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.
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