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How to Overcome Performance Anxiety

Five strategies to forget your audience and focus on your purpose

"Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching." — Thomas Jefferson

Yikes. Is that a solution, or the DSM-IV definition of social anxiety disorder?

The house lights dim, the stage is dark save for one spotlight, the kind that follows your every move. You stand up to your moment — your big moment — to make a difference. OK, so maybe you're just standing up to order your morning coffee. But the words fail you, your tongue ties, and in a fury you find that your jumbled mind has just ordered the nonexistent: double decaf lafté... No! No!, I mean, I meant latté! Double decaf latté! The crowd laughs wildly (in your head). Zap! That made-a-mistake feeling stays with you for hours. Meanwhile, the imagined audience, who never really noticed in the first place, has moved on to other business of the day, in which, shockingly, you do not play a starring role.

This is good news.

The humble and highly reassuring fact that we should be brushing our teeth with three times a day is that no one cares. Not in that way. Now, if you instead had stumbled and dropped that double decaf "lafté," people would have swooped in to help. Fact is, once you make it past middle school, people mostly care in good ways, in the ways we need. People aren't on the sidelines judging our lives with the clipboard and whistle, and neither should we. Mistakes, hiccups, guffaws, even awkward silences are the order of the day. At any given moment they are happening to millions across the globe. It's not personal, not a deep, permanent flaw: It's just part of being alive.

So, with apologies to Mr. Jefferson: We are the ones who perpetuate the unhelpful view that we are on display and that all the world is watching. But we don't have to. We can instead choose to duck out from under the stage lights and realize that the idea that life is a high-stakes performance exists only in our own heads. And nota bene, if we do insist on focusing on what the audience is seeing rather than focusing on what we're doing, well, chances are we might actually not do as well. You can't be on stage and in the audience at the same time, time travel being what it is these days.

Whether it's "order panic" that beleaguers you, or performances with a higher degree of difficulty, maybe even those with actual audiences who have bought tickets or are missing episodes of Mad Men to see you, know two things: First, you are not alone. Public speaking tops the charts from every fear survey since the beginning of number-crunching time. Second: These moments don't have to be terrible, and could even be enjoyable if you heed one important detail. From athletes to virtuosos, making peace with your audience inevitably comes down to one thing: forgetting they are there. Except at the end, with the applause, at which point, your eyes and your heart should open wide.

Public speaking and other performance situations can breed fear in the hearts of the most decorated men and women, and can set those decorated hearts racing. But the moments that we dread are usually ones that we are supremely qualified to handle, if only the amygdala (the hub of the brain's fight-or-flight system) in an effort to protect us from threat, wasn't actually creating more of it by holding our minds and tongues hostage.

It's not the situation that's the problem — the task is easily in your range. The problem is your overzealous worry system that has you gearing up for an attack.

How do we turn off the alarms and do our best work? Whether we are asking where the bananas are at the supermarket, asking someone out on a date, or singing Puccini, remember that this isn't about performing and being judged, it's an opportunity to connect on the most basic level. And that's what we all want. And that's what we all do.

Here are five strategies to not let your amygdala ruin your day.

Stay in Your Time Zone: The Present: What's the best use of your time, 15 minutes of catastrophizing or 15 minutes of planning to succeed? When you have an upcoming event, don't project into the future doing the preview and cringe of worst case scenarios that aren't likely to happen, stay in the here and now and do your job. Try something novel, focus on what you actually need to do right now to make things turn out better: practice, get advice, get sleep. This is what athletes do. Putting on their game face doesn't mean focusing on winning or losing, it's warming up, concentrating on their feet, their swing, or their form. So stay in the present and give yourself the gift of being prepared, not scared.

Think Process Not Perfect: When we do an event-in-review in our minds, we freeze frame on what we wish we'd done better or differently, and completely overlook the overall impression we've made based on all those (forgettable to us) moments that worked out just fine. Not every moment is a standalone spot-check of our self-worth. Lower the stakes, not the standards. We aren't judged by single snapshots; we all have those moments that are less than flattering, but we are more than that. The feature-length films of our lives contain the good, the bad, and the ugly, and that total package adds up to something pretty great.

What's Your Mission? How do we forget about the critic? Refocus on why you're there in that moment. So you're going to your first Al-Anon meeting and dreading the introduction. Remember, big picture is that you're there to get support. And the people you're talking to want to give it. Or, at a job interview, anchor yourself with truly what you can see draws you to the job and what you'd have to offer. Giving a fundraising presentation to a parent group? Don't get hung up on the particular choice of words, focus on the meaning — that's the message. Nothing burns through panic like purpose.

Think the Best of Your Audience and Focus on the Best, Too: OK, let's say you can't forget that your audience is there. Fine. But if that's the case, then remember who they really are. Chances are they are not hungry wolves waiting to attack you, given the fact that they want or need to hear what you have to say. Yes, there will always be the grumpy person here and there, but not every bell tolls for thee. The guy snoring in the front row is tired. The cranky, know-it-all guy in the fourth row was that way before you came along, and will continue to be that way long after you pack up and head home. So as you are looking out at the sea of faces, make good choices. Fix your gaze on the smiling faces who are nodding their heads in agreement or tapping their feet to your beat, rather than the ones that are shaking their heads or busying themselves with their Blackberries.

Finesse the Flaws: I'm OK, You're OK: A grade-school music teacher conveyed one of the most basic lessons of life, as often happens in those tender years: If you make a mistake during a performance, as long as you don't jump up and down pointing to yourself accusingly and have your facial expression or gestures say in so many words "That was me!" then the audience will not even notice. Beyond that, as adults, we can learn how to finesse a mistake to our advantage: Find a humorous excuse and join with your audience rather than seeing them as the madding crowd, say: "Let's try that again," or, "Oh — this could be a very unfortunate moment, let's all pretend that didn't happen, OK?" Then keep going, and people will see what a cool, well-adjusted person you are who knows full well that a small glitch or stumble over words barely scratches the surface of your vast, limitless self-worth. Or, if you're not quite up for that interpretation, know that you will have totally faked them out. Bravo! Well done.

This concept of leading the way through a mistake was demonstrated to me, unforgettably, a few years ago at a rock concert. Russian-born singer-songwriter Regina Spektor was performing at the Electric Factory, a gritty venue for diehard fans in Philadelphia. In the middle of an amazing show, Regina suddenly forgot the words to the song she was singing. Without missing a beat, she gestured the microphone out to the audience and we were more than happy to fill in. No one was judging Regina at that moment, I'm pretty sure we all felt like her new best friend. Not wanting to merely leave it at Wow, that was a close call!, Regina took that moment to a new destination. At the end of the song, she said, "This is so exciting! I made the biggest mistake of my tour... in PHILADELPHIA!!" The crowd went wild. Yes we were watching, and by dint of a few forgotten lyrics, we all connected in that moment, and it was even more sublime.

©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2012, Previously published on Huffington Post

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