At this point in our anxiety series we are looking at performance anxiety. It might sound as though this form of anxiety only concerns actors and musicians and those engaged in the performing arts. Actually performance anxiety is about the fear of not being able to complete a task successfully. It may also be about the fear of being belittled for failure or perceived failure.
However, anxiety about being on a stage, doing a performance, delivering a speech or doing a presentation are all forms of performance anxiety. It could be the fear of cooking a meal or painting a wall for fear of criticism. Many parents have performance anxiety about being able to be a good parent. With the first child comes all the fears of ‘are we getting right?’, or the realisation that ‘we don’t know what we are doing’.
When you hear people saying…
“I can’t do right for doing wrong”
…they are describing performance anxiety. It often comes from someone criticising you enough that your motivation to act is diminished. What we describe as procrastination can actually be someone who has become inactive due to a criticism based performance anxiety. This is an issue that I deal with frequently when working with couples and one never feels good enough.
Fear and anxiety usually lead to action. Fight or flight are the common responses to anxiety. However there is a third response, ‘freeze’. Freeze is when the mind/body system decides that it is safer to do nothing than to either fight or run away. Out in the jungle this may mean hiding in silence from a predator until the coast is clear and it is safe to move. In a work setting freeze may be keeping your head down and avoiding volunteering for a task. Socially freeze could be avoiding the spotlight and individual attention. Freeze could be avoiding exams, interviews, a first date, a holiday or even opening a gift.
Performance anxiety is not just about completing a task but how we are seen in completing the task. Some people on social media can be particularly cruel in their criticism of others in what they do, how they look or about what they believe or think. How many people act, dress, state opinions that are motivated by the anxiety of how they need to be seen and their desire to fit in and be one of the group.
There is another aspect of performance anxiety that I often have to deal with. Over all I would describe this as fear of intimacy and fear sexual contact anxiety. In many cases this is driven by the internet and the common usage of online pornography. I had not realised the extent of this until I completed a qualification in therapy for those suffering from online porn addiction. In many parts of the UK internet pornography is used by 70% of men and 30% of women. The course did not cover the effects that online pornography can have on those that are not addicted. However, performance anxiety may effect those who having watched it then feel that they are very inadequate or inexperienced.
This can begin with the way that people look and perceive their body. They may feel too fat or too thin. That their bum is too big or too small. Their breast or penis are not big enough. Their knowledge and experience may just not be good enough.
The problem is that the acts seen on screen are unreal. They are performed by actors who often have unreal sculpted bodies who are acting out a role with props, aids, cameras and scripts. You only have to look at the people you see in the street to see that most people’s bodies are quite ordinary and that they are not the sexual athletes that are seen on screen.
I have worked with so many people who have been scared of being naked with another person for the first time because they fear being seen as ugly. Those who fear a sexual encounter because they may not be good enough. Or fear that they do not match up to someone’s previous partners. This can lead to both unrealistic expectation but also unrealistic acting out. Often those who are pounding the mattress, shouting out loud or screaming yes, yes, yes may be more concerned with how they are seen by their partner rather than simply enjoying the act that they are engaged in.
Sexual performance anxiety can be an issue for men when they have a failed erection. This is actually quite common. It can be due to stress, illness, hormonal changes or simply tiredness. The outcome of this experience is often dependent on the reaction of the partner. Some partners will experience the failed erection as an insult to them , ‘am I not good enough’, ‘why don’t you fancy me?’, and so on.
In most cases it has nothing to do with the partner. The partner’s responses can leave the man with the failed erection with feelings of failure. These can lead to performance anxiety in the future. Once the idea is embedded in the mind the script writing begins and the outcome is ensured. Some men who have failed erections, and are the belittled by their partner, may feel so diminished, embarrassed and hurt that they never have sex again for fear of failure.
Whatever form the performance anxiety takes the key is fear. This plays into the script writing nature of the human mind as we start to prepare for any event. Once we fear failure we are almost certainly going to write a script that ensures that we are right.
What you feed grows and what you starve dies
Once we have failed again we have confirmed that we are right. Every time, after that, when we attempt the same task we will get the same results. One solution is to undertake therapy that enables us to rewrite the emotional scripting and allows us to experience success. At that point our expecting of the task becomes success not failure.
When we suffer any form of performance anxiety it can be embarrassing to admit it and talk about it. However, talking with the right skilled person can lead to solutions that can be life changing.
Take care, be happy and if any of this blog resonates with you do something about it. You will feel so much better.