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Overcoming Performance Anxiety: Don't Think of It As A Performance

 

"Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching." -- Thomas Jefferson

Yikes. Is that a solution, or the DSM-IV definition of social anxiety disorder?

The house lights dim, the stage is dark save for one spotlight, the kind that follows your every move. You stand up to your moment -- your big moment -- to make a difference. OK, so maybe you're just standing up to order your morning coffee. But the words fail you, your tongue ties, and in a fury you find that your jumbled mind has just ordered the nonexistent: double decaf lafté... No! No!, I mean, I meant latté! Double decaf latté! The crowd laughs wildly (in your head). Zap! That made a mistake feeling stays with you for hours. Meanwhile, the imagined audience, who never really noticed in the first place, has moved on to other business of the day, in which, shockingly, you do not play a starring role.

This is good news.

The humble and highly reassuring fact that we should be brushing our teeth with three times a day is that no one cares. Not in that way. Now, if you instead had stumbled and dropped that double decaf "lafté," people would have swooped in to help. Fact is, once you make it past middle school, people mostly care in good ways, in the ways we need. People aren't on the sidelines judging our lives with the clipboard and whistle, and neither should we. Mistakes, hiccups, guffaws, even awkward silences are the order of the day. At any given moment they are happening to millions across the globe. It's not personal, not a deep, permanent flaw: it's just part of being alive.

So, with apologies to Mr. Jefferson: We are the ones who perpetuate the unhelpful view that we are on display and that all the world is watching. But we don't have to. We can instead choose to duck out from under the stage lights and realize that the idea that life is a high-stakes performance exists only in our own heads. And nota bene, if we do insist on focusing on what the audience is seeing rather than focusing on what we're doing, well, chances are we might actually not do as well. You can't be on stage and in the audience at the same time, time travel being what it is these days.

Whether it's "order panic" that beleaguers you, or performances with a higher degree of difficulty, maybe even those with actual audiences who have bought tickets or are missing episodes of Mad Men to see you, know two things: First, you are not alone. Public speaking tops the charts from every fear survey since the beginning of number-crunching time. Second: These moments don't have to be terrible, and could even be enjoyable if you heed one important detail. From athletes to virtuosos, making peace with your audience inevitably comes down to one thing: forgetting they are there. Except at the end, with the applause, at which point, your eyes and your heart should open wide.

To read the full article, including the five strategies to overcome performance anxiety, click here.