Performance anxiety. Stage Fright. Nerves. Excitement. All names for that feeling you get when you perform or think about performing under testing circumstances. I spent many years as a classical guitarist – performer and teacher, so had many opportunities to prepare my students and myself to play music in public. Feel free to transpose whatever you find useful here for your own testing times, whether it is artistic performance, sports performance, presentations, training, interviews or any other situation where you are in the real or metaphorical spotlight.
Your emotional state when you perform has the greatest influence on how much you succeed. Of course you need to have prepared and rehearsed, you need to know your material. However many performers have the experience of going on stage well prepared, and still feeling nervous to such an extent that they do not do themselves justice. There are three types of performance: the one you prepared, the one you gave, and the one you wished you had given. The first and third may be roughly similar – if only the middle one matched as well!
The reason for being nervous is an interesting ‘why’ question, which you could take time to explore; there are many possible reasons, and knowing about them is not necessarily going to make a difference to how you feel at the time. The strength of NLP is how we create our states of mind moment by moment and so how to change them to feel more resourceful. We can have choice about which states we create, and for what purpose. I do not have to understand electricity or know its history to operate a light switch, and do not have to understand why I feel the way I do, to be able to change it in the present.
The feeling we might label as ‘nerves’ in a performance situation is often the same as the feeling we would label as ‘excitement’ in another context. We need that extra energy in testing circumstances and my experience with performing artists suggests that without it, their performance suffers. So how can you use the energy, excitement and anticipation to give a better performance rather than let it run rampant, distract you, or turn to negative internal dialogue? If there are butterflies in your stomach, how can you persuade them fly in formation?
The inner critics
A great deal of performance anxiety comes from the sort of things we say to ourselves and how we say them.. These words create pictures and both the words and pictures are distracting. When exploring performance nerves in a seminar, I will often get a performer to play their piece in front of the group. Two other people also join the performer on stage, one on each side. They have instructions to try to distract the performer in any way they can by talking, singing, and being creatively diverting, but without actually touching. The results are usually hilarious and bring out some interesting points.
Firstly, when you hear your internal dialogue externalised, coming from others, it becomes laughable instead of serious. You can hear it from the outside, rather than being caught up in it.
Secondly and paradoxically, many people find it easier to play with people trying to distract them. They find creative ways of blocking off the distractions. The outside voices stop their own internal dialogue, which is often the prime culprit in performance nerves.
This inner critic (who is far sneakier and perfectionist than any outside critic would ever dream of being) has many ways of distracting you. As he knows you intimately, he knows your weak spots. While you play, he may insist on reminding you of certain passages you got wrong in practice. He may also bring to your attention that this really great section coming up in must be played well, so that the audience can really appreciate the beauty of it. What a shame it would be to make a mistake!
– It’s important not to make a mistake.
– A mistake would be bad, wouldn’t it?
And so on. No wonder a mistake is likely, that’s what you are thinking about.
This critic may even wait until a crucial moment to ask you if you remembered to turn the gas off, brush your hair, and who’s that strange person down there in the front row?
The inner critic usually goes for negative statements: what you must not do, what mistakes you must avoid at all costs. The effect of this is to program you to make the very mistakes you are trying so hard to avoid. When you play a piece of music, you need your internal auditory sense to create and keep track of the music, and internal dialogue stops you from doing this. The inner critic not only distracts you during a performance, but also generates self-fulfilling prophecies about what might go wrong. You can experience all the worst cases and savour them in advance before they actually happen (if they do at all). The person capable of most effectively sabotaging a performance is the performer himself or herself.
Befriending the Critic
We tend to associate a critic with destructive comment, and our inner critic tends to reflect the usual cultural meaning of criticism as negative. This is a pity; a good critic evaluates ideas and gives feedback, which can be incorporated to make the idea or performance even better. A critic can be a good friend, and a necessary part of the creative process
The first thing to do is to educate the inner critic to make some positive statements. To say what it wants and not what it does not want. Criticism is useless if it gives no indication of how to improve. Think about what you want to do rather than what you want to avoid. Use feedback from the critic to construct internal movies of what you want to happen. Hear how you want the piece to sound. See and hear yourself performing as you wish to before associating into the picture.Give your critic an appearance and a name. Make it more of a friendly coach than a shadowy presence.
Next, challenge the internal dialogue. The most fruitful areas to challenge are the ‘shoulds’ and ‘can’ts’ known as modal operators, unrealistic comparisons and judgements. All three tend to artificially accentuate the gap between the performance you gave and the performance you wish you had given. Noticing comparatives and judgements gives you an idea of the sort of standards your critic uses to evaluate a performance. So a bad or a good performance must be bad or good compared to some standard. This unspoken standard may be unrealistically high.
One good way of dealing words like ‘should’, ‘must’, and ‘’shouldn’t’ in internal dialogue is to turn them into possibilities. So, ‘I should do well,’ becomes ‘I can do well’. ‘I must not make this mistake’, becomes ‘I will not make this mistake’.
Reframing the Critic
Listen to what the inner voice is saying and also listen to the quality of the voice. Where is it located? Listen to the tonality. Is it your voice? If not, whose is it?
Find the positive intention of the voice. There are three main possibilities in my experience. The first is that the critic wants you to do better.
The second is it may be trying to keep you safe – by protecting you from failure or success. The critic who wants you to do better is easier to sympathise with. You may experience the internal dialogue as distracting and not supportive. Yet have you ever been distracted from a task by someone oversolicitously telling you continually to pay attention to what you are doing? Their intention is golden but their behaviour is crass. There are four things you can do to change your experience and make the content and the qualities of the voice more congruent with its intention.
1) Change the submodalities of the voice so it becomes supportive, either by
experimenting with the location, tonality, speed and volume until you are happy, or hearing a supportive voice in your mind, noticing its submodalities: volume, pitch, direction, speed, and then changing the submodalities of the inner critic’s voice until they match those of the supportive voice. You essentially map over auditory submodalities to change your experience.
2) Secondly you can explore ways of improving your performance through practise, mental rehearsal, research, modelling, and getting feedback from friends and colleagues.
3) Examine the real possible consequences of failure. They may not be as awful as you imagine.
4) Separate your behaviour (the performance) from your identity (who you are as a person). Doing badly at a behavioural level does not mean you are a incompetent person. Confusing the two will amplify the bad feelings attached to doing poorly in performance, because you will feel that you are being judged by who you are, rather than what you do.
Another possible positive intention of the critic is to keep you safe – from success. This fits better in some cultures like the English culture, where success is often disapproved of, and invokes envy. Striving to succeed is sometimes looked on as an unattractive trait, and rather frowned on.
I don’t imagine this is a problem in United States culture. Regardless of cultural expectations, there may be experiences and imprints in your upbringing where success led to misfortune. There are many fairy tales of the nemesis that befalls those who are successful and get what they want. So the inner voice may be trying to protect you from the pitfalls of success. There may be a price to be paid for success. It is best to be clear and realistic about it. Again there are some actions you can take.
1) Change the submodalities of the voice so that it supports you not just as a performer, but as a whole, balanced person. Change them so that the qualities of the voice are congruent with its intention.
2) Explore the imagined consequences of success, perhaps as a dialogue with the inner critic. There might be much more work to do. Success might lead you to further more difficult tests. You might have to give up other valued activities. You might develop a reputation that would need protecting. You could lose friends.
Another question worth asking is: ‘Do I deserve to succeed?’ This question can lead you to a level of your beliefs about yourself. It might also lead you to practise more, a question of behaviour and capability, if you feel you have not done sufficient preparation to really deserve to succeed.
Befriending the inner critic and making them a resource rather than a hindrance is one approach to giving a better performance.
Tools for Dreamers R. Dilts and T. Epstein, Meta Publications 1991
Using Your Brain for a Change Richard Bandler, Real People Press 1985
Change Your Mind and Keep the Change Steve and Connirae Andreas, Real People Press ICC.