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How To Overcome Performance Anxiety

Maybe a month or six weeks ago, somebody – a relative stranger – messaged me on Facebook for advice about how to get around performance anxiety. I did write out a whole long response in the chat window, but when I clicked send, apparently, said person had deactivated their account and could not receive messages. I have since forgotten the name of the person. And owing to the large number of random messages I receive on Facebook, trying to find it brings to mind the words ‘needle’ and ‘haystack’. So I thought it might be better to address the issue in a blog post.

So if you hate doing presentations at work, or giving speeches at weddings; or if talking to attractive women or strangers of any description delivers an overwhelming stab of stress to your gut, I’m about to detail exactly how I got over the stress, anxiety, nervousness and discomfort that for many, accompanies any or all of these situations.

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There was a time when I thought I could never be a professional magician because I couldn’t cope with the anxiety I experienced when facing a crowd. Now I perform on a regular basis at weddings, parties, corporate events and, on occasion, in theatres around the country.

This article is about how I transitioned from shy, timid and virtually social phobic, to being more comfortable in front of a crowd than most. And you can too…

Now there’s good news and there’s… less good news.

Those of you expecting me to detail some sort of a cheat anxiety anaesthetic, so to speak, are going to be disappointed. There is nothing I can say to you and in fact nothing that you can do that’s going to numb you to the point that you can  walk into a performance situation and feel completely comfortably. And just for clarity, by ‘performance situation’ I don’t just mean performing arts. It could be anything: sports, public speaking, talking to women, literally any situation where you feel anxiety is hindering you. The psychology is the same.

The first step to overcoming performance anxiety, much like achieving any lofty goal in life is deciding and making a commitment to yourself that you are going to do whatever it takes to reach the goal. This is harder than just saying the words and by far the most important step simply because:

you are probably going to have to do some things that you’re not going to want to do in order to achieve your goal

There are several common reasons why people experience performance anxiety. And I’m no psychiatrist so this may not be an exhaustive list. From my background in medicine I am aware of a number of other clinical causes, but I’m not getting into that here. If you think the cause of your anxiety is something more serious, go and see your doctor. But now without further ado, here are the common reasons why you may suffer from performance anxiety:

What if it goes wrong?

Of course you don’t want it to go wrong but the truth is nobody is perfect and everybody has bad days. You’re only human. And probably only you expects you to be more than that. If it goes wrong then it goes wrong. You’re going to have to live with it. But remember that you are not your actions. So if it goes wrong, that’s not necessarily a reflection on you. It was just you in that moment. I also suggest as much as possible: detach yourself from the outcome.

Whether the presentation or speech or show goes well is partially down to who your audience is. It’s not fully under your control. Whether an attractive woman responds to you or rejects you is not under your control. She may be having a bad day. She may have other things on her mind. She may not be in a fit state of mind to meet somebody new right now. The only thing fully under your control is whether or not you go out and give the speech, do the show, ask the question. The outcome is out of your hands. Accept that, and you won’t suffer nearly as much.

Now, of course, there are going to be some situations where it DOES matter if it goes wrong. But these situations are rarer than you may be thinking.

Approaching a pretty girl is unlikely to be one of these situations, and to make it one in your head is putting too much pressure on you and almost setting you up for failure. Whether you think so or not, there is always going to be another girl.

But what about that big work presentation that’s coming up and the stakes involve winning or losing a client that could make a huge difference to your business? That matters. And it would be awesome to win the client. And you absolutely should try your best. But if you fail, I’m willing to bet that there will be other chances in the future. And you will LEARN from the experience. And if you fail to reach your desired outcome, the most important thing you can do is learn to improve. And try again later in spite of your previous failure with the faith that the outcome can be different next time.

What will other people think?

Fear of judgement. May I suggest – “Who cares what other people think?” The truth is, it’s none of your business what they think. Some will love you. Some will like you. Some might be offended. And most won’t care. But guess what – some people already love you, some already like you and some are already offended by you. And most don’t care. There’s no difference.

The first time I was invited to the BBC, I was about to go live on air, and one of the producers asked me, “Are you nervous?”

I shrugged, “A little bit.”

“All they want is for you to be yourself,” he answered.

I think the reason a lot of people fear public speaking is because they expect more from themselves than anybody else does. They’ve set the bar in their minds way higher than anybody else has.

Give yourself a chance. You’re only human.

This Is Not Me

You may be experiencing performance anxiety simply because you’re doing something that’s a bit alien to you. Something you don’t do very often. And in that case, it’s just the unfamiliarity that makes you anxious. This isn’t your thing (yet). You don’t know how to behave. Well, let me tell you, as you do it more, you’ll develop your own sense of how to behave and as you do, your performance anxiety will dissipate. To borrow from the title of a Susan Jeffers book, the answer is to Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.

The Cure

In every case, the solution is simple. Not necessarily easy or comfortable, but simple:

Do more shows. Speak in front of more crowds. Give more speeches. Speak to more women. As you become familiar with the situations and start to feel at home, all of these things become so normal that they start to feel like you, and one day you realise that the anxiety has gone.

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Those of you who maybe were expecting some better (and by better I mean pain free) advice than face your fear and do the thing, I’m sorry, but there really isn’t any kind of substitute for growing a pair and going right ahead. Progression is bourn through pain. Growing hurts a bit.

The only time when that advice does not apply is if the situation you’re going to be faced with is genuinely dangerous and could genuinely get your hurt or killed. If that’s the case, listen to the fear. That’s why it evolved in the first place.

That is exactly how I did it. Like so many things in life, there are no ‘secrets of success’. The first ten days of me doing magic in public were painful. I was so nervous that I had chronic stomach ache. But I just kept going, accepting that this was how it was going to be for a while but also having faith that eventually I would get comfortable and it would go away. Exactly when it went away, I don’t know for sure, I just remember getting to the end of a day and suddenly realising that the pain had gone.

And that’s when the fun really started.


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