Perfectionism and Stage Fright, how do I conquer them?

April 2, 2009, 10:22 AM ·

A really nice article submitted to me about perfectionism and nerves.  Dr. Reynolds is a frequent contributor to my website.  He answers teen and adult musicians' questions in a scientific and encouraging way.  I thought I'd share with you his answer to a couple of my readers about perfectionism and stage fright.  Last month, he also talked about the angst of being a teen musician which I thought was a great article because I started playing a instrument in my teens.  It was a hard time for me. 

Here's his article:


Q & A with Dr. Reynolds

Dr. Reynolds has a doctorate in psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and he practices in Southern California.  His son Jeremy is the bass guitar player for the international rock group "Hockey" (

Two questions that came in this month are related to a very human issue--anxiety.  So, I will answer them jointly.

"Why do people get so nervous before a performance? And what can I do to keep anxiety from ruining my performance?"  (J from the U.K.)

"Are there ways to control it, and not let it stress you to an unhealthy point?" (N from Spain on perfectionism)


The first question is about "performance anxiety," and the second question is about the drive many of us have toward "perfectionism."

Anxiety is best defined as our mind/body response to "perceived" threats to our sense of self.  Anxiety increases on both a physiological and a psychological level when we "perceive" that something about our self-image is being threatened.  This "perception" can also include the loss of someone as in "separation anxiety".  If we fail at something, our sense of confidence, our self-esteem usually takes a hit, and we feel less than capable.  When we perform well, our sense of self will gain strength, and confidence in our abilities improve.  While we all fail at one time or another, with some of our failures being more painful than others, we often learn more from our failures than our successes.  Unfortunately, our society doesn't tolerate failure well and often times "failure as learning" is lost in the dust.  Ultimately, this increases people's fears of failure and shuts down their attempts at new things.

Performing always puts a person on the spot. Because our self-image is always an issue (this should not be overlooked), the mind and body begin to work before the performance in anticipation of what might happen.  This mind/body response we label as anxiety has the ability to shut down our more cognitive functions (our thinking skills), and we often begin to panic in anticipation of a possible failure in the performance. Perfectionism has a similar response within the mind/body because the individual, consciously or unconsciously, puts pressure on themselves to perform perfectly.  This pressure we place upon ourselves that everything goes perfectly can also generate a sense of panic when things are perceived to be going badly.  

One thing we can all be aware of as we move about the world is what the research from neuroscience is teaching us.  Neuroscience research has demonstrated that the human brain is not one brain with two hemispheres (the left hemisphere is cognitive and the right hemisphere is emotional).  Rather, humans have two distinct brains that function differently.  When people make the statement that they are "of two minds," they are referring to this difference.  The majority of information we take in everyday comes into the right brain at an unconscious level.  The left brain helps us process these emotions and perceptions so that we can interact intelligently with our inner world, and the external world around us.  We feel the world and ourselves first (in the right emotional brain), and "think about it" secondly (in the left cognitive brain).  Within the human mind/brain system where so much information is processed at an unconscious level, performance anxiety and perfectionism can sneak up on us before we are aware of these issues in our left, rational thinking, brain.  
    Given this information, how can an individual cope with performance anxiety and maintain a healthy level of perfectionism?  I have three suggestions:

  1. Constant practice promotes confidence.
  2. Consistent feedback from others helps us to stay on track.
  3. Being "in the zone," or being "in flow" can enhance your performance without the distractions of anxiety and perfectionism.

    I want to suggest that "being in the zone," or "being in flow" can enhance any musician's performance by reducing anxiety and helping an individual get closer to their best performance.  In my experience, "being in the zone" is a more athletic term while "being in flow" has a wider usage.  From here on, I will refer to the term "being in flow."  The concept of "flow" has been researched extensively by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I would recommend reading any of his books).  I have adapted my comments from his book, Good Business: Leadership, Flow, And The Making Of Meaning (2003).  Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's research indicates that "flow" is a universal experience described by most people as the experience of being carried away by an outside force, of moving effortlessly with a current of energy, or something that happens at moments of the highest enjoyment (p. 39).  Flow has also been described as something in the complexity of a task that draws people in to such an extent that they become completely involved in the task at hand.  Within the flow experience, there is no differentiation between thought and action, or between self and the person's environment (p. 40).     


Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's research indicates that the flow experience is made up of eight interwoven elements:  

a) When the goals are clear.  True enjoyment comes from taking one step at a time toward a specific goal and not from actually attaining the goal.  A musician in "flow" is more concerned with the quality of experience during a performance, and not solely concerned with a successful performance.             

b) The activity itself provides immediate feedback to the musician who is immersed in playing their instrument.  

c) Flow occurs most easily when there is a balance between the musician's skill and the piece they are playing.  The music should be challenging but not beyond the musician's skill.  

d) Flow for the musician is marked by a deepening sense of concentration.  Here the musician's actions and awareness merge in a seamless field of energy where the distinction between the self and the activity disappears. The musician becomes "lost" in the music.  

e) The present moment is what really matters.  The flow experience demands the musician's complete attention making it more difficult for anxiety and other distractions to enter the mind.  So stay in the moment.     

f) There is a strong sense of being in control of their performance.  When the musician is surrendering to a performance rather attempting to control it, this gives the musician a greater opportunity to shine.

g) The musician's sense of time is altered, experienced as either expanding or contracting.  Most people think of time as "clock time," which can put a lot of pressure on a performer.  In "flow" we learn that one's sense of time is subjective, and that time adapts itself to the present task.     

h) There is a loss of ego.  In "flow" not only can an individual forget their problems and worries (their anxieties), they can also lose their sense of self to the musical performance.  Ironically, after a loss of ego, the musician's sense of self becomes stronger and more confident.    

The human mind/brain is programmed to be attuned to, and to respond to threats, the perception of possible failure that which might be unfinished in one's life, and to desires, which are unfulfilled.  During flow experiences, there is little room in the mind/brain for these threatening events.  What being in "flow" offers us is an opportunity to improve the quality of our day-to-day lives, the opportunity to reduce our anxieties, and the opportunity to stretch ourselves toward our best (most perfect) performance. 

That's all folks,



April 2, 2009 at 08:36 PM ·

Thanks for sharing that.

April 3, 2009 at 12:42 AM ·

I've not been often in " the zone" but I think I have maybe been a few times and when it happens, everything becomes predictable at 99%.  You can know a few second ahead of times how it will sound exactly!  It happens the most often when you don't think at all it will happen and, in my case, more when I do all the piece or study that just a few places with pauses!  However I hope it will often more often in the futur! Interesting article!


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