Why do we get stage fright? (part 1)
Why do we get stage fright? (part 1)
When I was young, stage fright plagued me. I came to know my voice as a dear friend that I could never rely on. In the kitchen at home my voice would be with me, strong and clear and easy, but when asked to perform at a wedding or sing on stage at the crucial moment I would get performance anxiety and that strong voice would abandon me, leaving a raspy and tight chord in its place, like a clarinet with a broken reed.
I used to like to sing in school hallways at recess, my voice bouncing off the empty linoleum corridors; in fact, I could sing anywhere impromptu whether people were around or not, so long as it wasn’t on a stage, where Captain Performance Pressure would always enter suddenly from stage left and put me in an invisible choke hold, tightening its grasp with every newly croaked bung note. Performance Anxiety or Stage Fright made its first appearance in my early teens and made consistent appearances thereafter, yet today I regularly talk or sing in front of hundreds of people and I rarely get nervous about it. So what changed? I didn’t have any kind of training – there was no focus on ‘how I would be on stage’ or ‘performance technique’ in any way.
Learning the true nature of confidence
I discovered that confidence was not something obtained from ‘being good at what you do’, but from knowing who you are. Because the fact was, I was naturally a ‘good’ singer – I had a strong and sweet sounding voice and people generally encouraged me to sing. Despite this, I did not feel confident when I walked onto a stage. So why not?
It wouldn’t be until I was 30 that I would figure it out. In a vocal lesson with a singing teacher I felt how, when I sang for an audience, there would be a ‘voice’ that would come in and start to mentally analyse my every move, judging my ‘performance’ in real time, and under this self-critical gaze I would crumble.
So how to grapple with the critical self-talk? Surely some Positive self-talk? Affirmations mentally repeated to keep the inner-critic at bay? No. This I had been trying all my life without success.
What I learned is that the answer was not going to come from thinking my way out of it. The liberation from the criticism would actually come from my body.
My singing teacher suggested we do a very short Gentle Breathe meditation. During this process I was encouraged to be present – consciously aware and connected with my body, and was given the opportunity to let go of any tightness and tension I was holding. I sank into my body fairly quickly.
We started with a hum and the hum became a note and all the while my body stayed the same. And I felt an ease and fullness in my voice. I stayed present with my body and the expression was easy. This was how I felt when I sang in the kitchen with no thought of how I might sound to others.
But then I started to sing words. And there it was, the mental analysis creeping in and my voice taking a step back.
What had happened?
Then it struck me. I had lost my presence by getting lost in my head. I had started to think about what I was doing and in that I had abandoned my presence with my body. Without this connection to my body I had lost my confidence immediately. I was scattered. I felt fragmented. Like I was trying to be in two places at once; like I was trying to deliver the note at the same time as being my own armchair critic. How could there be fullness in the expression when I was halving my attention between two different actions?
Confidence = Presence
I remembered a presentation by Serge Benhayon in which he had presented the possibility that Confidence equals Presence.
Benhayon is an international public speaker who has never had need for a script or a plan and yet he walks on the stage with an almost unshakeable confidence. He explained that this is because he brings the same presence to the stage that he has off stage. In that presence with the body, the words that are required simply come – as effortlessly as breathing. They are there without any strategising, no different than the way in which you do not have to plan your next inhalation. So I came back to being present with my body and back to a simple note. And there was a feeling of wholeness. My voice came back.
This time when I started to sing the words, I stayed with my body, I felt my fingertips and hands resting delicately on my thighs and the in-breath at the tip of my nose. The words were there and the voice was full. No ‘split process’, no competition with interfering thoughts, analysis and the perfectionist’s critique.
Through this exercise I came to learn that if I was present with my body off stage that same presence would remain when I walked onto the stage. However, if I lived in the raciness of my mind in my day to day, and in the ‘dual processing’ mode of unnecessarily over-analysing things, I was certainly numb to my body. Then when it came to getting on stage I would feel anxious, I would have no anchor to my body and to my presence. And it occurred to me that anxiety isn’t an invisible force that comes in suddenly, it can only ever come in through a series of doors you have left open – a series of choices to disconnect from being present with yourself that comes way before the anxiety makes an appearance at all.
Through the Gentle Breathe Meditation I came to learn more about Presence and the true nature of confidence, and Stage Fright and Performance Anxiety are now no longer a mystery to me, they are simply an indicator that I can have more connection and presence in my everyday life.