Performance Anxiety. How To Avoid It?
Performance anxiety. Remember, if you believe that the way you feel inside is determined only by events outside of yourself, then unless you’re a very lucky person, very often you’re going to feel out of control and powerless, and as though you’ve been dealt a dirty deal. But it’s your attitudes that predispose you to the way you feel, think, or behave. You can not only learn but continue to develop the positive attitudes that will give you mastery over practically any life situation, beginning with how you feel about yourself, the other people around you, and the world in general.
Anytime you get hung up on a particular area, go back to the chapter that deals with that specific issue to develop the winning attitude you need the most. Remember that your life is a process for which you are ultimately responsible. This includes not only your behavior but the way you feel about things as well. Behind practically every negative attitude, there’s a should statement that we make, consciously or unconsciously, that leads to that disturbing emotion.
For example, if you’re feeling angry, ask yourself what expectations you’re demanding should be better met, or how you are telling yourself that someone should have treated you better. If you’re feeling depressed, look at how you may be down on yourself by demanding that you should perform better than your best, or how you may be thinking that life is terrible and catastrophic when it doesn’t go the way you want it to.
If you’re feeling dissatisfied, are you being perfectionistic, or is there a problem to be addressed? Have you labeled yourself in a globally negative way simply because you’ve made a mistake or failed in a task rather than recognizing that, if anything, it’s merely the act that deserves a negative label? Are you confusing insight with hindsight? Insight occurs when you learn a valuable life lesson.
Hindsight, on the other hand, is telling yourself that you should have done something differently at a time when you were not privy to all the information that you have now. Again, you can have practically anything you want in life, but you probably can’t have everything you want, no matter how hard you try. Therefore it’s essential that you accept this limitation, which all of us have in common.
If your goal is achieving peace of mind, peace of mind can be defined as those moments that are free of shoulds. Peace of mind is achieved when you’re not telling yourself you should do better, someone else should treat you better, or the world should be easy, or one of the many infinite variations of those themes. If you’ve noticed yourself getting upset lately, you may want to start keeping a log of your thoughts.
What triggers those negative thoughts, and what attitude needs to be zeroed in on? Is it your low frustration tolerance, LFT? Is there something that you’re telling yourself is too hard when it’s merely difficult, or something you are allowing yourself to believe that you can’t stand? LFT is really discomfort performance anxiety. To the extent that you let yourself believe that you can’t stand discomfort, you’ll avoid all kinds of situations that could be beneficial to you.
If this is going on, imagine someone you cared about who’s bothered by the very thing that is triggering your LFT. How would you advise that person? Chances are, you would give them lots of support in standing the thing they’re telling themselves they can’t stand. People will treat you the way they choose to treat you. Hopefully, this will be positive and pleasant, but sometimes it won’t.
Get rid of all those illusions that you can control other people, the world, or certain events in it, because you can’t. On the other hand, no one can really hurt you emotionally unless you allow it. The next time you get angry, instead of blaming the anger on the other person, attribute your anger to your own attitude about that other person. Then you’re fully in control again.
The same holds true for other emotions, such as depression and performance anxiety. Depression is often a feeling of hopelessness—being stuck in a situation that you tell yourself you would not choose and one that you believe you cannot change. Sometimes depression is merely anger turned inward at your own inability to change things that are out of your control. What can be more self-defeating than that?
If you recognize yourself in that situation, let go of it. Self-blame will only defeat you. If you define yourself as incompetent, then you’ve turned your attitude into a vicious circle. Not only have you put yourself down, but you may have undermined your own ability to change things in the future that very well may be under your control. Know what is within your power to change and what isn’t.
Those things that aren’t within your power to change need only be accepted. This involves releasing yourself from that self-imposed burden to change what in fact cannot be changed. The instant you see something as being out of your power to change, walk away from it. You may shortcut that depression right on the spot. As far as performance anxiety, fear of the unknown, is concerned, remember it’s really the feeling of fear, but with a twist. You are pretending a situation has dire consequences when it really does not.
Fear of ridicule or criticism, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of change, and sometimes even the fear of fear itself are all forms of anxiety. Perhaps the most common is performance anxiety. A little bit of performance anxiety can actually improve your performance in such things as exams and presentations. But underneath it is the attitude that you will be the subject of unspeakable ridicule if you fail, or that you yourself could never accept less than an optimal performance.
There comes a point where performance anxiety becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, when it begins to affect your performance negatively. You can allow this to happen by catastrophizing: imagining and fearing that the worst possible thing will occur and that you won’t be able to handle it.To confront performance anxiety, do some breathing, relaxing more with each breath out, and imagine your anxiety becoming excitement.
Remember, performance anxiety and excitement are physiologically identical. It’s only the negative label that makes it anxiety rather than excitement. A mental expression of performance anxiety is worry. It often comes in the form of unwanted thoughts. Often, they will burn out on their own power if you don’t reinforce them by acting as though they contain messages you need to hear. Here it’s important to see the difference between those things that you have the power to affect and those things that you don’t.
When you define something as out of your power, worry becomes even more pointless. Bringing your negative emotions under control is a function of changing the belief that causes them. You can try this simple imagery exercise to bring practically any emotion under control. Close your eyes and imagine a situation in which you would typically feel anxious. Imagine the thing you are most anxious about actually occurring. Imagine the results being just what you most feared they would be.
Be aware of how awful you’re telling yourself that fear is, and notice how the feeling of performance anxiety increases. With your eyes still closed, relabel that feeling of performance anxiety as excitement, and reframe the struggle as challenge. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen if I really flub this? I’ll look ridiculous. I won’t succeed this time.” See how taking away the element of catastrophe lessens the performance anxiety.
Performance anxiety is one of the emotions that we connect the most to distress. Distress is the amount of stress that we have over and above that which we are managing or coping with. Stressors themselves are simply the pressures of daily living, but the culprit is distress. One of the main causes of stress is changes. These can occur in a work or home situation. More typically, we tend to put numerous stressors on ourselves.
Perhaps by over-planning our days and engaging in too many activities, we don’t allow ourselves to relax. Hurry sickness not only causes us to have excess amounts of stress, but also tends to dilute the enjoyment of life. Having impossible goals and impossible deadlines all contribute. Symptoms of stress can be emotional as well as physical, and stress sometimes can even become circular.
For example, if you’re under a lot of stress, you could be neglecting your most important relationships, and that could cause you more stress by inadvertently abusing some of your most important sources of support. So keep your goals realistic, and allow yourself to experience some satisfaction with what you have before pressing yourself more for what you don’t have. Let yourself enjoy the fruits of your hard-earned labor rather than negating the progress you’ve made simply by reaching for more, perhaps unattainable, goals.
Keep long-term versus short-term consequences in the forefront when taking on new things. It may help you to keep a diary of stressful situations, including negative feelings that come up for you. Try to be as specific as you can about exactly what it is that’s triggering stress in you. Look for new alternatives, especially when you are between the occurrences of stressors.
You know your attitudes are changing when you can look back on your diary later and see that the same things that were so difficult for you at one time now don’t have nearly the same impact. Make a list of all the things you feel good about and that make you feel good. When you’re under the gun, take a look at that list so you can find some positive things to support you.
Hobbies such as sports, sailing, or other relaxing activities can provide a great diversion when you’re feeling distress. If you don’t have the time to leave what you’re doing and actually do something positive, then take a mental break, and imagine yourself doing something very relaxing. Even two or three minutes of this can make all the difference in the world when stressors are piling up on you.
Some people learn how to do this quite easily. With others, it takes some effort, but I’ve had people tell me that a twenty-minute experience with this exercise can feel as relaxing as a two-week vacation. Never consider taking time out to relax as a waste of time. It will infinitely increase your ability to manage your stressors, and that can add hours to your day.
You can use the relaxation exercise or any part of it to help you to do just about any visualization. Throughout this book, I’ve given many such exercises. Visualizing helps us to see our potential perhaps more clearly than we could in any other way. We can visualize having a positive self-image during those times when we’re down. We can use visualization to imagine having a rewarding attitude during a period of time when we feel trapped with a self-defeating one.
We can use visualization to imagine taking a risk and having it come out the worst possible way, or having it come out the best possible way. Having a preview of the potential on both sides, we can make better choices. Visualization can provide some very important help in setting goals and imagining certain changes that could otherwise seem intimidating. Are you procrastinating on something? Well, in addition to attacking your attitude, try visualizing that thing you’re procrastinating on as being finished.
Then, when you set out to break down the task into manageable parts, see how much easier the task appears. Finally, you can use visualization to dream. Close your eyes and take a few minutes to get yourself into a state of relaxation. Imagine yourself being totally happy by whatever definition of happiness you’ve made for yourself. Imagine you’re able to form good social relationships, whether they be romantic ones or just friendships. Imagine that you’re exactly as connected or detached as you want to be.
Imagine that your work is as creative and productive as you want it to be. Imagine that it has great meaning for you and that you are able to perform well when things get tough by selecting the attitude that will work for you and not allowing yourself to get pulled in any negative directions. Imagine yourself really accepting the person you are. Imagine a self-image that’s positive, so that when you look into a mirror, you really like the person you see, being in a frame of mind where there are no shoulds, no demands that you’re making on yourself or anyone else, where you’re able to savor the benefits that you’ve worked so hard for.
Everything that I’ve asked you to imagine is within your own power, not only to imagine, but to enjoy right now. They’re all a function of the attitudes by which you are capable of choosing to live your life. Take a few moments to savor and enjoy that feeling, knowing that you can always return to this place within yourself any time you choose. When you are ready, slowly open your eyes.
The way you live your live is nothing more than the sum total of the choices you make for yourself. I hope that by using the ideas in this book, you will consistently choose the attitude that will make your life work better and better the more you apply them. Personal growth, like life itself, is an ongoing process. Give it the attention it needs, and it will work wonders for you.
Good luck, and remember: don’t take yourself too seriously.
Positive Attitude Training
How to Be an Unshakable Optimist
Michael S. Broder, Ph.D.
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