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Stage Fright: Can We Disable the Panic Button?

Rose Claire writes:

Alison, you said you would like to be a presenter for an LDS event. Jeannie, you have performed professionally all your life. I can’t even bear my testimony without practically passing out. Is there really any hope that a hopeless scaredy-cat can learn to speak or perform without trembling?

Kathy says:

Rose Claire, you have asked the right writers to address this problem. Confidence and poise are very much a part of both of their personalities, and they are desirable traits for a Latter-day Saint woman who has pledged to stand as a witness at all times and in all places. I would like to say only that bearing witness is not the same as performing. It can certainly spoil an otherwise powerful presentation if the speaker or singer is breathless and shaking and trying to deliver her message with a quavering voice and shimmying knees. But it is not uncommon to hear stirring testimonies with all of those scaredy-cat qualities, even from otherwise polished speakers. The Holy Ghost will verify and sanctify the message if it is sincere, and skill makes no difference whatsoever. I remember an attorney bearing his testimony in our ward, teasing himself that he rants at juries all day in thunderous rhetoric, but his knees turn to jello when he stands before his brothers and sisters at church to express the tender feelings of his heart.

I noticed as a young woman that some TV ministers used theatrical, dramatic speaking techniques that were fun and impressive, but our speakers in General Conference were the opposite. They were (and are) quiet and conservative, but absolutely convincing in the unmistakable candor of their souls. I think many of the speaking responsibilities that we are called upon to fulfill are not really “presenting” in the sense of “making a speech.” They are just part of our church calling and as such are covered by the blessings we receive when we are set apart. In fact, every challenge of our lives, no matter how scary, is covered by the wonderful and miraculous comfort of the gift of the Holy Ghost conferred upon us as members.

That’s not very helpful if you don’t like having sweaty palms and white knuckles every time you need to speak to more than six people. But Moses didn’t think he could do it either. He did just fine. He did everything Heavenly Father asked him to do. I think that is your desire also. I hope you will feel especially blessed and comforted the next time you are called upon to stand terrified in the spotlight, knees quaking, silently praying that something audible will come out of your mouth. Read on for more encouragement. We also invite our readers who have experience in this area to offer pointers to Rose Claire and the rest of us who turn to cowards when we are called upon to talk or sing in public.

Jeannie says:

Although I’ve been a performer for most of my life, it may surprise you to know that I wrestle with severe stage fright every time I am called upon to sing. Truth be known, it is a white-knuckle, throw-up, panic button agony. I find myself wishing for a trap door through which I could vanish forever. I keep thinking, “This is just like labor pains and delivery of a baby ?in two minutes I’ll step out on the stage and there’s no escape!!!” On the other hand, you ask me to teach a lesson, bear testimony or speak in public: hey, no problem. Go figure.

I’ve been trying to figure it out for many years. With some help, I’ve come to several conclusions. Maybe some of these hard-won discoveries will mean something to you, as well.

Things will not always get easier the more you do them. Now, I do have to say that after the first two songs, if I’m doing a full concert, the nerves are under control and I start enjoying myself. Still, the angst experienced before the fact is enough to take 10 years off my life.

If you can endure the first moments of sheer terror, it really does get better. Most of us with severe stage fright surrender after only a few of these horrendous moments and never open our mouths again. It is totally illogical to willingly subject our shaking bodies to yet another bout of punishment. Yet, this is exactly what the Lord requires of us ?all of us.

Ether 12:27 has been a source of frustration and finally, great comfort to me. I brought my weakness to the Lord, believing that it would indeed, be made a strength. The weakness did not disappear, even though I tried earnestly to magnify my talent and use it to build His kingdom. It was so frustrating. How could I possibly continue to do that thing which He required and which I feared most?

Through much soul-searching and prayer, I have been given a clearer understanding of this paradox. Along with the gift of song, He has gifted me with a weakness to help remain humble. It is a “blessing” to keep me on my knees and remind me from whom the gift has come each time I use it. There will come a day I know, (and my feeling is that it may not be in this life) when I will be able to stand and sing without fear.

Until then, let me share some practices that are, at very least, keeping me from running away to China before each performance.

  • Constant conversation with Father in Heaven. “Please help me to be a conduit for thy Spirit.” “Help me to forget myself and think about the message I am trying to convey.” “Help me to love those to whom I sing/speak.” “Let the audience feel my love for them.” These thoughts help to turn the focus outward and away from personal fear.
  • Visualization. Even the Lord created all things spiritually before the real event. Picture the stage, pulpit, classroom and our walk to performance. Feel the heartbeat, the fear and shaking and acknowledge them. It is natural to be afraid, but with every word/note, feel the fear diminishing and conviction for the message increasing. As this happens, our message becomes a testimony, edifying and bringing joy to both listener and performer.
  • Substitution. Instead of listening to and believing negative messages: “I am afraid,” “I will fail,” or “I am not as good as Sister ____,” substitute things that the Savior would say and want you to believe about yourself. “I am with you” or “You will succeed” are two that have become my personal affirmations.

  • Lose “perfectionism.” Perfectionists struggle the most with stage fright. They set the unrealistic goal of being 100% every time they step in front of an audience. We are human. Words, melodies and parts of lessons or testimonies may be forgotten. Those of us who perform regularly have to get ‘OK’ with this fact or quit performing altogether. Those who give lessons or occasional testimonies can take solace in the fact that no one knows when you forget or skip a word.
  • Take courage in experience. By reminding ourselves, if we are seasoned performers, that we have done this for years and lived through it, fear can be replaced with courage. If we are first-time performers, courage can be found in the fact that nearly everyone in the room has done what we are about to do. We can, too!
  • Be gracious. If the performance/lesson goes well, accept thanks or praise and pass it on to the Lord in the form of prayer. If the performance was not our very best, accept thanks or praise and pass it on to the Lord in the form of prayer. The next one will be better.

Please share your successes, challenges and suggestions. I’m sure they will be a source of comfort and courage to all who, like me, suffer from severe stage fright.

Alison says:

While discussing our next topic I was surprised, as I always am by such comments, when Kathy said, “Alison, I think you are our confident one, and possibly have a tough time relating to any strain of stage fright but if you can find an area that resonates with you, or if you have, possibly, watched another person grow into a role that formerly horrified her or him, that would work.”

If Kathy could have seen my face! If she could have read my mind! I am not sure she would have understood the mixture of humor and pain she would see. It is laughable that someone could think me confident or perhaps laughable that the facade is working so well! And it is painful to think of all the flaws that seem to make true confidence (if such a thing really exists) so difficult.

It is true that I have been performing for years. First piano, then violin, then voice, then theater and musicals and ballroom dance. I even paid for a bit of my college expenses with “scholarship pageant” monies. It is also true that I have grown to love performing and public speaking (although I still always get nervous and jittery with the adrenalin rush). But it is also true that people can do all these things without really being self-assured. And, in fact, it is often the people who feel compelled to hear external applause that are most lacking in real inner peace.

So rather than address the reader’s question with some canned answer like “practice in front of the mirror” or “join Toastmasters,” I would like to tell you about something I am far too familiar with: the consequences of not understanding that our real worth comes only from God.

? Nearly three years ago a woman named Tara moved into my ward in Boca Raton. After enrichment night (or was it still homemaking?) another sister in the ward, Sue, was giving Tara a social map of the ward. “You should get to know Alison. You seem to have a lot in common. You’ll like her.”

“Oh, no,” Tara replied. “She’s way too sophisticated for me.”

Fortunately for me, Sue is a self-described speak-before-thinking kind of person on occasion. And before the thinking set in, she had already spoken and told me, right in front of Tara, exactly what Tara had said in private. Although Tara was thoroughly embarrassed, I was fortunate enough to have her perspective revealed to me. That gave me the opportunity (and the guts) to approach her without fear. Had I not known what Tara was thinking, I would have assumed that her hesitance toward me was because of some great personal distaste for me and this assumption would have made approaching her in friendship seem too risky.

As it was, the ice was broken and within about three days we became fast friends. What a blessing I would have missed, simply because of an overblown fear of rejection!

? In a student ward I attended while in college, I was assigned to visit teach a new sister in the ward. She was tall, blonde, thin, and beautiful ?and I didn’t dare call her up to introduce myself. “What if she thinks I’m stupid? What if she thinks I’m ugly? What if she thinks I’m a total dork?”

The next Sunday during our Relief Society lesson something (I don’t even recall what it was) brought to my understanding the gaping void in my perspective. Relief Society is primarily an organization of service and visiting teaching is an explicit service stewardship. My duty was to extend myself to the sister to whom I was assigned, to find her needs and do what was in my power to fill them, to be a friend and support to her. Whether she thinks I’m stupid, ugly, or dorky are irrelevant. But I was not likely to be able to serve this sister when all I could think about was myself!

? For a year I served in a Young Women presidency with a woman named Patti. We were cordial, but not close, and I had the distinct impression that she didn’t much care for me. As usual, this impression kept me at a distance. Patti was smart, well-spoken, dependable, thin, and always (along with her husband and two young sons) looked absolutely sharp and immaculate. In other words, she was a little intimidating to me.

When I became pregnant with my third daughter, I also became extremely ill. The morning sickness dragged on and on and it became overwhelming and depressing trying to care for my two other young daughters. Still, I didn’t want to “be a burden,” so I tried not to let people know how bad off I really was.

One afternoon, lying on the couch with a bowl next to my head, I heard a knock on the door. “Oh, no!” I thought. I was wearing sweats, hadn’t showered, applied makeup, or taken any kind of styling instrument to my mass of hair. My preschool daughter looked like a neglected child. My house was a mess in fact the bathroom was so filthy that earlier that day, running into the bathroom to throw up, I actually threw up a second time over the condition of the bathroom! (Honest!) This was not really a fine time for visitors!

I reluctantly dragged myself off the couch and walked toward the door. Out of the window, who should I see but Patti! Great! She’s never, ever come to my house and now she wants to come over? Why? So she can gloat about the great disparity in our lives? So she can tell all her perfectly groomed friends what a slouch I am? So she can patronize me? She is on top of the world and I’m a total loser.

I opened the door a crack, beginning to apologize for my condition. Before I could say much, she smiled and said, “Hi! I know pregnancy can be really hard, so I thought I’d bring you guys some dinner.” I don’t recall even giving a response, but I’m sure my jaw hit the floor. After she left I cried. The joy at being able to relieve my husband of some of the burden he had been carrying (while doing the work of two parents) was incredible.

When my husband came home I actually walked, upright (!), into the kitchen and victoriously pronounced, “Dinner’s ready!” [Imagine a look of shock on my husband's face.] Then I said, “Guess who brought it?” After about ten minutes of the fun guessing game, I finally told him Patti brought dinner. He said, “Why?” and all I could say was, “I don’t know.”

For days I thought about that. Why would someone who doesn’t like me, bring a lovely dinner over? If she really doesn’t hate me, then why have I spent the entire past year assuming that she does?

Because of this one act of generous service, I felt confident enough to approach her in friendship. After wasting a whole year while this dear sister lived in my ward, I finally got to know her, and until she and her family moved, we were inseparable. In spite of the fact that she seemed to have everything in her life in perfect order, she was still one of the nicest people and truest friends I ever met. (Which, in hindsight, actually verifies the fact that her life is in perfect order!)

Why has this lesson been so hard for me to learn? Why can’t I just get over myself? Why am I so afraid of being disliked or misjudged that I miss out on so much good?

Perhaps I can blame it on my youth. I was a plump, red-haired, bespectacled girl who liked math and was painfully shy and insecure but still had a penchant to be obnoxiously loud and talkative. (Yes, it’s possible to be both.) I was teased relentlessly at school and, sadly, in church as well beginning just a few weeks into kindergarten and ending at the end of seventh grade eight very long years.

Although I can say that my fear of peer rejection had its roots (as well as its trunk, branches, and leaves!) in these years of being forced to associate with a person (and his cohorts) who thought it amusing to humiliate me publicly, I cannot in all honesty say that I believe that it justifies my carrying it into adulthood. Because I know better. I know human nature better. I know myself better. And I know God better.

I have learned (the long, slow, hard way) that spending an inordinate amount of time mulling (and agitating) over what others think of me is not just self-conscious, it is also self-centered. It is the height of arrogance, I am beginning to believe, to focus so much on what everyone in the world thinks and says about me as if they really think or say anything at all and to imagine that if they did that the topic of me would really be all that important!

It is sad to look back on my life and realize the many opportunities I must have missed, the friendships I passed by, the blessings I could have given and received, had I been more concerned about others than I was about myself. It took me years to understand that my “shyness” and “lack of self-esteem” were really symptoms of profound egotism.

In this age of heightened awareness of self, Ester Rasband wrote a profound book titled, Confronting the Myth of Self-Esteem: Twelve Keys to Finding Peace. In it she proposes something that is scripturally sound, but culturally startling: we find esteem for ourselves, not by seeking for it but by seeking to highly esteem others.

For years I had tried to overcome the pain of the teasing and ridicule of classmates by winning awards and crowns and scholarships. Somehow I thought these things could prove that they were wrong, that I really was worthwhile and if they finally agreed that I was worthwhile, then I could think so, too. But I never realized that the scriptural guide to inner peace has very little to say about self-esteem but pages upon pages of direction in self-mastery, self-sacrifice, and ridding ourselves of selfishness. So where does God put the emphasis?

When I told you that I was both humored and pained at Kathy’s belief that I am confident, I must add that it also made me happy. While I still have many moments when I am afraid to act on an impression for fear of looking stupid (like last week when I was out jogging and thought I should ask a distraught stranger who was emptying a car filled with funeral flowers if she was alright–but didn’t), having a surer knowledge of what is important has made me stronger. And as the years go by, the pretense of confidence seems to be slowly overtaken by real assuredness.

I am a daughter of my Heavenly Father who loves me. He doesn’t care if I am stupid, ugly, or dorky. He doesn’t love me less if losing the weight after my fifth baby is harder than the first. He doesn’t mind if I have stubby hands and awful nails that can’t stay manicured. He doesn’t care if I give a lesson or bear a testimony and someone finds it unsophisticated. He just wants me to try my best no matter how lame that effort may be and get up and try again when I mess up royally. And if someone else wants to think I’m stupid or ugly or dorky or self-righteous or overbearing or unskilled (or whatever!) in the process, then so be it.

When my children feel insecure or afraid at the thought of approaching someone or something new, I have taken to asking them, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” and then, “What is the best thing that can happen?” Usually the worst thing that can happen is total rejection. The person can think you’re a stupid, ugly, dorky loser and tell you to get lost. Or maybe they could punch you in the nose. But the best thing that could happen is you could make a life-long friend, serve someone in need, be an answer to a prayer, or be the person through whom God blesses the lives of others. And most of the time the possible trouble of the former is far outweighed by the possible benefits of the latter.

We aren’t here on earth to sit cowering in our corners (or our cubicles). We are here to get back home. And one of the easiest ways to stay on the straight and narrow path (thereby shortening our journey) is to lift others along as God lifts us. There is something magnetic about serving and doing good…and it seems to pull us continually back toward the iron rod.

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • innovative momma July 22, 2007, 1:14 pm

    I am reminded of a dear friend and professional mentor who makes teaching look easy. He is calm and composed in class, he speaks fluently there and can even take some teasing (which I have to admit, I loved to do). It was not always so; in fact, he openly admits that he had probably the worst case of the fear of speaking. How did he get over it? He applied systematic desensitization techniques. You may wish to find a therapist who can help you with this process. One resource may be a local university with a good psychology department where you can either work with an intern or take a class. You may find some pragmatic solutions.

    However, you have received some very valuable, insightful and spiritual answers from Kathy, Jeannie and Alison. I do not wish to diminish them in any way. I, too, have performed all of my life (and, at one point, professionally, just not in Jeannie’s league!) and find that there are times when I still get stage jitters. But I have noticed one consistency: the more I focus on my status as a servant and daughter of God, the less I worry about the performance.

    Having come from an abused, non-member background, it took me far too many years (I think) to come to my true, spiritual conversion. But once I had the wondrous, glorious and sweet experience that taught me in ways nearly incomprehensible that I am truly a daughter of God, with value based not on what I could do, the potential within me or anything else but that I am literally His daughter, it suddenly became palatable to be human and imperfect. The jitters, the butterflies, the fears all melted away, because I no longer needed to prove to anyone who I am or that I have eternal worth.

    I have learned that when I prepare myself the best I can, I can do well. But true success comes to me when my preparations are focused not on vocal technique but on being a vehicle through which the Spirit can testify to those whose hearts are prepared to hear. If I regard a solo or any other “performance” (including teaching a class) as an opportunity to showcase my talents, I fail (sometimes miserably so). But when I desire with all my heart to praise my Savior and my Heavenly Father through song or through teaching their words, when I want so very much to add to the Spirit of a meeting so that someone will be strengthened, then wondrous things happen. My voice holds true, I have strength and capacity beyond my own, and I feel the Spirit testifying to and through me. The fear of failure and of rejection can keep us from having precious, joyous experiences. I pray that you will find a dear friend who will be willing to sincerely, respectfully and supportively listen to you as you begin to overcome your fears. Michael McLean put it best, I think: “This friend seems to see all the great things you can be, even when some things you do would prove him wrong. But he always believes that the real you he sees is a champion he’s simply cheering on” (from his song “Be That Friend”). I see a champion in you. I believe that Kathy,

    Jeannie and Alison all see that champion, too. But most importantly, I believe with all my heart that our Father in Heaven sees the champion in you and He and His Son are cheering you on!

  • Jeannie Vincent July 22, 2007, 1:14 pm

    Dear Grace:

    Thanks so much for your never-failing good advice. I’m so glad you mentioned the preparedness aspect of the whole issue and how it relates to our ability to let go and be the conduit or vehicle through which the message is conveyed. Keeping the service aspect paramount in our minds certainly helps us refocus our energy.

    Your comments always resonate. Thanks again.

  • Alison Moore Smith July 22, 2007, 1:15 pm

    Grace reminds me that we have a personal responsibility to do our part in preparing for a presentation before we ask for the Lord’s intervention. Let me tell you about a time I did not prepare myself to the best of my ability.

    During my senior year in high school, I went to a vocal scholarship audition of some kind. We were required to sing both an aria and an art song from the list provided. I don’t recall which aria I choose, but I will never forget “Mariolina.”

    Since I customarily chose to leave important things to the last minute, my mother (who was also my fine accompanist) was not terribly surprised when we hopped in the car and were a few blocks into our 15 minute drive before I realized that I hadn’t completely memorized all three verses of my Italian art song. So, while Mom drove, I frantically crammed all sorts of meaningless foreign phrases into my brain.

    When my scheduled audition arrived, I stepped on the stage in the Madsen Recital Hall. The hall was nearly empty, except for the judges and a couple of extraneous people. I sang my aria, quite to my satisfaction, then launched into the art song. The first verse went beautifully, and the second was certainly stunning. But on the second line of the third verse, my mind went completely and totally blank. Knowing not a lick of Italian (with the exception of the few Italian pieces I had memorized) I proceeded to finish the entire song using what to me seemed like vaguely Italian-sounding syllables. You know, like lasagna, penne, and cannelloni.

    To my relief, my mother had the presence of mind to keep playing with a smile firmly affixed on her face and I stood tall and proud while singing the graces of all sorts of pasta dishes.

    When we stepped offstage and the door shut behind us, we both burst out laughing. What a waste of a good Saturday morning that had been. I should have slept in!

    About a week later, my voice teacher called to inform me that I had received the highest score.

  • klgreen1 July 22, 2007, 1:15 pm

    Clearly the gift of tongues has many modern interpretations in the Madsen Recital Hall. Hey, maybe Rome wasn’t built in a day. It might only have taken fifteen minutes with the right mason. Veni, Vedi Victi Spaghetti-o’s to you, Al. You’re our impromptu super star.

  • Reader Comment July 22, 2007, 1:16 pm

    Ann from Manitoba writes:

    Wow! Alison! Wonderful, wonderful essay! Although I am in no way a performer neither able to, nor asked to you described many things that I have felt. Especially the outspoken but shy. Most people would be very surprised to know that about me. I have been told often by people who get to know me that I was ‘intimidating:’ a characteristic that I cannot imagine anyone associating with me. My background is flawed (whose isn’t!) and I’m with you on getting over it.

    Nevertheless, the impact of being constantly measured against/compared to constantly against siblings lives on, and sadly, still goes on. And in my family survival is based on the facade, at least for me. I am, in that arena, considered to be the weakest- perhaps that is why I project something else to others as a defense against potential onslaught.

    Sometimes I think that it is something as simple as carriage. I was always taught to stand up straight, and somehow good posture conveys power or strength. The irony there being that the straighter I carry myself into a room, the more petrified I am! I appreciate the honesty of sharing your thought processes- so true!

    There is a lady in my ward whom I respect and admire particularly for her peaceful demeanor, grace under pressure, focus on things of the Spirit- she seems to be truly giving the gospel her all to me -heart, mind and soul. From thoughts that she has expressed in various meetings over the years, my impression of her is that she is very spiritual, and someone I could learn a good deal from. Having been in the same ward for 10yrs or so, I have, of course, had occasion to chat with her. It seems that no matter what, somehow she speaks to me only of how great my hair is, or something I am wearing. I have never been able to get past the superficial with her. My perception is that she must find me shallow and vain.

    A few years ago she had occasion to perform the role of a mutual ancestor and she conveyed all the emotion and spirit beautifully. I was touched and edified, so I wrote her a little note afterward expressing my appreciation. At the next social event, we crossed paths and she thanked me for the note. She started to say something, but caught herself short. It seemed that she thought better of it. Her words were “I just didn’t think that you ? well, Thank-you” . Given our past association, I concluded that she was surprised that I had a spiritual bone in my body. In reading your article today, I realized that she could just as easily have been surprised that I:

    1. thought she was any good
    2. respected he
    3. shared a common ancesto
    4. none of the above

    I am grateful for your thoughts regarding the egotistical aspect. This is not something that I had ever thought of, and I intend to ponder it. The irony of all that insecurity turning out to be conceit is both intriguing and alarming. Definitely worth some consideration.

  • Alison Moore Smith July 22, 2007, 1:17 pm

    Last week I had the great privilege of attending Women’s Conference at BYU. As I was walking away from the opening session, a librarian and Berkeley graduate from California approached me to ask directions around campus. (I must still look like a “zoobie”* as she figured I knew my way around.) After a moment she asked, “Do you write for Circle of Sisters? Your picture’s on the web site, isn’t it?”

    “Wow!” I thought, “I made it! I’m famous!” And instinctively I threw my arms above my head in the universal touchdown victory sign.

    OK, so already I’m not acting cool and poised like a person who is accustomed to being thronged by fans begging for my autograph.

    Next this kind woman said that she appreciated what we had written in the recent article about miscarriage. I must have cringed or made some kind of affirmative grunting sound because she said, “I know. Writing on the internet feels like you’re just writing into the ether. It’s strange to meet the real people who are out there reading.”

    Boy, was she right! Talk about performance anxiety! I didn’t really know what to say and somehow felt terribly exposed. This flesh and blood woman walking next to me knew my deepest thoughts and feelings ?and now I was supposed to engage in small talk? I would have preferred to crawl under a rock and hide in embarrassment!

    Well, I muddled through until we parted ways in the Wilkinson Center. And I wondered if I’d completely ruined her future enjoyment of the Circle of Sisters, now that she knew what I was really like!

    On the last day of Women’s Conference the small choir of which I am a member, Exultate, had the wonderful blessing of singing in the closing session. Elder Neal A. Mawell was the speaker, many of the general auxiliary presidencies were in attendance as well as President Bateman, his wife, and many general board members, the Marriott Center was filled with about 20,000 people, and the performance was broadcast over the church satellite system to about a gazillion more.

    Not a problem. Didn’t break a sweat. Thoroughly enjoyed every minute. Much easier than dealing one-on-one with another human being, who may or may not think you’re stupid, ugly, and/or a total dork.

    Well, we all have to start somewhere!

    *A “zoobie” is a BY “Zoo” (Brigham Young University) student.

  • Reader Comment July 22, 2007, 1:18 pm

    Jean from California, write:

    This is to Alison:

    Wow, I’m famous! I’m the one you ran into at Women’s Conference. Just wanted to let you know that yes, I still enjoy the Circle column and I didn’t think you were abrupt or anything; I think I’d dig myself a hole and die if I ever met some people I’ve talked with online. Sorry I embarrassed you. I did brag to a few friends that I’d met you, and I hope you enjoyed the rest of conference as much as I did.

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