...currently writing from: my living room with sweatpants on & my hair piled on top of my head...
PERFORMANCE ANXIETY SYMPTOMS: "Being the center of attention and having all eyes on you can be stressful. Your body reacts to this situation in much the same way as it would if you were being attacked. Your body's 'fight-or-flight' mechanism kicks in, which is why symptoms of stage fright are similar to symptoms that occur when you are in real danger." - WebMD
Not long ago, I was crying in downtown Glendora with a friend of mine who miraculously happened to be walking by. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I had to perform and “be what everyone wanted me to be.” To live out picture-perfect moments. To mask any sort of flaw or doubt until “afterwards,” even if afterwards never came.
“Babe! You are putting A-LOT of pressure on yourself!” my friend said. I knew that I was and I laughed at myself through my tears. She asked me, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone you could just… ugly cry with? Wouldn’t it be nice to be completely yourself?”
I think of Pride & Prejudice when the women are lounging around carefree in their messy living room, and then scramble in panic when the suitors approach, hiding the ribbons and pinching their cheeks. We have all been hardwired this way: to quickly hide the mess and present our best-looking selves.
Think about your last coffee date. How much time did you spend ignoring your friend as you carefully arranged the lattes together and pined for the perfect blurb to prove that your morning was better-looking than everybody else’s morning?
We feel that life is a performance because... well... we are programmed this way from a young age. This applies to my life in a literal sense, being that I’ve grown up as a performer onstage. But for most of us, this translates into whatever our given field is. Maybe you’re an athlete caught up in a culture of statistics and winning. Or perhaps you’ve always done well in school and feel constant pressure to keep a perfect track record, always afraid to fail. Maybe you’re a funny and boisterous person and believe somewhere subconsciously that therein lies your value and worth to people.
I myself have always felt obligated to be either impressive or entertaining. Looking over my life, I can pinpoint four main reasons why:
Growing up, my sisters and I became quickly known as “the singers.” At every family party, we would be asked to sing. Our parents prompted us to prepare, “so that when people ask you to sing, you’ll have something ready.”
I was inspired to dig up this memory after talking with my friend that day in Glendora. I realize that one of the earliest lessons I ever learned was this:
Everyone is looking at you. So, perform.
Through the years, it got to a point where I seriously resented it. I would be at a family party just wanting to chill out… “like the rest of the normal people.” One time my Uncle literally snapped his fingers at me, trying to motivate me to get up and sing. Like I was a dog. I took to sarcastically mocking everyone who demanded entertainment, saying, “Dance, monkey, dance!”
I was the monkey. The trained, groomed monkey.
By the time I was 14, my sisters and I were working with a production company that demanded we be “camera ready” every time we came into the studio. This was firstly because important people would drop in unexpectedly. Executives, potential managers, God knew. This was also because there would literally just be cameras everywhere – on any given day. And if there were cameras, it was made clear that we couldn’t just be chillin out, sitting on the couch or on our phones. We had to be “on.” We had to be entertaining. We were told that in order to be artists we needed to “take over the whole room” every single time we walked in; to completely dominate the atmosphere. Our responsibility as entertainers was not limited to the stage where we could compartmentalize our work and leave it where it belonged. It was 'round the clock; studio time went late. Artistry was/is a way of life.
"Film everything... when you're singing at home... when you're just hanging out in the kitchen... FILM EVERYTHING."
"Always be ON."
As an artist, you learn to “give the people what they want.” You learn your demographic and study what interests them. So, quite literally, your job is to BE what other people want you to be.
I’ve already described how detrimental labels can be in my previous blog, Group Complex. The label given out to me by our producer was “The Entertainer.” I have felt obligated to that label since I was a small child.
"Be funny. Be charming. Be entertaining."
Growing up in church added another dynamic to the spotlight. Because music in its nature puts you in front of people, an automatic responsibility is placed along with it to be a “good role model." Even though I never pursued a formal leadership role in the church, "moral" expectations and pressure were imposed onto myself and my sisters.
And we've always been held accountable to them.
If certain onlookers considered any band photos posted online to be too provocative or questionable, we’d hear about it. Or in one particular case, our worship pastor heard about it from a random Facebook Mom, which lead to us being brought up in a church staff meeting! It cracks me up and creeps me out when people ask questions about something I posted months ago. “You don’t always realize it,” I say, “But everyone is watching.”
Many times, I’ve been encouraged in what I stand for regarding my music or my mission life, but alongside an unsettling warning, “Don’t you be shaken. Beware of the industry. Stand firm.”
Be an example. Little ones look up to you.
Because of this, I've been terrified for years of just royally f***ing up. Photoshoots trigger anxiety. I look with caution over every lyric I sing. I had to acknowledge recently that I've been carrying a huge fear of letting people down.
There is a very fear-based, performance mentality I hear often preached to youth groups that goes something like:
"Be careful of how you live... your life is a permanent sermon. Your schoolmates are watching you and they know you're a Christian. Be a good representative."
Instead of it being about experiencing the LOVE of God and then naturally being kind to others, the focus is on performing well in order to make an impression on people.
It’s no wonder why almost every positive role model that grows up as a child star just falls off the deep-end by their twenties. It explains why so often we see pastor’s kids go through frightening rebellious phases. They long to shake the foundations on which they were raised and break down that pressure and responsibility that was placed onto them unwelcomely.
I can’t say I don’t get it.
Nowadays, the cameras are always rolling. Everyone is making their “super entertaining” Snapchat stories, Y.O.L.O. – ing. Because “it would make a great story.” For years, I’ve lived by a mantra that I saw on a meme once:
“No one ever looks back on their lives and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep.”
After our conversation, my friend told me about how she sat in bed that night, laughing at me. She told me that I’d gotten so far ahead of myself to be thinking of my life as a story I’d tell people someday. “You’ve already got your grand-kids on your knee…” she said. It was hilarious because it was true.
I feel disturbed every time I look around a dinner table and see that everyone’s faces are in their phones. By carefully manipulating the stories of our lives, we are completely neglecting the present. It’s almost to the point where the present serves only as raw material for the photo you plan to capture, filter, and post as another piece of proof that your life is GREAT.
It's a lot of pressure: to weigh your successes and popularity against numerical feedback… likes, comments, subscribers, followers, reads, views.
I remember being refreshed after reading a post made by a young single mother who was having a hard day. She posted a photo of herself looking sad and run-down with her newborn baby and was reaching out for support. At the end of her confessional post, she sarcastically apologized, saying “Sorry – forgot I’m only supposed to share the good moments.” Her apology was an accusatory stab at our society.
To be a millennial is to feel that we are only allowed to represent our highlight reel in a constant competition with everyone else’s outside persona.
...So what about the days we just need to ugly cry?
Hosting gatherings has always been natural for me, because I’m able to make people feel welcome and comfortable. I have a heightened awareness of what people want and how they must feel. It’s a strength, but it can be maddening.
Part of my being a middle kid comes with a natural tendency to create balance in a room. If there are enough dominant personalities, I will chill out. If I encounter a group of shy people looking for a ringleader, I can step up and be funny.
While this is a skill that allows me to move through different social situations, it feeds into the belief system that I’m obligated to perform: to be what people need me to be.
Nobody asked me to be the placeholder in any social situation. Nobody asked me to embody whatever is lacking in the room. I’ve become this way by witnessing enough situations fall apart without proper balance, so I step up and play the role that’s needed. Referee, devil’s advocate, defendant of the accused… whichever corner needs support.
And once again, I feel obligated. I’m not experiencing. I’m not being heard. I’m playing a role.
In what area of your life have you neglected your own feelings and preferences in order to play a role?
At what point do you just live your life?
Is that even possible in a world of grades, salaries, accolades, and perpetually rolling cameras?
In my search for answers I came across an article written by Peter Bregman entitled, Stop Focusing on Your Performance. As a successful CEO and best-selling author, he is a man often in the spotlight. In the article he recounts a brilliant piece of advice given to him on the night before his wedding:
“Tomorrow hundreds of people will be watching you on the most important day of your life. Try to remember this: It’s not a performance; it’s an experience.”
It's NOT a performance. It's an experience.
He goes on to say that he tries to implement this advice into his everyday life by constantly completing the sentence, “This is what it feels like to…” It immediately creates a posture of experience, rather than performance. It serves as a friendly reminder that there is permission to have ups and downs: to experiment and learn.
“This is what it feels like…”
To be embarrassed.
To be a college-grad.
To be in an awkward transitional phase.
To be onstage.
At all times, you are feeling and experiencing. And your feelings matter. Not just everyone else’s perception of you. Wouldn’t it be nice if your community wasn’t just your audience, but your village? Your support system?
There are no failures with experience, because each one serves its purpose in the tapestry of life. Our days can’t be action-packed, sun-kissed, magical, and awesome all the time.
A thing is only seen as rare when its standing out from other ordinary things.
A moment is only special because it doesn’t happen often.
A success is only significant after years of struggle and disappointment.
We are so terrified of monotony. Of imperfections.
My thought is that every single one of us is walking around in a constant state of stage fright.
In trying to force rare and spontaneous moments so that our lives can appear great, we are living out an impossible dichotomy; it doesn't work that way! And in denying our pain and struggle, we are further isolating ourselves from our village. So we get things like unexpected suicides and shootings, because the pressure of performance was too much for a single individual to take on any longer.
The constant pretending is exhausting. And eventually, you’ll wind up just like me… breaking down at Classic Coffee with several snotty napkins strewn about a patio table.
Well, I am taking up a new practice. As often as I remember to, I am going to make myself aware that I am experiencing, experimenting, and living. Not just performing for an audience. I'll stop and repeat the magic words...