How to Manage Stage Fright: Not Just For Musicians

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Musicians aren’t the only people prone to stage fright. Any act of creation is a performance. Your work is your performance. Writers, designers, sculptors, etc., all know that the things they make will end up in front of people who will inevitably judge them. Sometimes the feedback will be immediate; other times it could come weeks, months, even years later.

While we hope that our work will be received with laurels and accolades, we secretly imagine that we (and our work) will be criticized, condemned, shamed, ridiculed, and mocked in front of the whole world.

Terrifying stuff!

Yet, as we’ve already covered, we are our own harshest critics and our fear of failure does more to stop us than any actual audience member ever could. We also know that the brain does all kinds of things to protect itself from perceived (read: imaginary) threats. Let’s take a closer look at stage fright.

What is Stage Fright?

Stage fright manifests itself in various ways, but most commonly it shows up as:

  • Anxiety Everything you felt on your first date…multiplied by ten. Sweaty palms, nausea, etc.
  • Procrastination Screwing off in order to avoid the perceived dangers of public ridicule.
  • Self-doubt We imagine that we aren’t good enough to create anything people might actually appreciate.
  • Perfectionism By spending weeks or years trying to get something ‘right,’ we use this as an excuse to avoid performing.

Why Do We Get Stage Fright?

  • Lack of experience This is tricky, because there’s only one way to get experience. Getting experience can be uncomfortable, but the wisdom that comes from experience is priceless and worth any minor, temporary pain.
  • Caring too Much Anything we create is close to our hearts. We hate to imagine it being torn down like a sand castle.
  • Having an Overactive imagination By imagining all the things that could go wrong, we miss opportunities to let things go well.
  • Having an Overpowering inner critic This voice tells us everything we create is shit and we should consider a career in fast food.
  • Fear of ridicule No one except fools and comedians like to be laughed at. Stage fright is our mind’s way of telling us that we are running the risk of being publicly mocked and shamed.

How to Manage and Overcome  Stage Fright

  • Remember the Hardest Thing You’ve Ever Done By comparison, whatever performance you’re putting on will seem easy. People tell me this is more effective than barbiturates.
  • Channel the Anxiety Turn your nervous energy into performance energy. When you see performers bouncing around on stage, they’re probably making the most of their stage fright.
  • Write About It Imagine the very worst case scenario and you’ll realize that one rotten performance won’t result in an earth-shattering cataclysm.
  • Be Brave Putting your work in front of the world requires a certain amount of fortitude. You must be prepared to defend your work and deal with any negative backlash. But remember that the critics you imagine are worse that the one’s you’ll face.
  • Fake Confidence If you’re really terrified, pretend you’re someone else, more confident and experienced. You’ll probably convince your audience. You might even convince yourself.
  • Separate Your Work from Your Self Remember that you are not your work. Your work is only something you created. Even if something you make ‘fails,’ that doesn’t make you a failure. We all have a right to fail smashingly.
  • Ignore Critics and Doubters Everyone is a critic, but that doesn’t mean they have anything useful to say. Criticism usually isn’t personal. One caveat: if you hear the same criticism over and over again from different sources, you should pay attention.
  • Challenge Your Conception of Critics In most cases, the only legitimacy they have is in your own mind. If you can see critics for who they really are, they won’t seem so scary.
  • Have Confidence In your Preparation After you have put in days and weeks and years working on your craft, after you have practiced to the best of your abilities, you have to trust yourself that are ready.
  • Use a Pen or Stage Name Some people find this an effective way to separate their performing self from their personal self.
  • Go Easy On Yourself We all do silly things sometimes. It’s no big deal. If something you do doesn’t work, call it an experience and move on.
  • Imagine Wild Success Most Olympic athletes use some kind of visualization. You should, too. Imagine yourself giving a perfectly executed performance. Include all the sensory details you can.
  • Relax! Performing should be fun for both you and the audience. Chill out. Try deep breathing, meditation, brisk walking, or kicking cardboard boxes; whatever works for you.

Over to You:

  • How do you deal with stage fright and performance anxiety?
  • Looking back, was your first date really that terrifying?

photo credit: DerrickT

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Margaret Polk January 7, 2010, 8:48 am

    Hi! As I read this article, Seth, I thought how it applies to almost any professional career path a person chooses. As a classroom teacher, I always considered my classroom my stage. Even though I could visually see the “feedback” during the academic year, I knew the real end result would not be realized until years later…just as you stated. Keep writing & I’ll keep reading!

  • GarethB January 13, 2010, 4:54 am

    Some useful tips here. Absolutely agree with:

    1. Having a “pen” name to separate yourself from the performer you want to be. This can free you up mentally/emotionally and help you shake the chains of stage fright

    2. Faking confidence (’til you make it). The very act of pretending to behave the way you want to feel (confident), will in time make you feel confident.

    3. Imagining succes. Not only will this “programme” you to succeed but having “seen” success ahead of time performers will be more relaxed about the event when it comes around. Only proviso here would be to to start the imaginings well ahead of the event. Otherwise you can get too uptight when you think about it.

    4. Prepare well. I would also recommend preparing for what you’ll do if things do go wrong and having some “off the cuff” remarks you can fall back on in case you “dry up”

  • Anonymous March 2, 2011, 5:16 pm

    Hey Ells, I’m glad you liked the article. Every musician or performer, if they care about their craft at all, experiences some kind of stage fright. It’s just part of the game. Some people manage it better than others.

    As for going easy on yourself, I just saw an article in the NY Times about this very topic.

    Thanks for reading (and for the link!)