As a performer, actor, musician, dancer, comedian, or speaker, you know what it feels like to get on stage or in front of the camera grounded in all who you are. Your talents, skills, and passions flow together effortlessly. In that space, you feel at ease, and your performance comes from your essence.
But, it’s not always easy to perform from such an aligned, anchored place. Anxiety can make it impossible to feel present, connected, and grounded in yourself and your performance.
Performance anxiety or stage fright can take many shapes and forms. Maybe you see yourself in one of these scenarios:
- You don’t feel alive when you’re performing. There is a layer of subtle anxiety between you and the deeper emotions that you wish to access through your art. You can’t pinpoint why this anxiety is there, but you feel it and can’t seem to be able to shake it off.
- You’re an amazing performer when in your comfort zone. But, when you get on a new stage, stand up to audition, or offer a presentation to a new group, you find yourself frozen in anxiety. All your love for performing is gone. You wonder why you even thought that getting in front of these people was a good idea? All you want is to hide or run away. Repeated emotionally challenging experiences like this cause you to avoid performing.
- You can manage to perform well, despite how terrified you are on stage, but at the end you’re exhausted and feeling traumatized. When you’re back at home you’re upset and full of self-doubt. You ask yourself: “What have I gotten myself into? Am I good enough to do this?”
- You’re mostly ok until you think about getting stage fright, and then you find yourself in front of an audience with your knees and hands shaking and sweat running down your back. Your thoughts veer toward, “what if they can see how nervous I am?” This starts a cycle that makes you even more nervous. Your heart starts beating so loud you can hear it. You’re even afraid the mic will pick up the pounding in your chest.
- You get so nervous that you don’t directly look at people, and it takes all that you have to just get through your performance. But you want your performance to be about more than just getting through. You want to feel your performance, to connect to the audience with presence and comfort in who you are as a human being and performer.
- Or, perhaps you can’t seem to make a connection with your audience. Something is missing from what you do. You can’t figure out exactly why, but you feel self conscious and you’re not allowing yourself to relax and be yourself when you perform.
- You’d love to be a performer – you dream of theater, dance, being a musician or a speaker. You dream of being on stage, but you can’t ever allow yourself to even try to be a performer because it feels so nerve-racking.
Skilled and talented performers experience performances anxiety or stage fright. What drives this anxiety?
Many performers experience at least some degree of stage fright or performance anxiety. It’s most important to know that anxiety is not a reflection of your level of talent or skill!
Your talent and skills are developed through consistent training and the actual experiences of performing – by showing up and doing your training, making your mistakes, and learning from these situations. Yes, some have a more innate gift for being a performer than others, but anxiety is not a reflection of lack of talent or ability to be a good performer.
While it’s normal to experience anxiety as a performer, anxiety that interferes or paralyzes your performance is likely a signal of emotional conflicts or past trauma. These emotional blocks or conflicts often operate at subconscious or unconscious level. You may be surprised what aspects of your past are hiding in the anxiety you simply associate with “stage fright.”
Past relational trauma that continues to influence your creativity and ability to perform has many different origins.
Maybe, your parents or other adults were watching you to make sure you do “the right thing” all the time. Or, they might have been overprotective and would not allow you to experiment, make your mistakes, and safely recover from. Maybe you’ve been criticized or judged constantly in your past. Emotional abandonment, rejection, or neglect could be another cause.
It might be that you didn’t have the space to be yourself or were not even allowed to be an artist. Your performing or artistic inclinations have been denied, dismissed, mocked, or ignored. It’s possible that you had a terrifying school experience on stage at a young age. It’s just as possible that other forms of bullying or humiliation are contributing to the anxiety you feel today.
These unhealed emotional conflicts keep you from being yourself as an artist or performer. They keep you and your career small.
How do you overcome performance anxiety or stage fright?
Three are different ways to cope with performance anxiety. Maybe you’ve tried meditation. A coach can help, too. You might have also been in therapy but it hasn’t touched your stage anxiety, and you’ve begun to feel this is something you will have to live with unless you give up on being a performer.
In my Beverly Hills, Los Angeles psychotherapy practice, I get at the root of the anxiety and help you heal its original source. In my experience, healing stage fright requires an in-depth understanding of one’s history and experiences. We work to identify target memories, the experiences that are at the core of this anxiety.
These target memories are a source of anxiety when you perform when you get triggered. Unfortunately the triggers can operate in your unconscious mind, happen very fast, and can be anything from a thought (“my performance is bad”), to visual stimuli (dim or too bright lights), to a certain look in the audience (feeling observed), remembering an unsuccessful performance, and many more. These triggers then activate some emotional states that may have been developed in your childhood – i.e. “I’m not good enough,” dependency on outside validation, fear of rejection, or abandonment, just to name a few.
Once you identify the target memories, EMDR (Eye Movement and Reprocessing)is powerful and effective in breaking through and cleaning old anxiety responses that are tagged in such memories. EMDR helps process feelings, beliefs, and body sensations trapped in your mind – in your right brain and in your nervous system throughout your body. Processing means that you will let go of these of unhealthy feeling states and embody healthier feeling states like:
- It’s normal to feel nervous when performing, I can channel that energy into my performance
- I can only be in control of delivering my best performance and the audition response it’s there to inform me not to control me
- Even if it’s not the best of my performances, I showed up and I’m learning something from this experience
- I know I will have to face some challenging experiences, but I want to give myself the chance to work through and show up for myself. If I need I will look for the right people to support me
- I expect that I will be rejected at times, which is hard, but I can deal with and continue to develop myself and my creative endeavors
- I know my strength, my skill, what I need to improve and am showing up for myself to grow
- I am not for everyone and that is ok
- Showing with the best I can do in this moment is all I can do, this experience will help me understand what I need to continue to improve
These are just some examples of healthier feeling states that performers can embody when they do their emotional work. These emotional experiences will further help you grow as a human being and as a performer.
Once you achieve emotional freedom from the emotional conflicts or trauma that interfere with your performance, you’ll be able to reconnect with the parts of you that feel more comfortable in your own skin and intimately connected to your talents, skills, and passion for performing.
And, when you’ll feel normal anxiety (just part of the life of a performer) you’ll be able to stay present and anchored in yourself and your craft. You will be able to feel intimately connected to your performance all while finding comfort in who you are as a human being and performer.
My California-based psychotherapy practice specializes in the unique needs of artists and creatives. To learn more about how psychotherapy can help heal emotional trauma or conflict and help you access the full depth of your human affective experiences to enrich and expand your creativity, please contact me to set up a free initial consultation.
Contact me to set up a free 15-20 minute consultation to see if psychotherapy can help you further your career and your personal life.
I am Mihaela Ivan Holtz, Doctor in Clinical Psychology. I help creatives face and shift emotional trauma, depression, anxiety, performance anxiety, creative blocks, and addictions – to be and live their own best version. You can read more about Therapy for Creatives and Performers here.