The Ugly (Yet Comforting) Truth About Performance Anxiety 6


As many of you know, when you sign up for my newsletter, I ask you to reply with your answers to 3 questions. One of those questions is, “What is currently your biggest struggle with the guitar?”

I’ve already received a bunch of great responses, but the most common struggle I’ve heard is “performance anxiety.”

If you have ever performed for anybody, you have most certainly experienced some form of performance anxiety:

  • Your fingers turn ice-cold (my personal favorite…)
  • Your hands shake
  • Your hands sweat
  • Your heart races
  • You feel sick to your stomach
  • You start doubting and questioning your ability
  • Your memory fails as your fingers try to find their next notes

I’ve experienced each one of these “symptoms” of performance anxiety, along with many others. Over the years, I have learned (and am still learning) how to work through them, and have coached many other guitarists through their own anxiety.

In order to start working through your performance anxiety, you have to come to terms with one simple fact: The ugly truth about performance anxiety is that

It rarely ever goes away.

 

guitar performance anxiety (small)

 

It may diminish with time and experience, but the fear and the effects that go along with it rarely disappear completely.

Now before you let that discourage you, I want you to realize that there’s a very comforting reality behind that truth.

I’ve heard many professional musicians, athletes, and actors at the top of their fields talk about how they still experience performance anxiety, yet they’re known for consistently delivering incredible performances.

The key is that they don’t allow their anxiety to dictate their performance.

The comforting fact here is that it’s ok to get nervous!

It takes some pressure off when you accept that performance anxiety is just a part of our body’s natural response to being in a stressful situation.

I used to believe that I was doomed to totally bomb a performance as soon as I felt the first signs of anxiety. I thought I couldn’t possibly deliver a great performance until I had managed to completely rid myself of all signs of performance anxiety.

Discovering that performance anxiety was normal even among the world’s best performers taught me to stop wasting my time trying to rid myself of my anxiety, but to learn how to work through it.

Instead of fearing the anxiety itself, embrace the fact that it’s natural, and learn how to work through it.

Now I’m going to give you 2 practical steps to help you start learning how to work through your performance anxiety.

1) Perform Often

This first step is simple. To learn how to work through your performance anxiety, you need to confront it more often.

Make yourself a goal to perform regularly.

Once a week. Every two weeks. Once a month.

Choose whichever frequency is realistic for you, but it has to be more often than you are currently performing.

Performances can come in many different forms. It might not be possible for you to get up on stage in a concert hall in front of hundreds of people every month. Here are some other options:

  • Play at restaurants
  • Play open-mic nights
  • Play at churches
  • Play at hospitals and nursing homes
  • Play at schools
  • Play on the street (not literally on the street, although that would definitely stir up some anxiety!)
  • Play at a park
  • Play for friends
  • Play for a friend
  • Play for family
  • Play for your significant other
  • Record/Film yourself playing

There are tons of options out there, but the point is to pick both an environment and an audience that allow you to perform regularly and that make you nervous. If it doesn’t make you nervous, find a different setting that does.

The more you confront your anxiety, the more you’ll realize that it’s just a natural part of performing and it doesn’t have to control the outcome of your performance.

I know this is a hard goal to set for yourself, because if you’re struggling with performance anxiety, the last thing you want to do is perform on a regular basis. But if you’re serious about wanting to work through your anxiety, you just have to do it!

Find somebody to help keep you accountable. Somebody who can check in to make sure you’re meeting your performance goal. You can even email me, I’d be happy to help!

2) Practice Positivity

That might sound cheesy, but hear me out!

If you allow yourself to consistently fill your mind with self-doubt and negativity, your mind is going to default to those thoughts when anxiety sets in. Negativity fuels your anxiety and causes that downward spiral of “What-If’s” we’ve all experienced at show time:

  • What if I fail?
  • What if they don’t like it?
  • What if I didn’t memorize my music well enough?
  • What if my hands freeze up?
  • What if I botch that scale?
  • What if I embarrass myself?

You need to discipline yourself to immediately shut down those thoughts and replace them with positivity. When somebody asks you to play something, resist your instinct to clam up and make excuses. Instead of thinking of all the possible negative outcomes, think about the equally possible positive outcomes:

  • The beauty of this music could really uplift their spirits
  • My hard work and preparation could inspire and encourage them
  • This performance could open up great opportunities for me

The reason I say “practice” positivity is because this is an ongoing discipline. At first, you probably won’t even believe the positive things you’re telling yourself. But if you force yourself to fixate on the positive with each opportunity that arrives, your mindset toward performance will slowly start to shift, and your instinct to focus on the negative will start to fade.

It’s an ongoing battle, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I still have to remind myself about these concepts regularly.

For example, I was just recently asked to perform at an event for 3,500 people, and was only given one month to prepare 50-minutes of new music.

I don’t believe in sugarcoating stories to make myself look better, so I’m about to keep it 100% real with you!

My first instinct was to hope it would fall through somehow, because I was nervous that I wouldn’t able to deliver a great performance in front of that many people with such short notice.

But, because I have been practicing a mindset of positivity toward performance for quite a while now, I was able to quickly shut those thoughts down and accept the opportunity with excitement.

Although I’ll certainly be nervous when the time comes to play in front of those 3,500 people; I know those nerves won’t control the course of my performance because I won’t be thinking about what could go wrong, but about what could go right.

With every performance opportunity, no matter how big or small, you have one choice:

You can choose to react out of fear, or out of courage.

The former focuses on the negative, while the latter focuses on the positive.

Don’t let negativity fuel your fear.


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I hope this has encouraged to stop avoiding your performance anxiety and to challenge yourself with my 2 steps to start learning to work through it.

If you know anybody else who might find this post helpful, feel free to share it!

Let me know in the comments below how you plan to start performing more often. I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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6 thoughts on “The Ugly (Yet Comforting) Truth About Performance Anxiety

  • Regina

    This is a wonderful post, thank you for the advice.

    I don’t perform as much as I used to but I’ve never been able to be completely comfortable on a stage when performing; having dozens of eyes on me always made me feel like everyone was waiting for me to make a mistake- and more often than not, I would because of it!

    I’m not a very confident person myself and it’s no lie that I perform better when alone or surrounded by people I feel comfortable with but I’ll bear these tips in mind for the future if ever I play in public again. Thank you 🙂

    • Nathan Post author

      You’re very welcome, Regina. And thank you for sharing your experience!

      Feeling like everybody is waiting for you to make a mistake is a perfect example of the negativity that we so naturally fixate on (Trust me, I’ve had the exact same feeling). Practice shutting those thoughts down every time they come to mind, on stage or off.

      Think about how your audience may very well be enjoying themselves and that they are probably not as critical as you might think. Force yourself to think that way long enough, and you’ll actually start believing it 🙂

  • Tony

    Nathan,
    I enjoyed reading your post and I found it very interesting and helpful. There are several of your suggestions that I can use right away and others that will be helpful later on. I like having your information in print. It is a good article to save and refer back to as needed. Thank you for the tips. Very good information. Tony

  • Humilde Alumno

    Thanks for your comments on performance anxiety! I have a guitar teacher who told me I should record myself every time I practice. I have to say it has helped a lot.