Feel the Fear – Addressing Performance Anxiety – What are you most afraid of?

In a recent post we took a look at what performance anxiety is (take a look here if you missed that one).

This brings us to an excellent point to make the first steps in dealing with those performance nerves and get them working for us rather than against us.

Red Bull Stratos - Felix Baumgartner
Felix Baumgartner – feeling the fear and going with it anyway! (Photo credit: cattias.photos)

One of the key things to do when we’re addressing our nerves is to do just that – recognising, acknowledging that we have that nervous, fearful sensation. Ignoring it is not going to make it go away, in fact it will probably make the issue bigger than it needs to be and consequently make you feel a whole lot worse!

And trying to convince yourself that you’re just fine, that you don’t have any nerves is most likely not going to do much for you either. It doesn’t make you any less of a person, less of a musician, performer or a guitarist to admit that you have nerves. Everyone gets them!

There’s an excellent quote that describes just this in a book I’ve read recently (Fearless Living by Rhonda Britten – s’pretty good, give it a whirl).

“Managing your fear is a temporary solution to a permanent problem, like putting a lid on a pressure cooker that sure to blow sooner or later. Mastering your fear means accepting it, owning it, and making it work for you instead of against you.”

Right. So we need to admit to ourselves we are nervous. What next?

Identify what it is that you are most afraid of

Check out the following list. Highlight the top three that resonate most strongly with you in regard to the feelings you may have during a performance situation:

• Stupid

• Crap

• Not good enough

• Not competent

• A fraud

• Shouldn’t be here

• Lousy

• Really should have practiced more

• Can’t play for toffee

• I reckon I’m a lot better than I really am

• I’m so going to stuff this up

• You’re definitely not a guitarist

There may be others that I’ve not listed here, which you know are relevant to you.

Can you select a number one thought or feeling from those listed above? This is your primary fear, what you’re most afraid of whilst performing.

I’ve had most of these run through my head at some point or other before, during or after performing, so you’re not alone. My number one fear thought, though, is probably “I’m not good enough“. Good enough for what, I’m not quite sure! It doesn’t matter though. My unfettered psyche thought that I was no good at playing and that people were going to think I’m really terrible.

And how does that fearful thought make you feel?

Silly, foolish, incompetent, embarrassed, no good, a failure, inadequate, nervous, worried, tense?

Which of these resonates the most with you?
Again there may be other similar feelings evoked in you that are not listed here.

By identifying these thoughts and feelings we’re getting to the bottom of what triggers our nervous response, our performance anxiety.For me, as I said before it’s a fear of being no good, which then leads to a feeling of incompetence. The ultimate response then that leads on from these thoughts and feeling is one of nervousness – “ooh gosh, I don’t know if I can do this…” with physiological outcomes including sweating, shaking redness, which compounds things – “ooh they can see I’m shaking so they mush definitely think I’m no good“….and so on in a spiral of nerves!!

When you think on it, the funny thing is by reacting to our fear-driven thoughts and feelings we’re kind of acting out our greatest fear anyway! By thinking “ooh bloody hell, I’m rubbish at this. I’ll never play this through” we’re turning that fear into reality!! We’re confirming to our subconscious that we were right all along! And so it continues….

So, actually it’s judgement of our own selves and our own thoughts that creates this nervous feeling, this shaky nervy response.

Be brave, but also get to know your music INTIMATELY!
This is where we need to be brave and face that very thought and feeling that we’re trying to protect ourselves from. Yes, it’s a little scary, but feeling the fear and going with it is a sign that we’re growing as a musician and performer.

Very importantly, and something that worked for me in particular, this is also where REALLY knowing the music you’re playing pays HUGE HUGE HUGE dividends.

Do you know without a doubt where your left hand is moving to and from throughout the music?
And what about your right hand (I’m talking from the point of view of a right-handed guitarist here) – that often gets a bit left out. Can you define the precise right hand fingering you want to use and do you use that fingering consistently? Knowing that and confirming it can really help to reassure you that you know what’s going on, so you can tell you subconscious “hey, look we got this. Remember all that work we did?!“.

And don’t forget about the harmonic and melodic structure of the piece. Do you know exactly where the piece and all its phrases are headed?

By acknowledging, recognising and then facing up to that fear – safe in the knowledge (see that word there – “safe”) that we’ve done the work and know what we’re doing – we can then move onto the next step in working with and mastering the fear. Stay tuned!

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