When performance anxiety rears its ugly head

I’ve had three experiences lately that have triggered performance anxiety for me. Two assignments, where I’ve delivered a project to someone else, and one where I’m sharing my work with other people in a public forum. Now you might think I’d be over that by now, given that I’m writing publicly every week, teaching classes, and coaching on the spot all the time. I’m in a constant practice of “performing” or being in the spotlight.

But the truth is, that whenever we venture into new territory, our fears and doubts about our ability to “deliver” can come cropping up fairly quickly. I’ve observed that performance anxiety tends to come up as a result of three things:

  1. We’re trying something new.
  2. We’re holding high expectations about the quality of the work we “should” be delivering.
  3. Other people are holding high expectations about our work as well (or we believe they are).

Performance anxiety tends to trigger an inner conversation (if we’re even conscious of it, which we might not be) that goes something like this: “What if I let them down? What if it’s not as good as they expect? What if I can’t live up to their expectations? What if I can’t live up to my own expectations?”

And that conversation in turn tends to leads to paralysis, perfectionism, and procrastination — the three Ps of writing doom.

What’s your mindset?

As I was noticing this behavior in myself as well as the inner conversation about it, I was reminded of Carol Dweck’s book on Mindset* that I’ve been reading lately.

In it, she describes interesting scenarios under which people demonstrate either a fixed or growth mindset. The sports examples particularly resonated for me.

In one example, she talked about how John McEnroe, a tennis player famous for his on-court temper tantrums, illustrated the fixed mindset perfectly. The minute anything would go wrong with his game, he was full of excuses about distractions, noises, other people, etc. It was never his fault and never his responsibility. This is very common among people who perceive themselves as talented or have the belief that other people see them as talented.

In other words, because we are so talented, we believe we shouldn’t have to work at it.

On the other hand, she also described Michael Jordon, and how after his basketball comeback, when they lost the big game of the season, he went back to the gym that night and worked on his game. He knew that he’d been resting on his laurels, thinking he could just drop back into the game after time away, and he was determined to change that — through hard work and dedication to raising the bar on his skill set.

And that’s the difference, that right there. The belief that talent and ability are fixed versus the belief that a skill set can be mastered and improved.

Strategies for dealing with performance anxiety

I’ve worked with two teachers lately who have really brought this home for me: Hal Croasmun of ScreenwritingU.com and Corey Mandell, both screenwriting instructors. Hal reminds me to have a “beginner’s mind” and to learn to be comfortable with the discomfort of growth. Corey reminds me to focus on what I’m learning, not on where I’m failing.

Ideas for dealing with performance anxiety:

  • Make growth mindset choices rather than fixed mindset choices. Keep working, learning, and growing. You’ll only get better.
  • As Hal says, be comfortable with the discomfort of growth and be willing to allow yourself to be a beginner.
  • As Corey suggests, keep your focus on what you’re learning, not on how you haven’t yet mastered the new skill you’re attempting to integrate.
  • Shift your self-talk by first recognizing that fear and doubt are coming up and helping yourself through it. “Okay, I’m worried about what other people think. What if I just let that go and focus on doing the best work I’m capable of right now, and allow myself to learn as I go?”
  • Give yourself permission to fully engage in the messy, glorious process of learning and revel in it.
  • Reward yourself for your efforts.
  • Have lots of support from your peers.
  • Be authentic about what you’re experiencing with yourself and with your peers. You’ll all benefit from it.
  • Find ways to create accountability for yourself so that you do the work, even in the face of creative anxiety.
  • Create a little extra time and space around the learning to help ease up on the pressure.

What works for you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

p.s. I haven’t forgotten that I promised last week to write more about creative identity — and I will, soon! Stay tuned. :)

 

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Comments

  1. Hi Jenna. I teach adults something that involves befriending a tradition, much like befriending the water in order to learn to swim. Some failure is required in order to learn. Many adults, particularly perfectionists like me, struggle with this. I have learned that making the process fun helps. Helping students remember their childlike playfulness is important. Maintaining the heart of a beginner becomes its own type of practice, and trying new endeavors is part of it. Other elements are allowing myself to be vulnerable; asking for honest feedback and carefully processing it; and keeping myself grounded in a spiritual practice. I think humility is an important element. True humility comes with knowing when I am powerful and when I rely upon my Higher Power for a power far beyond my own ability.

  2. Sean says:

    I think, from what i understand, not letting criticism waylay you is really important because it seems to get in the way of growing as a writer. Im one of the more sensitive types that happen to be out there (translation: im darn lazy), so when i hear someone tell me you dont know what youre doing it throws me off, even when other people enjoy what ive happened to write, and furthermore even more when ironically i got a good reception in a situation of heavy performance anxiety inducement ( a party where i was the only one telling a story). I guess it comes down to again areb you going to be accountable, and like jordan take the criticism and respond to in the growth way. Thats probably a good enough lesson for life too.

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