Does worry help us as performers?

Does the thought of going on stage excite you? Does it strike fear to your very soul, or is it a combination of the two that you feel? Performers often have mixed emotions and can worry a surprising amount about performing, but does our worrying help us?

This is a question that has come up in in my coaching quite a lot recently. So let’s start at the beginning. What is worry and why do we do it?

People who don’t stand up in public often say to those that do things like ‘I don’t know how you do it, how you get up in public and do what you do.’ When they say this they are generally talking about the decision to stand up in front of people in the first place, to put themselves in the spotlight to be judged and risk making a fool of themselves, when instead you could hide away. They just don’t see why anyone would do it.

I work with people whose jobs necessarily involve standing up in public, whether to sing, argue in court, or present at a meeting. These people often have a drive to do what they do; a passion even. For them standing up in front of people itself is not the issue.

Their nerves are not about not wanting to put themselves out there, but about loving putting themselves out there, knowing how amazing it feels, yet terrified that this time it won’t work. It’s about wanting to shine, and believing you can, but fearing you won’t and that people will judge you harshly, and think you a fool. They face a conflict. The battle between knowing, loving and wanting the highs of adrenalin they get when they do what they do well, versus the fear of being tripped up by their own fears and insecurities about failing in public.

I know that I have felt that so often in court and on stage. The exhilaration of an effective piece of cross examination, or the joy of a well executed closing speech only being matched by the sting of a cutting remark by a judge, or the realisation that I forgot an incisive, case winning question just as I had sat down.

For most of us who have chosen a career which necessarily involves the spotlight, not only do we want to stand out, and stand out for the right reasons, presenting ourselves in public is actually a driving force in our lives. Not to show off, but to serve, we want to serve people, serve the music, serve a purpose; and we feel that the best way we can do this by putting ourselves out there; connecting, persuading, entertaining, helping.

Even for the most accomplished, talented, adept performer, barrister, or public speaker, the possibility of bad performances or presentations is always there, and we have all felt the pain and embarrassment of a public mistake. In fact the better you are, the harder failure can hit you.

I always remember the most stressful cases to argue in court were the ones you believed you had a real chance of winning. With plenty of arguments and facts in your favour, if you don’t win then you feel that it is you that have failed. A bit like penalties in football, no one expects the goalie to save a penalty or the striker to miss, so if the goalie succeeds he is a hero; the onus is on the striker to score, and if he doesn’t, he will often feel he’s failed. The closer success is, the more achievable it is, the bigger we feel our role is in any failure.

So how do we manage that friction? How do we deal with the stress of the competing emotions? The desire for, and pleasure in, achieving success, versus the fear of, and risk involved in, messing up.

This is where worry comes in.

In the past I have looked at the relationship between the conscious mind and our desire to control the risk of public failure. Ekhart Tolle in ‘The Power of Now’ or Tim Gallwey in ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ would say it was a process in which the conscious mind, or ego, is trying to get involved and control a situation where it has no role. Worrying about whether you will remember a certain section of your presentation won’t help you remember it. Practice might, notes might, prompting slides might. Worrying won’t. What it will do is cause tension and self-awareness that can only harm the way we process and perform.

Worry is the conscious mind trying to think and rethink how to protect ourselves.

Worry necessarily implies anxiety or fear, it also involves the feeling of impotence. We worry about others when something bad might happen to them, and we feel that there is nothing we can do to help; we worry about what others might think of us, that the judge might not like our arguments or the audience will not appreciate us. We can change our performance but we can’t directly change what people think. These are all things beyond our control. Worry is an attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Nevertheless we often see worry as preparation. If we worry about everything then we will be ready, we will be our best. If we worry through the performance we will achieve our best. I had a client once who said to me that she was concerned that if she gave up worrying, she might not be as good as she was.

The interesting thing about worry is that, when we worry, our focus is on us, our role in the proceedings, the mistakes we might make, where we might fail and in what way, and what people (including ourselves) will think of our performance?
I watched Bridge of Spies over the holidays and my favourite line is when Tom Hanks (the American lawyer) comments that the Russian spy (played by Mark Rylance), doesn’t appear to be worrying, to which the spy responds, “Would it help?” It actually comes twice, one of the situations is where they are discussing whether the judge might order the death penalty. Clearly his worrying about this will have absolutely no effect on the sentence. It is totally beyond his control.

Brené Brown would talk about the difference between guilt and shame, the difference between making a mistake and being wrong in yourself. Intelligent people make mistakes, it doesn’t make them stupid or failures. Shame is ‘I am wrong,’ guilt is ‘I did something wrong.’ Shame is about the ego, about us and how people view us. Guilt is about the action, it is easier to change what we do than to change who we are.

If we take the anxiety, impotence and ego out of worry, what we are left with is a simple consideration of the situation, an assessment of what you are capable of changing and what is beyond your control.

So how do we use this to improve?

Tim Gallwey would talk about the use of non-judgmental observation. How we can look at what is going on without deeming it or us as good or bad, merely interesting. Something you might wonder as to why it is happening. This takes the focus of the ego and our role in things and directs it at the process as a process.

But how do we keep the conscious mind from butting in and worrying? Tim would talk about finding a distraction for the conscious mind, so that it has something to do instead of worry.

So what would happen if instead of worrying about failing or making a fool of ourselves, we refocus onto the goal of whatever presentation we are making.

When we present ourselves to an audience, whether peers or public, in a concert hall, court or meeting room, our primary intention is not generally to show off our talents. If it is, I would argue we are doing the audience and our clients a disservice, and we are unlikely to get the best response from them or result for us.

So, what is your primary intention? It may be to argue your case successfully and persuade a judge to rule in your client’s favour, or to convince colleagues to join you in an enterprise, or to truly and wholeheartedly communicate a song or piece to an audience. For any one of these, consider what happens to your thoughts when your focus moves to the audience.
Instead of thinking, “Have I argued this well enough?” you might think, “What else does the judge need to hear to understand?” Similarly in a business scenario, instead of wondering what they think of you and how you are presenting things, you can think about what else they need to know to understand what a brilliant opportunity this is. This way it becomes about the message, not the messenger, and there is a much better chance of the message being heard and understood.

The ego and the worry about our role in things gets between us and the audience seeing and appreciating our message, whether that is a character and story, or a persuasive argument. If we are worrying what people think of us, that is what they will see: our worry. This necessarily stops them wholeheartedly believing in the character we are trying to be, the story we are trying to tell, or the argument we are trying to present. It means we are focusing on ourselves and our ego, rather than on the true purpose of our performance.

So the next time you are putting yourself out there and you think you are going to worry about it, ask yourself “Would it help?” and more importantly, does it help your audience if you worry?


p.s. If you’d like to find out more about how life coaching could give you a new perspective on life, then get in touch for a free discovery session

Join my Mailing List