As I walked back into the testing centre building to find my driving instructor, he looked at me with expectant eyes, and I just shook my head and looked down as a tear ran down my cheek. I had failed my driver’s license practical exam yet again, for the third time.

Breaking the silence as he drove me home, my instructor was encouraging and reminded me that I knew how to drive, I just had to remain calm enough to show the examiner. And he’d make the booking for me to try again.

I wanted so much to get my license, and yet my performance anxiety was so high, I just kept making what seemed stupid mistakes that led to me failing the test repeatedly.

Oh, if I only knew then what I know now!

What is Performance Anxiety

5 tips to prevent stage frightHave you ever experienced something similar too? Where you know you know your stuff, or can do the skill so easily (especially when alone), yet as soon as someone starts watching you, or even more so when that someone needs to evaluate your ability, it’s like a switch trips and all your circuits fry and malfunction – all at the same time.

Performance anxiety, also known as ‘stage fright’ is:

“…the anxiety, fear, or persistent phobia which may be aroused in an individual by the requirement to perform in front of an audience, whether actually or potentially (for example, when performing before a camera)” – Wikipedia

Your circuits might tend to fry when:

  • You’re writing an exam, often when it’s an important one like a Board exam, or if you’ve failed it before
  • An ability is being evaluated, (like my driving skills example)
  • You need to give a speech or do an important presentation, especially if your boss is in the audience
  • Writing an article that will have a large audience
  • You’re about to compete, like as an athlete
  • You’re about to give a performance, as an actor, singer or artist, and when the camera turns to you
  • You feel you need to perform in bed, even!

5 Tips to Prevent Performance Anxiety

What I’ve learnt about preventing performance anxiety in the first place, that I would have said to my younger self all those years ago, is the following:

1. Take your sense of worth off the table

When we link our sense of self worth to what we are doing, it creates such pressure because we feel that we ourselves – our core sense of value – is being tested, not just our skill or expression. So by not putting our sense of worth on the table, so to speak, we can then take a lot of pressure off of our self, and rather focus on the skill at hand.

To do this, we need to understand that our self esteem or worth is unconditional, and is related to our beingness, and that our doing is an expression of this beingness, and thus is where we can place judgement as to our doing’s worth or usefulness. This is a far more useful mindset of not testing our core value, and helps us perform at our best, and want to develop our abilities even more.

2. How much meaning are you giving to this?

Meaning is an interesting thing, in that it’s all created in our mind. The meanings we give to things effect how we then value and relate to those things. So if we give too much meaning to the demonstration of an ability or skill we have (like making it the end of the world if we fail, or that it defines us) then we ourselves are adding the pressure to perform. If we also give in to perfectionism (believing we have to do perfect to be perfect) we are aiming for an unattainable standard, and that doesn’t help much either.

It’s far more useful to aim for excellence, or even a ‘good enough’ standard for the context we’re in, and aim to give our best in the moment, knowing that we can always improve, and for today, we’ll do our best from our current level of mastery.

3. Where are you focusing?

Often what can happen (and this plays out in self consciousness too!) is that we put our focus and energy on the audience, or the person evaluating us, and are so concerned with what they may be thinking about us, that we don’t focus on the task at hand, or on the content of the message we know so well and want to convey.

Thus, a key to preventing performance anxiety is to focus on what you are doing or saying, and not on what others might be thinking or feeling about what you are doing. This allows you to have all your energy (emotional, intellectual and physical) focused on the doing. Later on you can reflect, if needed, on the feedback from the audience.

4. Confidence comes from practice. Have you prepared enough?

Confidence is a conditional state of mind and body – you have to do, and do often, to develop confidence in your ability to do that doing, to develop confidence in your muscle memory of that skill. In other words, practice repeatedly and do the preparation you need, and your confidence will be there and keep growing. Don’t prepare, don’t rehearse, and you will feel the lack of confidence.

If you know you’ve practiced and prepared, and still feel anxious, I’m guessing the anxiety is coming from one of the other points on this list.

5. A little nervousness is useful

Emotions are useful. They are! They are signals that tell us where we need to prepare more, or put up a boundary, or change course, or even if we are on the right course, and can keep going.

Nervousness, even a little anxiety or fear, are just the uncomfortable emotions (uncomfortable so that they get our full attention!) that are telling us that what we are about to do is new, or has some significance to it (yet hopefully not too much significance, as per point 1 above.) And these emotions are also telling us that we need to prepare, be fully present, put on our best mindset, and still go for it!

And if you’ve worked through the other points on this list, you just might find that right along with the nervousness, is excitement too!

For next time

On the morning of my fourth attempt I woke with a mantra in my head – “I can drive, I will show them” – or something like that. And all I focused on for the next while – until I found myself running to find my instructor and waving my license in my hand – was the skill of driving.

Looking back I laugh at myself (and I hope you are joining me!) and how I applied my undeveloped state management and meaning making skills and finally showed that examiner what a fine and capable driver I was.

Now, I am about to go through the process of getting my motorbike license! So wish me luck, as I apply the above and aim to get that piece of paper the first time round!