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HypnoCast Educational Series
Dr. Gordon Goodman
Some of you have found this page because you're suffering debilitating stage fright. This page and its contents should help you. It's become an emotional issue for you and that's the problem. Treat stage fright coldly. Logically. Don't make it more than it is. Stage fright only has a few moving parts. You can't always control the environment but you do have at least some control over how you train and how complex you make the performance. The two mental parts are: 1. Evaluation or perceived evaluation and 2. a feeling of uncontrollability. Take away any chance of evaluation by others, or have confidence that you have complete control over your performance and stage fright disappears.
There are many emotional factors involved in stage fright, so I'd shy away from anyone who is not an expert in some area of human performance. There is a lot of nonsense floating around on the net, and everyone and their pet monkey seems willing to give you advice, but few are truly qualified.
Here's the straight scoop: you are an animal, born with animal instincts, but possessing a rather large brain. A brain just big enough to get you in trouble. Our ability to imagine results in brilliant discoveries and artistic masterpeices, as well as a bunch of crazy beliefs that cause wacky destructive behavior. Stage fright is a combination of physiological and cognitive factors. The source of all stage fright or performance anxiety is the fear that what you do in front of people will be embarrassing and conflict with the image you have of yourself and the image you want to present to others. If the performance goes perfectly all those fears are for naught. Ironically, the fears themselves can disrupt a perfect performance. It's our ability to imagine. Our human ability. So you might want to think of performance as something even a rat, horse, or elephant can do. Let go of the ability to imagine for a while and be like the trained elephant. Train until you don't have to think about the task to perform it. Train until the performance becomes automatic. Then treat it like some boring job that you do over and over, day in day out, just going thru the motions. Then when you feel like some adventure, add more and more to the performance.
For the most part, treat bouts of stage fright coldly and without emotion. If you have stage fright, some threat is hanging around somewhere. Look for the source of the threat and, like a scientist, or an auto mechanic, fix it at the source, not the symptom. I say that even though beta-blockers do relieve physiological symptoms for a lot of people. They block catecholamines like epinephrine (adrenaline) that makes us shake and makes our heart pound, and I'm not against using them. Sometimes getting rid of the shakes, queezy stomach, sweaty palms, is enough to bring back a feeling of control. There's no reason for them long-term if you train smart and adjust the difficulty of your performance to the situation. More on that later..
I'm also in favor of cognitive behavioral therapy and in many cases straight behavioral therapy. Alexander technique, hypnosis, biofeedback, meditation...any of these things may help you as well. Alcohol is the most commonly used drug for stage fright, always has been, but it's a drug that sneaks up on people and ruins careers in the long run (as well as lives). So so yourself a favor and stay away from it. If you need help, try beta-blockers just to get a handle on it and then ween yourself off it. Sometime antidepressants work too. Do what works, what makes sense. Percieved control over your performance, the belief that it will go just as exactly as you want it to can end stage fright in its tracks. Performing is not meant to be painful. It's meant to be challenging and fun. If it's painful, something's wrong. Look at the situation coldly and methodically. Like a vacuume cleaner, or a gas dryer there are only so many moving parts. Dissect your anxiety. Examine where you are, what threats are out there. If performing is uncomfortable, look for what's causing the problem and fix it in a systematic mechanical way. Otherwise your imagination will take you down a long goose chase and you may never get back to what you're supposed to be doing - performing.
IF YOU HAVE STAGE FRIGHT YOU EITHER:
Have too much at stake
Are trying to perform a complicated task when there's too much distraction
Have had past failures and fear you'll fail again
Have a behavioral system that's hyper-sensitive
Have faulty beliefs about your ability, about the situation, or about the world
Or all of the above...
Stage fright stems from a built-in mechanism available on all human makes and models. It's natural, necessary, and essentially works like threat radar. Threatening situations, real or imagined, trigger autonomic alarm systems. Those systems get us ready to fight or flee. When we notice our body in alarm mode, we know something's up and start to worry. The autonomic alarm system and the substances it emits aren't really the problem. The problem comes when we add thinking to the mix. Worry and manufacturing imaginary scenarios takes a lot of brain power away from whatever we're doing. We only have so much attention as it is...and if that gets pulled away by worry and imaginary negative results - we won't have enough brain power left to concentrate on the task we're performing.
Since we all have those built-in alarm systems - why do some people get stage fright and others not? I've worked with people who have been on Broadway, or in front of a camera for years, and public speakers who regularly feel as if they are jumping off a cliff before every performance. I've worked with performers who are on their cell phone talking to friends 15 seconds before they walk out on stage and on again 15 seconds after they leave, because being in front of an audience holds no danger at all. Some of this has to do with genetic differences. Extraverts tend to have an easier time. Some of it has to do with gender too. Females seem to show more physical signs of stage fright. None of these factors stop performers however. There are plenty of women and introverts in sports, public speaking, and the arts, and they do just fine. So don't start thinking you're doomed.
Mostly, performing anything enjoyably has to do with confidence. Our level of confidence TRANSLATES every situation we encounter. High confidence translates even the most difficult situations into something challenging or exciting - not threatening. Low confidence translates even the most routine situations into threatening ones. So, how do we build confidence. Just by doing. We need proof before we whole-heartedly believe. That seems like a catch-22, but by simplifying your task as much as possible, so simple that it can't go wrong, we can slowly build confidence enough to perform complex tasks. Use gimmicks, cheats, cues, notes, anything to make it simple. Then add more and more to make it challenging. Eventually, as in professional sports, you want to know that your success is yours alone. No drugs, no cheats. But until you get going do what you have to. Get some proof that you're not going to implode. Then performing starts becoming fun. The art of performing ANYTHING comes, not at the beginning, but when you're confident enough to start challenging yourself to do even better. If you're worried about whether you're even going to get thru the task, you aren't going to have a good time. You will though, later, when you gain proof enough. Then confidence will start translating your performing situations as an exciting challenge instead of a threat.
HERE ARE A FEW STEPS THAT WILL HELP MOST OF YOU:
1. Prepare until you're bored. You do not want to be under-prepared, that's just begging for failure. Don't beg for failure. Plus, you don't want to create failures because they haunt us. Having past memories of incompetence and embarrassment can create stage fright in the future. It takes a lot of success to get those past failures out of our head. So do your work. Don't think about it. Don't think about how much time you're spending training. Just do it over and over until you can do it in your sleep.
2. If your task is threatening, simplify it until it's not. One of the biggest components of stage fright is uncontrollability. Get control back by simplifying. This means reading your speech instead of memorizing, doing a double spinning jump on the ice instead of a triple, lowering the high note if you're a singer, or placing your lines all around the stage if you're an actor. Simplify the task until you feel a physical sigh. You'll know when you no longer feel threatened. It's a real tangeable feeling. Sometimes simplifying isn't possible. I don't think I'd want someone operating on my brain to simplify things. When you can't simplify, eliminate anything that can cause distraction. Practice at the site of the event. Practice with a similar podium, similar lighting. Anything different that you encounter while performing is added distraction. If you're confident about what you're doing you'll be fine. If not, you need to simplify in order to get back a feeling of control.
3. You can also make yourself immune to distraction by adding distraction to your training. As I've told so many people, there is no performance anxiety or stage fright in an empty room. But when somebody's going to judge us based on what we do... our brain starts churning up a lot worst case scenarios. This amounts to waves of distraction that can threaten to steal or interrupt our attention. The more complicated the task we're performing, the more focused attention we need. Adding distraction to your practice or rehearsal can help you become immune to distraction by the time the performance event arrives. When performances are vitally important to your ego or to your career, expect more distraction. Anticipate each situation coldly and without emotion. Determine ahead of time how much distraction you're likely to encounter and prepare for it by incorporating an appropriate amount of distraction into your training.
4. Be sincere about whatever task you're performing. If you're an athlete - your only concern is making you next effort better than ever before. If you're a dancer - your only concern is using the choreography to express that character better than ever before. If you're a public speaker - your only concern is getting across the message as clearly as possible. If you're an actor - your only concern is to be that character and venture as deeply into that character's world as possible. If you are thinking about giving your greatest performance, thinking about looking great, thinking about impressing the audience, thinking about not screwing up, thinking about whether you're too tall or too short, ...any of that garbage, you're not sincere about the task you're performing. Stop it. Do you job. Just make sure you perform it adequately. You'll only be free to give a GREAT performance, if you're confident that you can for sure give an "OK" performance.
5. Train just like they train rats and cats and killer whales. Just run the routine over and over until you don't have to think about how you do it. Make your task automatic. That way when your brain stops working, your body will keep right on going. That fact has saved preformers since the beginning of time. Performing isn't that complicated. It's not meant to be painful. If it is, you may have too much at stake, or you're not training properly. All you have to do is the task. Do it adequately. Think without emotion. Everything depends on the performance. If the performance goes okay...so will everything else. So why concentrate on the audience or what's at stake...when both of those things solely depend on the performance.
6. You can't make audiences happy, so don't try. Be yourself. Do what you do. THAT'S the best way to make them happy. Your audience may secretly want to be performing right along with you...but if they did, it would ruin their experience. You serve an audience best by separating them from whatever you're doing. When you perform, you're performing for your team, for your company, for your other dancers, other actors, or other musicians - NOT for the audience. And that's why the audience comes back again and again. Because you keep going into these performance zones and they can only get their through you. Audiences NEED to be left out of the performance so they can be transported. If you take them with you - even in your head - you ruin the experience for them and the possiblity that they WILL be transported. Don't cheat an audience if you care for them. You, as a performer are a member of an exclusive club. The audience is NOT a member of that club. You're the one who's paid the dues.
7. Stage fright is not just in your head. It's real fear. It emits all the stress hormones and adrenaline that fear emits. Shaking hands, and queezy stomach, and cold sweats are signs of adrenaline. But...those same symptoms occur when you're really excited about doing something fun. There is nothing wrong with adrenaline. The only difference between being really excited, and really scared, is the way your brain translates the situation. When you translate the situation as a threat, additional things occur in your body: your veins contract and cortisol is emmited. Now your body reacts as if a tiger's in the room. Your brain also starts manufacturing all these worst-case scenarios. Avoid this by simplifying the task until it's easy enough to assure you of getting through. Audiences won't notice if you just do "OK". They'll only notice if something goes drastically wrong. So use any crutch you need to make sure things go "OK". You can knock 'em dead when threat and distraction are low. Look at things without emotion. When threat is high, do the basics. When threat is low go for the gold. Be a pro and look at the situation coldly. Nobody benefits from a broken performance. Do less when distraction is high, more when distraction is low.
8. No matter who you are, there are professional performers out there right now who feel the same way you do, are going through the same things you're going through, and still perform. Doesn't matter how successful they are or how many years they've been in the business. You don't have some special form of stage fright. It's just a reaction you're body's having because there's some kind of threat - either you are afraid you'll fail, look like a fool, afraid you'll destroy your image of yourself - or you're afraid you'll destroy the image you want people to have of you. There are professionals in your field who feel the same way and still are out there performing. People screw up all the time and it rarely ends their career.
9. We have different levels of arousal that we need for different performing tasks. Rev up or rev down depending on what level of arousal you need for what you're doing. If you don't, you may feel weird...and feeling weird is just enough distraction for your tiny little mind to get pulled off track. So run in place or something to rev up. Take slow deep breaths to wind down...whatever you need.
10. Audiences don't want you to do badly. Audiences have empathy, circuitry in their brains that allows them to FEEL what other people are feeling. Tiny muscle movements in their bodies imitate what's going thru yours. So if you are embarrassed or nervous, it makes things happen in those watching. They don't want to feel badly, so they don't want you to feel badly. They want to have a good time and have fun. Audiences aren't there to judge you - even judges don't want to judge you. They want to have a good time too. They want everybody to do well - add up the points - and go home. Don't make up stuff that you think the audience is thinking about you. You'll be wrong. Then you'll be embarrassed...then they'll feel embarrassed, and it'll just be a mess.
Dr. Gordon Goodman is an expert on the psychology of live performance. Look him up on FaceBook.