Eric Maisel Breaks Down Stage Fright And The Mental Games We Play
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: Well it’s my great pleasure to welcome Eric Maisel to the call today. Eric, thank you so much for joining us.
Eric: Thank you, Viv. Great to be here.
Viv: Great. And we’re going to be talking about performance anxiety today.
Eric: I’m afraid I’m too scared to talk about that.
Viv: I can hear your heart pounding through the phone here. We all know what stage fright feels like. It’s that sort of the trickle of sweat down your back. My knee caps used to, when I was doing open mics, I remember standing at one called ‘Down Time’ on 30th street in New York City, and I honestly did not know my knee caps could actually vibrate.
Eric: You’re supposed to do knee cap replacement surgery for that.
Viv: Oh lord. It was a traumatizing experience because that was all I could think about. I couldn’t sing very well because I was concentrating on my kneecaps.
Eric: Which are not very attractive on most people anyway.
Viv: Exactly. So we know what it feels like, what does it sound like? Inside our own heads?
Eric: Yeah I think that’s a good starting place. The sweaty palms, the shaking hands, the stomach knots, the disorientation, the question of how to get over stage fright, those are all the symptoms. It doesn’t pay to try to relieve symptoms. Getting Kleenex and wiping your palms doesn’t get rid of performance anxiety. So the symptoms terrorize us but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the way our minds make the anxiety. That’s where the anxiety is coming from. It’s coming from primarily the way we speak to ourselves. And there are a ton of cognitive traps that we fall into that cause us to feel stagefright make us feel anxious. We’re going to look at a lot of them over the course of the hour but I want to start by looking at 11 characteristic phrases that we say to ourselves that really are phrases that mask our anxiety. We use them so that we don’t know that we’re anxious. Once you know what they are you’ll learn how to overcome stage fright The headline here is it’s much better to say, “I’m anxious” than to start using language that makes us anxious without us knowing that we’re being made anxious. We want that clarity. We want that heroism. The cognitive work here is to notice what we’re saying.
The first trap is, “I’m not ready”. That might sound like, “I need another few weeks before my audition piece will be ready.” or “I don’t feel ready to sing a Mozart Aria”. The translation of “I don’t feel ready” here is “I’m anxious. I’m scared to sing a Mozart Aria.” When you say that more clearly. If you say, “I don’t feel ready.” Then, what do you do? You call up and say, ” I need two more weeks” or “I need four more weeks” or “I need six more weeks”. You try to get out of the gig. If you think you’re not ready, you try to get out of the gig. Because if you say you’re anxious then you realize it’s not about time, it’s about anxiety. So whenever you say to yourself that you’re not ready to perform, you should instantly check in with yourself to say if what you’re really saying is that the thought of the performance in question is making you anxious.
A second phrase we use, it has a certain nice childish narcissistic tint to it, “I don’t feel like it”. “I don’t feel like fronting the band. Bob’s much better at that sort of thing.” Or, “Yes, there were a few producers at the party but I didn’t really feel like meeting them.” All that “I don’t feel like it” means that there is “It makes me anxious to think about fronting the band”. As I say, it’s much better to know that that’s what’s going on, because then you can talk yourself, and work yourself through conquering anxiety and then end up fronting the band.
The third cognitive trap, and a lot of people go down this root, is the sematic route, is the “I don’t feel well”. That sounds like, “I ate lunch before my recital and that always gives me stomach pains” or “I can’t believe how tense my shoulders get before a concert”. Millions of people somaticize their anxiety and they don’t know that’s what they’re doing so they think, what happens, they actually think they don’t feel well enough to perform. All they need to do there is say, “This is a game I play with myself. This ‘I don’t feel well’ game and I’m not going to do that.”
A fourth cognitive trap is, and this relates to one of the symptoms of performance anxiety which is disorientation, a fourth cognitive trap is “I can’t think straight”. This sounds like, “I missed the audition because I couldn’t figure out where I parked my car” or “I met with my agent for lunch yesterday but then I couldn’t remember any of the questions I wanted to ask her”. The more we tell ourselves that we can’t think straight, the more we can’t. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As with all of these, and we’ll talk about this in a bit, you want to re-frame these thoughts and have good cognitive substitutes for these. What’s the simple cognitive substitute for “I can’t think straight”? “Of course I can think straight”. You dispute that kind of thought and then you substitute more affirmative talk. That’s the key for a lot of the performance anxiety issues we’ll be talking about for the hour. The key is you dispute the things you’re saying to yourself about why you’re anxious and you replace that thought with more affirmative language.
The next cognitive trap is, “I can’t do it”. “I just can’t ask such talented musicians to play with me.” or “I just can’t do my routine in a noisy club.” When you speak that way you make it sound like you really can’t do it as opposed to you’re just feeling anxious. The can’t there because a kind of must word, it becomes a very high bar kind of word. You’ve raised the bar to a place where suddenly, just by the language you use, you can’t do it. So you don’t want to use that kind of language and put the bar there.
Another typical cognitive trap is, “I don’t know what to say”. “I wanted to tell the band they weren’t taking rehearsal seriously enough but I didn’t know exactly how to put it.” Or “I never know what to say when people tell me they love my voice”. This “I don’t know what to say” is another trap because we’re acting like we’re incompetent. That we’re incapable of doing things we’re perfectly capable of doing. Of course we know what to say. What we really mean is, “I get anxious in those situations and when I get anxious it’s harder for me to figure out what to say.”
The next one is a kind of deep one because it has an existential undertone. The next one is, “I can’t see the point”. “I can’t see the point of auditioning for that. I’m just not the type” Or “I can’t see the point trying to get my own band together. I’m a drummer, not an organizer”. The phrase “I can’t see the point” really means, “I’m not sure that me or my efforts matter”. “I’m not sure I can do that sort of thing”. “I’m not sure I’m capable.” So whenever you hear yourself saying, “I can’t see the point of writing another song today, I’ve already one”. Or “I can’t see the point of whatever”, the natural thing you want to say to yourself next is, “Oh, I’m using one of those cognitive trap phrases, maybe there’s an excellent point. Let me think about that.”
The next cognitive trap is, “It feels too difficult.” “It’s impossible to write if you’ve waited as many years as I have to begin. It’s just too difficult to begin”. Or “This sonata is too technically demanding”. As soon as you announce to yourself that things are too difficult, they feel too difficult. And, again, it’s not so much that the task really is difficult but that you’re experiencing some inner anxiety and that anxiety has caused you to create this phrase and because you’ve created this phrase now it does feel too difficult.
And the next one is, “What’s happening here?” This is kind of the vigilance exclamation one. “Is that the overture already?!” or “What’s that the commotion in the audience?!” I have to tell a side story here. When I was probably 18, for no reason that makes any sense now, I took my mother and my aunt to a Pinter play in the village. And you would not take my mother and my aunt to a Pinter play in the village if you were a smart person. And so the curtain goes up on the play and it’s an old-fashioned apartment setting like an apartment out of the ’30’s or the ’40’s. In this dead-silent theater my aunt and my mother start talking about how much the apartment looks just like the apartment they used to have in the Bronx. And I could not get them to stop talking. And this never happens, but the actors had to actually stare down my mother and my aunt for them to stop talking. So in that case the actors would have been justified in feeling or thinking, “What’s happening here?” but generally, all that’s going on when we have the experience of “What’s happening here?” is that we’ve suddenly turned our attention somewhere, have become very vigilant, and have made a problem out of nothing.
The next one is the phrase, “I do better with” and variation of “I do better with” like “I do better the second week of the show rather than the first” or “Our quartet always gives a better performance when the audience really understands the music”. And you can tell by this way of talking, you can tell what goes on inside. You’re giving yourself permission to have a bad first week when you say, “I do better the second week” and you don’t want to do that. Again, you want to dispute that kind of language and substitute more affirmative language and the clear affirmative language here is, “I can do great right from the first week”. Or “Our quartet can give an excellent performance whether or not the audience understands the music”. And I think you can tell how the thought substitutes shoo away the anxiety. There’s no reason to feel anxious when you use false substitutes like that, but there’s a ton of reason to feel anxious if you feel like, since this is the first week and since you only do well on the second week, naturally you’re going to be judged harshly during the first week.
The last one is the ubiquitous “Yes but..” which always means no. “Yes, I know I should practice at least three hours every morning but I have friends visiting this week and next week I’ve got to do my taxes”. Or “Yes, I probably should enter that songwriter competition but the best musicians from around the world will be competing.” So you can see how “Yes but..” operates here. It’s “I acknowledge that I ought to do the thing, but I’m feeling so anxious that I’m not going to. And clearly you understand why it’s better to put the category of anxiety on the table than to say things like, “I can’t compete with the best musicians” or “I can’t practice if people are visiting.” So those are some of the cognitive traps, we have scores and scores of them available to us. We’re tricky creatures. We make language work for us to obscure what’s really going on and these phrases, and let me try to repeat what’s going on here, what the basic dynamic is, our hope in using these phrases is that we won’t notice that we’re actually anxious but what these phrases do is make us more anxious. That’s the key here. Out of conscious awareness-we’re creating phrases we think will make us less anxious but in fact they’re making us more anxious. So that’s the headline there, Viv, and any thoughts on that?
Viv: Well, I just find that now, my mind is saying, “No, those are reasons, not excuses”.
Eric: You do all of that.
Viv: I do a lot of that actually. I do a lot of that.
Eric: We all do. That’s right. That’s why we get anxious because we all do it. In fact if we didn’t do it, amazingly enough, we wouldn’t be anxious.
Viv: It’s funny, that. But I find it so fascinating that that which you think is going to mask your anxiety or that which we subconsciously or out of consciously believe that is never going to help us through the anxiety is actually one of the anxiety producers. Because we’re just simply not acknowledging it in an authentic and truthful way. “I’m anxious”.
Eric: That’s right. A) We’re not acknowledging it and B) The path we’ve chose to not acknowledge it is to make the situation worse. That’s what each one of these phrases does, it makes the situation worse. “I’m not ready”, “I need this”, “I can’t do that”, “It’s impossible to do this”, everything we’re saying makes the situation feel worse.
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