When I started writing this I tried to Google “performance anxiety” and most of the articles I found were about erectile dysfunction. I'm not really sure what it's technically called, so I'll just refer to it as performance anxiety/stage fright until I can find a name with a less sexual connotation (or figure out what the actual term is).
To get a better picture of what I mean, pretend you're back in school giving a presentation. You did all the research and prep work, and you know your stuff. Still, you sit there with this sense of impending doom as you wait for your turn. You don't even hear what your classmates are saying because your heart is pounding in your ears. Maybe you're on the verge of vomiting if you haven't already. When they say you're next you feel like you've just been shot. As you approach the podium you might ask yourself, Maybe I should take the F? Is this worth it? Why the hell am I doing this? Your voice cracks and shakes as you talk and you fixate on how many uhhhs you use. Sweat rolls down your forehead and you're gulping air, but you don't feel like you're getting enough of it. When you finally finish you retreat back to your seat shell-shocked and wonder how your teacher does it every day.
I'm not a psychologist, and don't have any training outside of a high school education and one college course I study-buddied through with my second ex-boyfriend's sister, but I would think with most fears, you'd need to figure out the underlying cause. Fear of rejection? Afraid of embarrassing yourself? Worried it won't be perfect? Scared you won't please everyone? Is failure a strong possibility?
Fear of rejection? Most of us wallpaper our homes in rejection letters. You're not a bad writer just because one or two places won't buy what you're selling. Many authors have had their work rejected repeatedly and still live to tell about it.
Afraid of embarrassment? Been there, done that. I stupidly submitted a short story to a reputable literary journal in New York that was riddled with typos, continuity issues, and even plot-plausibility errors because I was so self-conscious about what I wrote I couldn't even proofread it. Needless to say, I was rejected and embarrassed. I continue to humiliate myself to this day. I'm not the only one. It's an inevitable part of writing and putting yourself out there—just don't dwell on it.
As for perfectionism, in Anne Lamott's essay Shitty First Drafts, she says your draft isn't going to be totally flawless the first time around. While you stew in quiet envy over that book, film, poem, song, or story that seems to get it all right, keep in mind that what you're seeing is the finished product. Most of the time, we don't get to see the bedhead or smell the morning breath of someone's first draft. We hear there's a process, sure, but we don't always get to observe the transition. In other words, try not to make the mistake of comparing your first draft to someone else's final.
Failure is a tough thing to accept and come back from. This deserves its own article, but for now, you really need to define what failure (and success) is to you and how you plan to bounce back. People think failure happens when things don't go according to plan, but I think you really fail when you don't try.
Still this is hard given some people are critics for a living (and not all of them get paid to do it). Criticism has its role to play in your performance and the stress it causes—but that's an article for another day. The best snip of advice I can offer is to sift through legit advice from the unjustifiable disapproval and use what you can to make your work better without tearing yourself apart.
Over halfway through this it dawned on me that I might not be the best person to write an article about overcoming performance anxiety. I haven't overcome anything. I've spent the last ten years trying to write a book that's nowhere near finished. I abandoned my dream of becoming an artist because I didn't think I was good at it. I almost walked out on my LLC brother and our publishing company three months in because I thought I my ideas were shit and that I wasn't qualified to run a business. I didn't make it as an artist because I didn't want to do the work and possibly fail, and now I'll never know if I would've made it. This time, I want to see Long Shit Books through so I don't have to wonder what will come of it.
Bottom line, we all get in our own way.
I can't prescribe an antidote. There's no 10 Steps, In 30 Minutes or Less, For the Convenient Price of $19.95 (plus shipping and handling) solution here. This isn't something a tablespoon of coconut oil or an apple cider vinegar rinse can fix. It also isn't exactly something that happens overnight or something being published can fix. From my experience, and the advice of many creative folks I know, the best way out is through. That poster in your guidance counselor's office that says, “Life begins outside of your comfort zone,” has some truth to it.
In other words, sometimes you gotta say, “Fuck it.”
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