Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Summer of Fear: Stage Fright

One fear that I think almost every single human being has in common is that of stage fright. Even experienced performers and speakers regularly admit to feeling anxiety before they do whatever it is they do in front of an audience: sing, dance, speak, tell jokes... juggle man-eating poodles while riding a unicycle? Not sure about that last one.

Being usually human, I too suffer from this condition. I'm neither a novice who craves the anonymity of the audience, nor an experienced pro. I'm somewhere in the no-man's land between. I've danced a little, I've done music, I teach classes at the library I work at, and I've even experienced the enviable opportunity to be an zombie extra on a small local stage for a musical "Night of the Living Dead." (Thanks Ali!)

That said, I am terrified of performing, and I'm not terribly good at "performing" so much as curling up in an emotional ball and pretending I'm not there long enough to get through what I'm doing. Not that I'm bad at any of those tasks. I absolutely can dance, sing, speak and do the old shuffle-and-moan. And I want to do them, no matter what my brain might claim minutes before. Kind-of-a-secret: I like having an audience. I like people paying attention to me. But it is simultaneously frightening.

What's worse, even if you can wrangle your brain into submission, it's tougher to stop some of the physical effects that it's already put into motion. For me, it's mainly trembling and a racing pulse/breath, which are a real problem when you're trying to sing and play guitar, let me tell you. Back in grade school, a teacher once confessed to me after a class presentation that she was very seriously worried that I was going to pass out. I did not, and luckily I got better at speaking in front of groups as I got older.

One of the things I learned about speaking specifically, is that I am much more comfortable when simply reading something that I did not create myself, or when I'm speaking about a topic that I know so well, I don't need notes to get through it. As soon as I start relying on slides or note cards, the presentation gets a little bumpy. Get me up in front of people to talk about zombies, and fuck the note cards, put some film stills from awesome movies in back of me and I'll be great. This might not apply to other people, some may find note cards comforting in a way, but I think the main trick is finding your best style.

As for everything else, I don't have any good tricks besides plowing through. WebMD has some decent ones, especially physical habits to get into, but I really like some of the ideas put forth in this Psychology Today article. I absolutely agree that stage fright isolates you, and makes the performance all about you, and how you'll be judged. But the best performers I've ever watched always share that focus with the people watching. And one of the key thoughts I keep in my mind when I'm worried about how a library class will go is that the people coming already decided they want to hear what I have to say, and think I have something valuable to contribute that will enrich their lives. They're coming to learn something, not to judge me.

With other type of performances, it's helpful to consider that the audience has come ready to have an entertaining experience. I don't think it's productive to get obsessed and anxious about whether you'll be entertaining enough or good enough either, because that shifts it back to worrying about you when you're only one piece of the equation. It is helpful to remember that most of the audience is open and ready to enjoy whatever you're doing. And the few that aren't are jerks anyway, so fuck 'em. Hell, depending on what type of performance you're doing, most of the people there are either more worried about performing themselves, or hitting on somebody (hello open mics at bars). It doesn't get the anxiety to go away completely, and I don't think anyone ever gets it to go away completely. But it stops that chain reaction of negative thoughts and gets you over the hurdle of getting started, which is the worst part.

Keep in mind, I am not qualified to give psychological advice. I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, I'm basically qualified to apply to grad school or get a job in another field. All I can tell you is my thoughts and experience, and you should absolutely think for yourself, no matter who you're looking to for ideas. If none of this jives with you, then my advice is to swallow your fear, do it anyway and enjoy the sweet, sweet adrenaline rush while you're alive enough to enjoy it. Even if you're terrible, you'll still make the person who has to follow you feel WAY better about their own performance, so you're still contributing something positive to the world!

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