Performance Anxiety

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).

Heavy Days 

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.


Anonymous said…
Oh Miss Shari, your words once again speak to my heart and are so completely relevant to my own experience. My whole life I've sought affirmation. I mean, if someone else thinks I'm worthy then that makes me worthy, right? WRONG! If I think of myself differently than GOD thinks of me, which one of us is wrong. I have to constantly remind myself that someone else's opinion of me is not an indication of my worth.I don't have to be perfect for God to love me.
Anonymous said…
I myself can be a perfectionist... it some ways it makes the artist and the photographer in me better,,,, but in other ways it can make me a very difficult person to work with and for. I have spent a lifetime trying to create balance. thanks for your words of wisdom in a great blog post.
Shari said…
It is so nice to have comments on my blog! Thank you both for taking the time to share your thoughts on my post! :)
Sarah said…
I struggle with some of these same things, especially feeling like my only options are perfection or disappointment. Thanks for sharing.
Shari said…
Thanks for letting me know you relate, Sarah.
I can totally relate to you Shari. I also had a skewed view of who God was and who He saw me to be. And I was a perfectionist too. Isn't it the most amazing thing to now know that we are loved, cherished and accepted and it has NOTHING to do with our actions! Whoohooo! Keep writing! You are a great teacher!
I know exactly how you feel. I'm aware perfection doesn't exist, and still I'm always anxious whenever I have to do something because IT MUST BE PERFECT. It kinda destroys my joy to do things and, sometimes, I don't even do them because I know they won't be perfect in the end. It's really crippling, and I'm trying to get rid of it, but that's gonna take some time.
Shari said…
Hi Debra and Giana! I knew there were many other perfectionists out there! Thanks for reading and commenting. I so appreciate the encouragement.

It's funny. I feel so LIGHT and carefree today after getting the speech behind me. ;)
Tom Huntington said…
Your story re-inspires me to commit to writing my story about learning the most important secret to effective public speaking (or at least "functional" public speaking).
Self-imposed expectations are impossible to meet! Very true! We loose perspective when we have so much riding on the line. I've dealt with quite a bit of performance anxiety - not with my speaking but in the content prep. Always wanting JUST right! I'm learning to let go and give God more room in my material and presentation...thank you for sharing your experience with this and being so open about it! It helps me breathe a little easier knowing I'm not alone! Blessings!
What a blessing it was to stop by your post today. It isn't my first time here, but it is my first time commenting. You have such a warm voice Shari, and I can totally relate on several levels. As a survivor of five years of physical and mental abuse I learned early on that really it didn't matter what I did, I would do it wrong. I can't say that my church based our salvation on our works but as a youth growing up in the church with a pastor for an uncle, I was always expected to be "on" and often forced to interact with individuals who made me uncomfortable (I had my first stalker at 18 thanks to that oh and he was in his 30s).

I feel the call to perfection every day and thank God for His grace and patience with me. He loves us simply because we are.

Thanks for this dear post and also for visiting my little space.

Shari said…
Tom, Gretchen and Kelly: Thank you so much for your nice comments. I'm enjoying getting to know all of you in the writer's challenge. I really appreciate you all stopping by with words of encouragement!