Nature or Nurture?
I couldn't begin to tell you if it's my DNA or my formative years and environment, but I have always had severe performance anxiety. From the time I was playing piano as a little girl to speaking in front of an audience today (or last night), I am afraid to make mistakes.
I asked for piano lessons when I was only five years old. So there must have been a time when I played because I wanted to. I was an accomplished concert pianist at a young age (preteen). I had a natural, God-given ability to play. I remember my dad saying that my piano teacher was shocked when he told her I only practiced for 45 minutes a day. What's funny is those 45 minutes seemed like forever to me when I had to do that before I could go play outside with my friends.
I can't begin to number the times my dad asked me to play spontaneous recitals in our home for friends. It seemed like every time someone came over, I was asked to play. I don't remember ever really wanting to perform. But I did. And what I got from those performances was knowing my parents were proud of me and my talent. But it always frustrated me that everyone would beg me to play for them, and then right after I started playing, they all just talked and laughed. It was like nobody was really paying attention. I thought it was kind of rude. It hurt my feelings. And it made me feel self-conscious. I remember playing some difficult classical pieces like Chopin or Debussy while simultaneously wondering inside my head why anybody would make such a fuss about hearing me play when they weren't even going to listen anyway.
When I got married and left home, I stopped playing. There was no one to push me to practice daily and I was lazy. I hadn't married someone with either an appreciation for music or the desire for me to shine (the first time). And I hadn't played because I loved the piano in a long time. My reward for playing was that I made someone proud of me. I played only to perform. And I didn't like performing.
I've told many a friend, "I would much rather cook a fabulous meal for you and sit down to the table together and enjoy it than perform a piece of music any day of the week." I guess that means I'm not technically a true musician, even though I had an ability to play the piano. John says musicians play for the same reasons I write; they have to. And he would know. He is one. (I guess that officially makes me a writer.)
Every time I gave a recital or played at church in those early years, I was so nervous about making a mistake that it robbed me of the potential enjoyment of simply making music. I dreaded performing because of my fear of messing up. And it could be even a small mess-up that no one else noticed but me. That didn't matter. I could not feel pleased with my performance unless it was perfect. And nobody is perfect.
I grew up in a church that taught me I had to reach perfection to meet God's expectations of me and to receive eternal life. The cross saved us from past sins. But it was our starting point in earning His "well done" -- and heaven -- as an achievement. Oh, that last sentence is mine. It wasn't said in those exact words. But what I was taught was absolutely and totally performance based. And that IS what the perfection doctrine implies; the cross isn't what ultimately saves you. You save yourself by being His equal.
Perfectionism not only robbed me of the enjoyment of doing something I was good at, it took away my hope of meeting God's expectations. I'm sure perfectionism wrecked a lot of other facets of my life that I may not even be able to put my finger on.
What is required?
Last night I gave a speech at the WRC's Annual Candlelight Vigil. I was asked months ago and I accepted the invitation; not because I want to speak or even like to speak publicly, but because I know I have the ability to do so and I have a testimony of overcoming domestic abuse. I am motivated by a desire to give back and to help others. That's the only reason I agreed to do it.
As I said last night, I can't explain -- even to myself -- why the outcome for some is tragedy and the outcome for someone like me is triumph. I can only be thankful for the completely different life I am living today and the husband who loves and values me. What I do know is that with the gift of surviving and overcoming comes responsibility.
To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48).
My intense preparation began two weeks ago, as the day began to loom just ahead. The first week, I wrote and wrote and wrote. The second week, I refined and read and timed myself. The last two days, I tried to rehearse the speech as many times as I could. For the past two weeks I've been tense and on edge. I'm sure part of the tension came from immersing myself in the subject of domestic abuse and violence. I lived it for many years and I can't focus on the topic without reliving some of my own experiences. All my reading and writing and much of my thinking for two full weeks was centered on abuse and the apathy of a largely uninformed society where victims are scrutinized more than abusers.
There were many emotionally heavy days of writing and rewriting this speech. I was affected. Even John noticed that I wasn't myself.
I felt like I was having to wade chest high in murky, dark water for days on end. But what was stressing me out even more was performance anxiety.
I fear making mistakes. And making mistakes in front of an audience is worse. It does not matter if I'm playing the piano or talking; I expect myself to do it perfectly, or be a disappointment. And I recognize that this way of thinking is a reflection of my former mistaken understanding of God. As a younger person, because I did not believe I could be perfect, I viewed myself as a continual disappointment to Him. Being in an abusive marriage for 27 years certainly didn't help me with that. I was disposable on practically a daily basis for being flawed.
The thing is, I know that no one does anything perfectly and no one expects perfection of me ... except me. But that doesn't relieve the anxiety.
It would not have mattered to me if my audience consisted of 20 people or 200 people. I'm not afraid or even intimidated by public speaking. If I didn't have performance anxiety, I think I could thoroughly enjoy it because I love to talk, and on this subject, at least, I have plenty to say. I didn't need to picture anyone in their underwear to relax about speaking. I could only have relaxed if I could have been assured I would not make any mistakes.
The anxiety was fear that I would not perform well (ahem, perfectly).
My self-imposed expectations are impossible to meet.
I clearly met the expectations of others. But I certainly did not give a perfect speech. I was nervous. My voice broke more than once. And then I kind of hit my stride and was in the moment of what I was doing. In those moments -- when I stopped worrying about doing it perfectly and simply shared what I had written with the emotion I genuinely felt -- I became comfortable on the stage. And I was okay with being imperfect.
Why is it so hard for me to remember that REAL is better than PERFECT?
Dee, the one who asked me to give the speech, thanked me for being "amazing" more than once. I received a standing ovation and texts that assured me I had done an excellent job. One person told me that I was both amazing and professional, and had "captivated" the audience. She said she was proud of me and was sure God was proud of me too. (Soothing words to someone who seeks affirmation continually.)
I believe all of those responses were genuine. No one cared that I wasn't perfect, or that I stumbled over my words a few times, or that I did not commit 5,000 words to memory and had to look down at my notes. They cared that I was honest, raw and real. And I can do that with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back. That's what comes natural.
So the next time I'm having performance anxiety, perhaps what I need to be reminded of most
is simply this:
Nobody expects me to be perfect.
That's my past, not my present.