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Stage fright and mental ghosts: managing stage fright as a growth process

William made an appointment with me to discuss his stage fright. I meet him for the first time in my waiting room.

JJN: Good morning William. I am glad to meet you. Come in.

W: Hi Dr. N. Thanks for seeing me.

JJN: What led you to call me? Just begin anywhere you want.

William: I played in a violin recital a couple of weeks ago. I had played the music many times before but in that concert I really messed up my finger work passages – one in particular – and then I started feeling that my memorization was shaky. I was a nervous wreck and couldn’t wait to finish. I cannot figure this out. I feel haunted that it is going to happen again and again.

JJN: This sounds terribly upsetting – both your concerns about your playing and your worries about trying to figure it out on your own and not being able to do that. Has this kind of thing happened before? Do you typically try to figure things out on your own?

William: Yes, it has but not to this extent. I’ve read a lot of self-help books about stage fright and tried various exercises to deal with it. Sometimes they have given me ideas that are helpful, but then the nerves always return.

JJN: I understand what you are saying. Self-help can be helpful up to a point. But often these books tell you what has helped others and “one size fits all” advice does not “fit all”. Then you start to worry that what has helped others (assuming the reports are accurate) isn’t helping you, and then you get more upset. Stage fright is complex, and it is healthy to feel that you can benefit from reaching out for some professional assistance.  It is not always easy to do that.

William: That’s a relief to hear you say that – in my family, people who were in therapy (or wanted to be) were considered “crazy” and “not intelligent” because smart people were supposed to figure out things on their own. You are saying what I am feeling and asking for is normal.

JJN: Yes, I am saying exactly that. It is not only normal, but healthy.

William: (visibly relieved) Whew!! That’s a relief already. I’ve tried relaxation, focusing, and some cognitive strategies. I am frustrated, scared, and now I feel really worried about what to do next.

JJN: Relaxing and meditation and other strategies can help lower anxiety. At other times they do not help enough. But everyone is a separate individual with particular past experiences and feelings that you bring to the stage and to your life in general. I find it helpful to explain to performance anxious people that you take your entire “life” with you when you go on stage. Stage fright is more complicated than playing the music or giving a speech, or writing a paper. What is frustrating is that you know you can do something because you hear yourself in practice, but your strong emotional feelings interfere in public. Stage fright can become chronic and interfere with your performing and with your pleasure. Even when you try hard not to feel these emotions, there is a psychological underground in your mind where mental ghosts live, and they do not forget what has occurred in your life before you started to perform. They come alive and haunt you when you go on stage.

William: Is there another way to deal with my anxiety and these ghosts? I feel desperate now. Playing the violin is my life’s work. I have played the violin and performed since I was a young child. I cannot have a career if this keeps happening. I am having self doubts. I feel humiliated. But I do not know what else I want to do, much less what I can do since I have focused on a music career since I was a young child.

JJN: Musicians have a life-long “investment” in playing their instrument – particularly when they decide to make music their career. Yes there is another way to manage performance anxiety. I think you may be looking for the “right’ way, but remember, “one size does not fit all”. Musicians are very concerned, of course, with right notes and also finding the right therapist whom they wish has all the “right answers.” You may wish for that with me.

William: That would be very nice to find right answers and for you to have them to share with me.

JJN: But the right answers need to be your answers that are right for you. However, there are additional coping strategies you can add to your performance tool box. To do this, we need to consider performance anxiety is not just the obvious symptoms (shaking and memory worries) that occur when you go on stage, but more pervasive thoughts, feelings, and experiences that reflect your entire life history that accompanies you on stage.  You see, our minds are dynamic – which means they are always in motion and processing thoughts and feelings – even when we sleep. Unfortunately, the mind does not separate out the “good” and “bad” feelings (though no feeling is good or bad.) Your negative feelings and early life experiences often can haunt you like a ghost when you need to be competent on stage.

William: Are you saying that these feelings are like skeletons in my mental closet? How do you manage skeletons?

JJN: Yes, that is a good analogy. Skeletons and ghosts are scary – you are haunted by thoughts and feelings from your present and your past. By discovering these ghosts you are in a better place to manage them more effectively. Everyone has ghosts in their mental closets. The kind of therapy we would use to help you is based on this simple but very complex idea. We would not assume the first thing you say or think is the last thought on a subject. We need to explore your thoughts in a process that is like a mental improvising – where you can talk about anything that comes to your mind.

William: So you are saying that to better manage my stage fright, I need to spend a long time analyzing it?

JJN: Let me try to reply with this idea: as a musician, you realize that you did not get to the level you are at now quickly, and you do not learn a piece of music overnight that is ready to take on stage. You know from your experience that it takes time, working through troublesome passages, and perseverance. The pay- off is worth it musically and personally.   Can you say more (or freely associate) about what you are thinking when you ask about how long it takes to manage anxiety?

William: Well I know that it takes time, but I still hoped that since you were a performer and that you experienced stage fright, you could tell me what worked for you. I think that would be helpful for me.

JJN: I understand your wish and believe that our work on performance anxiety is a healing process. What worked for me may or may not work for you. Additionally, it is important for you to find out what contributes specifically to your particular stage fright symptoms and then discover what can work for you to better manage them when you are under pressure. In doing that, you build greater emotional security. I also believe that it would be arrogant for me to assume they way I’ve lived my life is relevant for how you should live yours. We are entirely separate people with separate backgrounds. I can help you learn how to explore your stage fright about some things you may not have thought about previously. That can be very healing for you.

William: I guess that I was wishing for magic.

JJN: I understand that wish – and I also see already that you can use other ideas to let yourself reevaluate some thoughts and feelings you are having here with me. If you would like to work together, we would explore your family history and many things about your life that could have an impact upon your current anxiety. We can explore how some of those forgotten events and feelings become activated in the present when you walk on stage. From what you have told me already me, you seem to feel conflicted about performance – you want to perform but you also fear performing due to the shame you experience when you believe you have not played well. You envision the audience as judges who are going to disapprove of you. These are exactly the kinds of feelings that will be helpful to understand in order for you to better manage your stage fright.

My first session with William was about to conclude. I asked if he had questions that had arisen during our session and invited him to schedule a second meeting to further discuss his thoughts about working together. I also hope that you, readers, will think about stage fright in greater depth since stage fright is part of a person’s entire life history that accompanies the performer onto the stage. Anxious feelings do not stay in the wings.

The mind is invisible like a ghost, but the mind also is transparent and emotionally visible when one learns how to listen, observe, and respond appropriately to another person. Listening and responding with psychological understanding are some skills teachers can add to their pedagogical tool boxes and, in turn, help students learn how to do so as well. The ghosts in our mental closets can be better understood. Those people who experience stage fright need not continue to be haunted by them in performance.

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