindset.  Performers will operate out of one of these mindsets and will set goals, approach challenges and mistakes, and perform accordingly.

If your pre-performance feelings of anxiety or fear adversely affect your performing, then what your fear or performance anxiety is trying to tell you is to examine the type of mindset—reflect upon the basic goals you are striving to achieve and contemplate a shift to a more effective attitude.  Each mindset’s goals are very different:

GET BETTER Goals:  Striving to improve, learn, and grow

BE GOOD Goals:  Striving to prove, win, and validate self and skills

Add to this basic striving, a high-stakes performance—the audition or competition—and performers with both mindsets may feel anxious or nervous, but will interpret their feelings and cope with them very differently:

GET BETTER Mindset & Goals + High-Stakes Performance = More active, effective coping

BE GOOD Mindset & Goals + High-Stakes Performance = Less active, ineffective coping

If you really want to know what your performance anxiety is trying to tell you, take time to examine your goals:   Are you the performer who is wanting to improve or prove, learn and grow or be constantly validated for what you already do?  If you find yourself in the latter group, you are not alone.  Many performers fixate on the outcome of their performances and on the desire to BE GOOD.   If you are one of these performers, you can learn to shift your mindset to a GET BETTER way of thinking that allows for greater enjoyment, increased motivation, and ultimately, better performance.  Changing or shifting your mindset will involve retraining your brain.

The first step in retraining your brain is to identify the causes of your recent successes and failures.   Do you often explain your success or failure with forces outside of yourself like whether you got lucky (“That judge really liked me.” or “I don’t know what happened.”) or whether you are talented enough (“I knew I’d win, because I’m talented.” or “I’m just not smart enough.”)   If you attribute your success or failure to forces beyond your control like being lucky or being smart, or talented rather than to effort and good strategies, then how will you be able to improve or change it if you weren’t responsible for it in the first place?   Question or challenge any cause that is outside of your control and suggest controllable alternatives (effort was enough or need more?, strategies were effective or ineffective?)  Make plans of action based on controllable explanations.

Performers with strong GET BETTER goals are more likely to be diligent and motivated when they feel anxiety or distress, they feel more in control, and cope more effectively.  The worse they feel, the more they increase effort.  On the other hand, performers with stronger BE GOOD goals are less likely to study or practice adequately when they are feeling anxiety or distress.  The worse they feel, the more they withdraw effort.

Try not to ignore your feelings or wish them away—embrace them.  Start retraining your brain to the mindset that allows you to use your feelings to spur you on to get better, to improve, and to increase your engagement.   Next time we’ll delve deeper into this retraining process…

For other articles about your mindset see:

What Motivates You—Being Good or Getting Better?

Which Mindset Do YOU Have?

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Halvorson, H. G., (2012).  Succeed:  How we can reach our goals.  NY:  Plume.

Want to learn more about how to develop your own unique pre-performance routine and the most effective mindset?  Then, check out The Relaxed Musician Program:  Mental Preparation for Confident Performances, A 14-Day Plan   Download Day 1 workbook and audio to see how the program can work for you.  With purchase, you will receive 2 great bonuses—Your Pre-Performance Checklist and the e-book, Letting Go of the Need to be Perfect!

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