Yes, this is a real thing. And, no, it’s not the thing you think it is, from some drug commercials you may have seen targeted towards middle-aged men.
Many of us experience this or know someone who has fallen victim to this, no matter your age or gender. Performance anxiety is different from the normal level of jitters and nerves you feel before a big test. It’s different from the fear of a squirrel trying to eat you. It’s more severe than the initial feelings of stage fright, although that’s where it’s been studied more extensively (Langendörfer et al., 2006; Kenny & Ackerman, 2013; Sadler & Miller, 2010).
It’s completely crippling and prevents you from performing at all. Or, if you do perform, it looks like you were never the superstar or expert people thought you were.
I have personally sabotaged months of training for a marathon because I psyched myself up so much before it even started. I ran too fast at the start, forgetting my pace training, and basically ended up being the second to last person to finish, next to someone who walked the entire thing.
I’ve seen fellow classmates awarded every school scholarship known to man, that covered every graduate school expense, including rent and probably food. Simply because they were stellar in college, yet struggled to finish every sentence of a research proposal when grad school “jitters” hit.
It’s either subconscious or conscious but the general feelings of performance anxiety include, “Everyone is watching me. Everyone is waiting for me to mess up/fail/be perfect. They’re laughing at me.” These are strong assumptions in your mind, turned into high-level road blocks of anxiety that debilitate you completely.
Here are some ways to overcome such fears and roadblocks that real performance anxiety gives us.
1. Focus, but don’t focus extra hard on what you’re about to do
Sounds ridiculous, but the more you focus on something, you end up over-focusing! For example, you have a deadline to finish a 10-page paper and you only have 2 hours to do it. You’re going to write that thing so fast, the keyboard will start smoking. You have no option other than to get the task done. But, if you have no deadlines, you end up struggling to get that first sentence out. You nitpick, you wonder if each word. makes. a. pivotal. impact. But in the end, nothing gets done. Sometimes it’s a matter of just doing it, starting it, no matter how imperfect or messy it is, and going back to put in the finishing touches. Focus is great, but too much focus leads to “perfection obsession” and ultimately keeps us from taking action.
2. Believe in yourself
This one is easy. If you believe you are great at something, you have the merits to show for this greatness, and support around you that says “Yas, you’re great,” then run with it. Don’t question it too much, but also don’t over-believe in yourself so much that you end up crippling your greatness. Many people feel unsure of themselves, be it because they really don’t see it or they want to maintain humility. Either way, it’s ok to know you are great at something, anything! And I hate to say this, but there’s always something lurking in the waters to make you doubt your ability to swim. Don’t let the crocodiles get to you when you are the dolphin (even if they don’t actually inhabit the same ecosystem, you get the idea).
3. People are watching you, but not with a spotlight the size of Jupiter
Truth be told, people are watching you because they want you to win, or they want you to fail so they can go laugh about it. But, most likely, it’s momentary and when they wake up after some beers, they won’t even remember what happened the day before. Unless you are an Olympic athlete, not naming a swimmer’s name, lying to the nation about something that didn’t happen (*cough*robbery), then the spotlight isn’t that big on you. All us measly humans have to do is try our best. It’s not a “do or die” situation most of the time, so take the pressure off yourself and have faith in your abilities. If you are stuck on a project for work, know that it just needs to get done and that the expectation isn’t for it to get published into “Oprah’s favorite work project of the month” club.
4. Aim for completion, not perfection
Again, unless you are an athlete or Kanye, the goal to finishing a project or activity is to finish it to the best of your abilities, not the abilities that other people expect of you. This makes me think of Tiger Parents for some reason, but this is another topic for another day. But, as an adult living on your own, there are things you need to do to survive, to grow, and to stay happy. To survive, grow, and stay happy, you probably have some little and large goals in mind. If you want to get your errands done by Friday at 12pm, get them done even if it takes you until 4pm. If you are going to write a novel, write an imperfect page every day, yet don’t expect yourself to be the next J.K. Rowling overnight, or you will Wingardium Leviosa yourself into oblivion and will never finish anything. Aim for completion, then aim higher the next day, and higher the next until you get to where you want to be. But if you must aim for something concrete, aim for 80% near perfect (90% near perfection if you consider yourself Type A) so you can hopefully sleep better at night.
Langendörfer, F., Hodapp, V., Kreutz, G., & Bongard, S. (2006). Personality and Performance Anxiety Among Professional Orchestra Musicians. Journal of Individual Differences, 27(3), 162-171.
Kenny, D., & Ackermann, B. (2013). Performance-related musculoskeletal pain, depression and music performance anxiety in professional orchestral musicians: A population study. Psychology of Music, 43(1), 43-60.
Sadler, M. E., & Miller, C. J. (2010). Performance Anxiety: A Longitudinal Study of the Roles of Personality and Experience in Musicians. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(3), 280-287.