Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “We boil at different degrees,” and while he was talking about what it takes to excite us, I believe it is also true of what scares the bejeezus out of us.
For one person it might be as simple as striking up a conversation with someone new; for another it may be making presentations, regardless of the size of the audience; for someone else it may be presenting only to large crowds; and for others it may depend on why they’re in front of the audience (actor Jonathan Pryce says he’s more nervous when speaking as himself than when he’s playing a part).
I’ve been in branding and advertising for over a decade, and being in front of people just comes with the territory, from presenting for clients or at conferences to leading workshops to networking. But it all still makes me crazy. I also have a theater background in writing, producing and directing plays. Again, always anxiously. A few years ago I began collaborating with some musicians to co-write songs and developed my own singing-songwriting skills in the process. That has slowly edged me closer to the natural step of playing beyond my living room — the personal and individual nature of which has made that step more intimidating to approach than perhaps anything else I’ve ever done.
I found myself facing two things simultaneously: a public music performance and a Lake FX panel on design. Nerve-racking. So for the first time, I decided to look into what to do about my anxiety. I found stuff like the ADAA’s top 10 tips for conquering it and WebMD’s take, which made me anxious just reading it (thanks, WebMD), and countless programs offering to help kick stage fright in just a few short weeks. But among it all there were a few conflicting trends that, in the end, made none of it feel quite right. Then I found this article and started thinking about the way I’ve come to deal with nervousness in my work life, where it happens most often.
It’s not about beating it before it beats you.
There’s a lot of advice that talks about conquering the phobia because it can be so debilitating or destructive to your success or career. Yet there’s a lot of evidence that it doesn’t actually affect how well you do once you’re “on stage.” The list of high-profile examples of performers with anxiety issues is endless — from Ella Fitzgerald to Jim Carrey, Rod Stewart to Adele. And yet they continued to crush it. So maybe think of it this way: As long as it doesn’t actually stop you, it may not actually hurt you.
Freaking out is not necessarily so freaking bad.
There is a sizeable amount of advice around relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, etc. Sigh. Maybe this works for some people, but here’s the thing I can tell you from just having experienced stage fright in two very different instances: The last thing I could have pulled off in the time leading up to either event was relaxation. That’s sort of the whole point. But what if all this is coming at the problem the wrong way? Maybe for some people, the only way to function is to freak out a bit.
Easier said than done, I hear you.
Why do we seek to “fix” stage fright in the first place? It’s because the sweaty palms (to say nothing of all the sweating on the inside), the dry mouth and the churning stomach are so consuming and uncomfortable. But there’s a lot of wisdom out there that points out that stage fright doesn’t ever really go away. Curing it is tempting because recognizing it and carrying on is difficult. But so is playing guitar or knowing your presentation.
The real challenge might be trying to understand that such vulnerability and nervous energy are not something in your way, but rather simply a part of your way. When I dissect how I feel and all the tips I’ve read, what I come to realize is that I really enjoy sharing my songs. I really enjoy speaking at industry conferences and leading brand workshops.
In fact, throughout my life, I’ve had some really great experiences doing some of these things that have made me so uneasy. It’s just that it doesn’t come all that easily. But that’s okay. The reality is, this energy is not always anxiety around failing. It’s that natural energy that comes with pursuing something outside your comfort zone. In other words, growing. And in the end, once you’re in the spotlight, it’s rarely as blindingly bright as it was in your mind.