Performance Anxiety and Shame

Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of artists/performers and dealt with the issue of performance anxiety. I’ve also had to cope with my own anxieties, both as a public speaker and as a beginning pianist, playing for my family and friends. For most of my career, I’ve thought about performance anxiety as fall-out from the perfectionistic superego, how the hostile demand for perfection gets projected into the audience. I discussed these issues in an earlier post about self-consciousness.

I’ve also thought about performance anxiety in terms of fraudulence: for those of us who struggle with issues of precocity, who grew up quickly on the outside to escape unbearable feelings of needy smallness, we often believe our accomplishments are a sham, disguising the true state of affairs inside. One of my clients neatly summed it up with the first dream she brought to treatment: there was a scientist with big round glasses (like Mr. Peabody of the Way-Back machine) and a mortar board on his head, wearing diapers underneath his lab coat. Performance anxiety sometimes embodies the fear of being exposed as a fraud, of revealing that we’re really only “babies” underneath that facade of competence.

I still believe these dynamics are important, but lately, I’ve begun to think more about how shame may play a part. Two personal experiences brought the issue into focus for me and I’d like to share my thoughts about them here.

The first has to do with my relationship to music and how I use it to change the way I feel. (I have a new client — a musician and composer — who I think uses music in the same way, so the subject has been on my mind.) Many years ago when I was still in my own treatment, I had driven to San Francisco from Los Angeles; on the way back home, I stopped to visit my parents who were living in the Central Valley at that time. After many years of therapy, I’d grown more sensitive and aware of the toxic way my mother’s depression made me feel tainted. As I left their home, I felt poisoned; in order to feel better, I slipped a classical cassette into the player. Though it was nearly 30 years ago, I still remember what I chose: Chopin’s Variations on Là ci darem la mano from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Here’s a link to Claudio Arrau playing it. It made me feel much better — elevated, in a place of beauty. To this day, I get very emotional around minute 8.

When I told my therapist about that experience during our next session, he pointed out the way I had pronounced Chopin, with a highly correct and nasal ‘n’. It connected to a familiar theme of our work, the way as a boy I had evolved a precocious and eventually pretentious self to escape the unbearably small and needy “baby part” of me. (It could have been me who brought that diaper-scientist dream to his therapist.) We talked about emotional taint and escaping into purity. We talked about how I used music to “play” myself in order to evoke certain emotions, as discussed in this early post. But we didn’t talk about shame. It wasn’t a term in his psychodynamic lexicon.

As I understand it now, shame (a sense of internal ugliness) lies at the heart of my own relation to music. I take refuge from my pain in artistic beauty, as many people do, but I also want to escape from my own internal ugliness into that beauty. (Think of the song, “Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet,” from A Chorus Line.) I find particular solace in music of all kinds, and I’ve always wanted to play the piano well enough that I could take active part in that beauty — not professionally, but with enough skill that I could play the pieces musically.

I took lessons for about six months as a child but only started to study in earnest as an adult. Although I’ve made a lot of progress these last few years, until recently, the idea of playing for other people inspired deep performance anxiety and dread. If you take refuge in music or any other performance medium as an escape, in order to mask the internal pain, damage and ugliness, then performance inevitably stirs up the anxiety that you will be “unmasked” and seen for who you truly are. This anxiety is especially acute when the self you long to present to the world must be ideal — that is, a flawless performer. One mistake and you’re back to being an ugly, shame-ridden mess.

I believe this accounts for why a true virtuoso can experience performance anxiety. There was no question of technical mastery or musical ability for Vladimir Horowitz; he had no authentic reason to feel anxious about his performance. And yet, no amount of experience made any difference; no matter how many times he’d received standing ovations at the end of his concerts, he felt just as anxious prior to the next one. I wonder if his relation to music involved an escape from something internal, as mine does — if he suffered from a sense of being “damaged” inside, fearing that his internal “ugliness” would be exposed. I know little about him personally, and maybe it’s pointless to speculate.

Lately, I’ve noticed that I no longer feel that way. Mistakes don’t matter so much because my technique is now good enough that I’m playing pretty musically — that is, it finally sounds good to me; my family has also noticed the difference. In a recent lesson, I had just finished playing part of the sonata I’ve been working on this past year; at the end, with uncharacteristic hyperbole, my teacher said she couldn’t have played it better herself. Yes, she could have. But I played it quite well. I was moved and happy. I’ve been studying and practicing for years; as a result of all that hard work, I have now developed some actual skill. It’s not fraudulent, and I don’t expect it to be perfect.

But I think dealing with my own shame has had a more important effect: accepting my own damage and trying to take it into account, every day, means I’m not using music to escape from myself in the same way. Playing music as an expression of what’s inside, rather than an attempt to hide it. Of course, I still have those narcissistic fantasies, when someone just happens to be listening in and thinks, “Wow, he sounds amazing!” But when I hear it, I usually laugh at myself. When toxic shame becomes non-toxic — that is, when it becomes bearable, it means you can still develop an authentic self-esteem that is entirely different from a narcissistic defense against shame. It means, “Even if I’m damaged in some lasting ways, I can still take that damage into account, work hard and achieve something that I’m proud of.” I’m proud of my growing skill as a pianist and I have no illusions about ever being a professional.

This experience connected with something else that happened recently. Quite unexpectedly, I received a request to appear as a guest on a radio talk show. The host wanted me to talk about celebrity worship, because of some posts I’d written last year on the subject. At first, I felt anxious about it. I don’t consider myself an expert on celebrity worship, just an interested observer of human nature; the upcoming interview inspired some old anxieties — about being exposed as a fraud, humiliating myself in front of a radio audience, etc. Then the day before the interview, the host and I spoke at length about what to expect; he made it clear that the subject matter of the show was really me and my own ideas. I immediately felt relieved: I knew what I thought and I only had to articulate my ideas.

Of course, there was plenty of room left for falseness and embarrassment. Never having done an interview like that before, I was a little worried that I might take on a professional persona and start sounding “self-actualized” or enlightened. I was concerned that I might “lose touch” with myself in the middle and go off on a narcissistic tangent. Before the interview started, I gave myself ten minutes of mindfulness meditation, focused on my breathing, and told myself I only had to listen to the host’s questions and answer them honestly. I think it went pretty well. If you’re interested, here’s a link to a recording of the show; I’m in the second half hour.

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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    I would find it interesting to get your take on creative blocks with respect to perfectionism and performance anxiety. I recently came out of an entanglement with a severe narcissist. We used to make electronic music together. Over the course of living with him for 1 month, I began to seriously doubt my musical abilities in comparison to his (I have kept reminding myself that he had put a lot more energy and time into it than I had). Because of a combination of my own shame and my growing awareness of my friend’s insincerety, I rejected the few compliments he tried to give me while we worked on music and I found it very difficult to take criticism from him even though he was technically more skilled. It finally got to a point where I didn’t want to work on music anymore and I focussed on school (which was appropriate since I had recently transfered to McGill, much tougher than my previous university) because that was a point of strength for me, in comparison to my friend. I was attending a “superior” university and I generally got better grades then he did. The situation ended badly however, when I finally decided that I didn’t want to cater to his narcissitic needs anymore (listening to him talk about himself all the time, putting up with his greatly exaggerated self perceptions that I related back to myself and my own insecurity, and finally taking on blame and guilt for things that were either personal charactertisitics or out of my control, or perhaps things that he was simply prjecting). After that situation, however, I’ve been utterly disinterested in making music. I’ve had the odd inclination, but if I even manage to make it to the keyboard, I don’t have the motivation to actually make something. I feel as if that comparison is still running through my head and it gets mixed up with my general feelings of inferiority in comparison to my friend’s superiority (even though I consciously acknowledge that he was portraying a false self). I have also been doing some reading on inverted narcissism and I’d be interested to hear your take on that as well. Certainly some of the characteristics apply to my situation, however, looking back even further, I would say that I have gone through periords of classical narcissism as well, perhaps more mildly put as narcissistic disturbance. As well, I have a hard time accepting that I have some kind of masochistic tendancies underlying my relationship choices. It was almost as if my narcissism inverted as a result of close contact with someone more narcissitic than myself, although I might just be fairly normal and was suffering from projective identification. In either case, this experience has led me on a journey of self discovery. Although painful, I feel as if I’m stronger coming out than I was going in.

    I’m not sure if I’m understanding you exactly, but many people relate in terms of “who’s up and who’s down” vis-a-vis others. It’s as if every interaction must take please between a winner and a loser (I wrote more about this in a very early post; it’s possible to flip back and forth between them, sometimes feeling on top and sometimes on bottom. That might correspond to what you’re calling “narcissism” and “inverted narcissism.” In either case, it’s all about what I call “shame trading” — shifting the feeling of being damaged or inferior back and forth like a hot potato. That’s another post I keep meaning to write.

    It’s strange, when I’m asked to play piano for an audience,I feel unbearable shame, and yet when I start, I wish I knew more pieces to play. I want to play them for the audience. What is that? Is it self-esteem? Or narcissism? How can you tell the difference.

    With acting on the other hand, I just feel shame that my internal ugliness will be seen, and i struggle to be ok with being vulnerable. I want to get over it, but at the same time, I can’t commit to it, because once I let loose even a little bit, I recoil until i’m ready to face the theatre again. I suppose the fact that I do let loose at all is progress!

    The piano is gorgeous. Music is an amazing gift of life.

    It’s an interesting question. I wonder if the reason why acting stirs up so much more shame is because you have to draw upon your emotions and internal experience in order to perform; you also draw upon your experience when you play piano, but somehow that doesn’t seem quite the same as, say, bringing to life an entire psychological portrait. Just thinking out loud.

    Dear Jospeh,
    Another fascinating post!
    I feel like I have performance anxiety when I see my therapist. I have been diagnosed with depression but I am pretty sure I have borderline PD or at least borderline traits. My therapist is a very dedicated but extremely sensitive man and he gets hurt and angry when I tell him I sense he does not believe what I tell him. He admits he is angry but downplays its signifiance, while acting as if he is hurt. Our previous friendly relationship is now more distant. As a result I feel less inclined to raise it again but can’t work in such an unfriendly environment. I really like him but wonder if I should change to another therapist (although I feel so ugly inside that I’m scared the same thing will happen again .)
    Your thoughts?

    If your therapist gets angry with you because of things you tell him, that’s not a good sign. If you feel he doesn’t believe you (but he actually does), then it would be his job to try to understand why you believe he doesn’t — and what that means to you. Feeling hurt seems to me to be focusing on his own needs and feelings, rather than trying to understand yours.

    Dr. Burgo, do you welcome and/or are open to criticism and disagreement with your posts? I look in here often and even if I don’t fully understand what you say or agree with you, it often makes me think regardless of that. But I don’t see comments here challenging your thoughts and opinions, but rather people talking about their own experiences, saying they love your posts, and other positive comments. I read this post and listened to the radio interview soon after you posted it, and then wrote up a draft response to both and then thought, “Why bother?” I have a clinician and don’t agree with her ideas about everything and tell her so, but a layman often fears their opinons will be dismissed for not having the degree even though some laymen often know as much as the professionals. This is often played out online when a famous person is criticized, e.g., “When you become that successful of musician then you can talk?”, “Who are you to talk?”, and comments such as those. I see some bloggers get defensive and/or just ignore commenters. Then what is the purpose of blogging? That would be narcissistic, true narcissism, not the casual use of meaning self-love (which I have concerns about). I’m just wondering how you feel about this before I bother saying anything, with all due respect.

    As long as it’s respectful, I welcome dissent and discussion. In many of the earlier posts, there are lots of comments from people who disagree, often in very angry ways, but now if someone has an antagonistic response, I don’t approve it. You don’t need to agree with me but you do need to express your opinions in a respectful way.

    From what I gather, in a one-on-one situation there is a different dynamic- shame, anger, pride, all that “stuff” may come out during the (therapeutic) encounter.

    However, a blog is different. Dissent is good, but ruins the experience for all when done in a disrespectful manner. I am sure I’m not the only one that avoids most blogs- they tend to become toxic and deteriorate rather quickly. So by welcoming dissenting and respectful views, we not only get a broad perspective but feel safe posting here.

    Anyway, I am enjoying this post, because I remember how hard I was on myself when I used to race (mountain bikes, downhill)- instead of being proud that I made it down some of the courses in on piece and achieved some personal bests, I beat myself up when I did not “rank” well. It cracks me up how people get caught up in the “winner/and loser” mentality- for example, the saying “Second place is the first loser”.

    To illustrate how absurd this is- maybe I got on the podium that day because those that were better riders than I, simply did not show up that day. Or maybe I did “poorly” because those same riders did show up. Maybe I won because the person that could have beat me that day had a bad crash and got hurt, and I “won” because she got injured. Maybe I came in last because I was competing against women much younger than me that lived at the resorts I was competing at. On any given day, I may have been at the top of my game, or not. Too many variables. But this is what made it interesting. I learned to stop obsessing so I could simply enjoy riding and racing. Glad I did, or I would have really missed out. My shame was my own, anyone watching me generally thought I was awesome.

    I swear I won’t let that go to my head. :) or bore anyone with talk of the glory days.

    Good for you! I think it’s very difficult to get to the place you reached, in part because the whole “winner-loser” thing is EVERYWHERE in our culture. For all the talk about doing our “personal best,” in truth we value only the winner … and there’s only one.

    Joseph, as always a thought-provoking article. Your articles DO make me think, and even now and then at night in bed. I was re-reading “Howards’ End” and by some association of ideas I began to think of some of the things you say.

    Re performance, maybe things are simpler…..very many famous artistes confess to having stage-fright. Maybe it is just that. No matter how accomplished the artiste it has to be daunting to get out there on the stage (actor, singer, instrumentalist). That great tenor, Franco Corelli, suffered from such awful stage fright all his life that his wife and others had to physically push him out of the wings onto the stage. He was fine once he was on. So maybe it is just plain “nerves” of the variety we can all feel before going to the dentist, or before an exam.
    As for the interview, Joseph, well what you remark is right. “… told myself I only had to listen to the host’s questions and answer them honestly.”

    One has to just be oneself on such occasions, and if that includes “warts and all ” LOL, well so be it.