Self-Consciousness and Performance Anxiety

Most of us have had the experience of hearing a recorded version of our own voice and thinking, “I don’t really sound like that.” In preparing the first two videos for my website and new YouTube channel, I’ve had to observe myself in a similarly unfamiliar way. As I’ve seen myself on camera — editing different takes, perceiving my discomfort, watching myself fumble because of anxiety — I’ve had to take a different look at how I appear to others. At the same time, this has brought me into closer contact with my own self-criticism; I’ve had to confront that savage inner voice in ways I don’t usually do.

That critical voice tells me things in ways that aren’t particularly useful, but there’s often an element of truth. Getting feedback from friends and site visitors has helped me to filter our the harshness and distill everyone’s observations (including my own) into something useful. The best reality check came from a client who viewed the first video on bipolar disorder and told me I didn’t seem at all like the person she’d known for so many years. She could see I was struggling; she commented on my anxiety. I think she meant that I didn’t seem at ease and lacked my usual self-confidence. To me, it feels a lot like playing the piano. If I’m alone, I can play my current piece almost perfectly, completely immersed in the music, almost without self-awareness; if you give me an audience, I’ll become self-conscious and start to fumble. I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences.

These situations involve the process of projection, where our own inner critic is projected outside into the audience. Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, suffered from such severe performance anxiety that he would become physically ill before each concert and sometimes had to be forced onto the stage. The pianist father of one of my clients was so crippled by stage fright that he eventually abandoned his concert career and spent his life teaching instead. For some reason I don’t entirely understand, this process of projection seems to intensify the self-criticism. Maybe it’s because instead of one critical (internal) observer, you have thousands outside, each one of them just as critical as you are. In recording myself on camera, I’m no doubt inhibited by the fantasy of potential viewers watching me and finding fault. So maybe if I’m very careful and controlled, I can avoid doing that one thing or expressing myself in that one particular way that all of you out there will criticize!

For that reason, what comes across most to me as I watch myself on camera is my guardedness. I’m trying so hard not to make a mistake! As a result, I lack spontaneity or a sense of ease, and several of my personal qualities seem to be missing: my warmth, first of all. More than one friend has told me I need to smile more, the way I do in social interactions; but what exactly is there to smile about when discussing the extreme suffering behind major symptoms of depression and manic flight? In a similar vein, I have a lively sense of humor. I like to laugh a lot; even in sessions with clients, we’ll often laugh together about something we both find funny. How to convey that in a video for an audience of people who don’t know me? It’s hard to laugh “with” a camera, even if I could find something to laugh about in bipolar disorder. An actor-friend who has done a lot of work on television told me I need to address the camera as if I were speaking to somebody I know well, explaining my ideas to an intimate. Okay, I’ll work on that one.

A part of my anxiety also comes from not wanting to appear narcissistic, as if I think I have all the answers. It should be obvious from this website that I don’t believe in answers or solutions of the kind so many mental health professionals seem to offer. I also spent a lot of time in a professional community where it was too often personal charisma — the appearance of having it all together and knowing the answers — that made people want to connect with you. And yet, here I am, putting myself on video and promoting myself as an authority. Surely that is narcissistic behavior of some kind. What makes me think I have the right to put myself forward in this way?

I do think I have something of value to say, a point of view that’s different from most of what’s available in the mental health community at large and online. Video has become increasingly important for reaching an Internet audience, so as uncomfortable as it makes me feel, I’m committed to putting myself forward in this way. I expect that in time, I’ll get better and more relaxed with the process. If you haven’t seen it already, I’ve made a second effort, a piece about narcissism and ‘The Social Network’. You can view that video by clicking on the Vimeo link below.

I think this one is a little better. There’s even the hint of a smile at the very end!

By Joseph Burgo

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.


  1. Things to laugh at in depression.

    The grandiosity: I’m the worst person in the WHOLE world. Worse that Stalin and ALL the Nazi’s put together!

    Incidents like someone deciding they liked music but then got depressed again – there were only so many notes so it would all be played anyway.

  2. Joe , Love all the new features of your website. Enjoyed both of your videos and found the information there extremely helpful . I am not an actress but have a suggestion : put a good friend or family member right next to the camera the next time you make a video . Then look at him or her as you are making the video and talk to just that person . Take a deep breath before you start and “forget” about the camera . Let your body loosen up and let your facial muscles loosen up . Maybe even have a few sips of wine before you begin. Then when you are finished make the video all over again. Pretty soon you will feel more relaxed and able to be your real “self” and not struggle so much to present your public “persona” as Jung would say . Your real “self” shines through in your writing!! Let it shine through in your videos. Those if us who read your already like you . No need to fear being judged. You’re great ! Let your warmth and caring show through . All the best, Penny

    1. Penny, I’m really touched by your comment and your kindness. I’ll follow your advice and see if it helps. Thanks so much!

  3. This article is very interesting, but I think that this is something pretty normal and even artists, singers and actors suffer from some kind of anxiety before going to the stage.

  4. I find your blog very resourceful, and you go deeper on some topics that several other websites don’t even brush on (for example, your last post on Shame-Based Divorces resonated quite a bit for me…I have never seen the dynamics of divorce discussed like that).

    My husband and I watched your YouTube post about bipolar and, as a result, ended up deciding to watch the movie “Limitless” that you mentioned in the video. We liked the movie a lot and were able to draw parallels to our own lives of our experiences the first time our son took his ADHD medicine, or the first time I took mine.

    So, for what it’s worth, nervous or not on your YouTube videos, you likely have some very interested followers that just want to hear what you have to say because no one else is saying it…I don’t really see anyone else talking about “defense mechanisms” and transference from a clinical based example point of view. Many of the websites just describe what they are, but how you apply it to real case examples is what drives it home for someone like me trying hard to understand it myself.

    Thanks for your continued posts!

    1. You are very welcome. And thank YOU for submitting your comment. Next time when I’m sitting there in front of the camera, I’ll try to remember that most people don’t really care about how I appear or whether I’m nervous.

  5. The late Luciano Pavorotti said in an interview in the early eighties that he thougth half the audience out there didn`t like him, “I sing for the other half”.
    You do have a public that welcomes you: I find myself clicking in ever so often to see if you`ve written something new. Keep writing!

  6. I don’t think you sound or look nervous. The only thing I would say as I was watching it is that I wish you talked faster. Maybe because I’m a fast talker or fast listener I don’t have so much patience, so that’s just my taste in listening, it just sounds a wee bit stiff or too measured? Otherwise I think these are great. I think the Zuckerberg character is a bit extreme but the scenes hit all the keywords of narcissism. I couldn’t stand the guy in the movie, Facebook success or not!

    I’m interested in the word ‘contempt’ – here’s an example: a famous person wrote a book full of errors, factual errors, really obvious things to me, some outright fabrications, and some things which are really cold to people still living from their past. I found this to be contempt for the reader/fan. This person even admits they are narcissistic as if it’s some banner or that admitting it will make it OK. His narcissism is clearly indicated in the book. What bothers me is that so many people overlook what I (and some others) read and because he hasn’t acknowledged all these errors it’s like “who cares, other people like it.” I don’t know why I get so frustrated with this when I should simply look or walk away. You see it in political people too, such as Sarah Palin, who has told many obvious lies throughout her career and people let that fly out the window because she says some things they want to hear. There are many famous people who would serve as examples of narcissism and people are so beguiled by them. But I’m also wondering why it infuriates me so much. Basically, if you don’t get on their bandwagon you’re disposable and even if you have valid criticism it’s ignored.

    This pervades our culture of public figures . I’ve read that narcissism is basically incurable, untreatable, that narcissistic people don’t change. So while it’s helpful to recognize it, it seems that there is no choice but to walk away. But you can’t from political figures. And if the narcissist has plenty of people feeding off their success (e.g. Facebook) there’s no reason for them to change or be self-reflective (e.g. you know, what I said about this person is my book was really cold and that person is out there reading this). Sorry if I’m babbling, I’m just trying to understand why people treat these people like demi-gods and won’t acknowledge their faults. I’m probably too bothered by this.

    Anyway, I look forward to more videos. You bring up things that make me look inside myself in your own self-questioning way, which I don’t experience with my counselor – a little bit but not as deep.

    1. I think a narcissist can change but they usually don’t have much motivation to do so if their narcissism is being fed by the public. This is what is so lethal about fame for the people who achieve it. Take Charlie Sheen, for example. When you can hire people to be your “intimates”, who will never question your delusions, it’s easy to use them as narcissistic support and never face the shame you feel. Some kind of major failure or personal disaster is a useful check for such people … kind of like “hitting bottom” is for alcoholics, who often won’t change until they absolutely have no other recourse. I also agree about lying in the political sphere. It drives me crazy, too. I think the reason the public accepts the lying is that they’re being told what they want to hear. Most people like simplistic answers where one side is good and the other bad. The sad truth is that we live in an anti-intellectual culture.

  7. I am also a psychologist who suffers from performance anxiety. It was hell as student, but all that exposure from doing class presentations, plus working in front of groups as a tutor has really helped. I can identify with much of what you say.

    I am also in therapy, but not for performance anxiety, but rather depression. I think I am getting well, but I notice that my therapist who operates entirely from a psychoanalytic perspective see’s much of my healthy behaviour (confidence) as me putting up barriers to intimacy in the sessions. I can sense that I am getting better because i am engaging in life again. Rather than encourage that, I don’t feel heard, or understood, in the sessions. I have come to believe that psychoanalysis has the potential to over pathologise, even healthy behaviour. My last session left me very irritated, confused and also a bit hurt. As I tried to explain and then assert myself my therapist continued to press for her views and imposed her modality on to me. I also though that she was becoming defensive, and I think she retaliated and lost a bit of control of the session. I don’t think I feel safe with her anymore. Whether we can mend the therapeutica alliance will depend on her honest answers to what I observed about her behaviour or whether she will deflect and project it onto me.

    Love the site though and I am getting a lot out of it.

    1. I agree about the way that psychoanalysts tend to over-pathologize. When I was a younger therapist, I used to do that. We spend so much time in school learning about illness that we tend to focus on it to the exclusion of healthy developments. Just keep telling your therapist how you feel but also keep an open mind about what she’s saying. If you truly believe she’s being defensive, that’s not a good sign. To me, if I make an interpretation and my client disagrees, I usually drop it. I don’t assume I’m always right. If I AM right, however, then additional evidence will show up later in the session, or in future sessions; it is the accumulation of persuasive evidence that makes for a sense of conviction that an interpretation is on the money … for both cilent and therapist.

  8. “Healthy narcissism” is a new term in my lexicon. Without a concept of healthy narcissism, it can seem as though any interest in drawing attention to oneself is somehow “unhealthy.” How dull a world it would be if there were no narcissism *at all*. For example, the moment you lost all of your narcissism–POOF–your website would be gone! And the world would become more barren for people who find sustenance here.
    Keeping narcissism in check is no more important than keeping blandness in check.

    1. Thanks, Stephanie. I think I’m pretty darn “bland” in that first video. I’m going to continue trying to put my ideas across and to be myself; in the process, I hope I can bring a little of my “juice” to these videos. It will surely make them more interesting to watch.

  9. Very interesting ideas in your post and video. Could Zuckerberg’s behavior be beneficial to him in certain circumstances and not a disorder? Compare the pub scene with his girlfriend and the scene with the lawyers. Zuckerberg’s lack of empathy and his elitism towards Erica are inappropriate. He seems to want to hurt her for his own benefit and we feel sympathy for her. Do we feel the same way toward the lawyer? This could be an example of me projecting and sharing in Zuckerberg’s contempt for the lawyers, who are depicted in the film as powerful and financial successful and don’t always receive the most favorable reviews in society, but something still seems different. Even the way the scenes were shot suggest a difference. In the bar both Zuckerberg and Erica are seated at the same height and the point of view shows them as equals and suggests he is hurting his friend. The lawyer scene is a monologue with him at the center and the lawyer in the background. This gives the impression that Zuckerberg might actually be the smartest guy in the room or “above the others”. And it can be debated what may have happened had he not behaved so aggressively – would Facebook be as successful had he lost control? The lawyers were also probably prepared for his behavior. They were entering an argument with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, not spending the evening sharing a beer and conversation. It seems that the pathological aspect of narcissistic behavior is contextual. In the boardroom narcissism leads to influence, but in the bedroom it leads to fights. Would you have given a similar diagnosis if Zuckerberg’s behavior were limited to professional engagements?

    1. Extreme narcissism can sometimes take you very far, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t pathological. And as for Zuckerberg’s behavior during his depositions, it is one thing to stand up for yourself, and quite another to heap scorn on those who disagree with you. Another great scene that I didn’t include in this video is when Eduardo is being deposed; his lawyer asks him how much money he supplied for FB start-up costs; he answers $1000 at the beginning and then an additional $17K later. His lawyer says, “So total of 18 thousand.” Zuckerberg then writes it down on a paper and says, “Wait I need to check your math. … I get the same answer.” She’s just trying to get the record entirely clear and he’s utterly contemptuous. I did see how treating people that way advances your interests. This kind of scorn is maladaptive.

  10. dear Joseph,
    i’ve only just got to watch one of your videos (as my son uses up all the dowload capacity for the month in about 3 days!) … so i read about your self~consciousness first and was thinking about it at 4am… does the technology require you to be in such a close head~shot to the camera? or could you be sitting at a more similar distance to a client in an actual psychotherapy session? this might be less confronting for both therapist and viewer and perhaps allow a ‘space’ in which to absorb and engage with your fascinating and ever articulate insights…

  11. Just for the record, when I watched your video on bipolar, I truly thought how nice you are and that you remind me of a friend of mine and your voice was very clear and of course you were very articulate! The content was clear and very interesting. None of your self-criticisms crossed my mind! I promise! Maybe I did notice you weren’t laughing like Robin Williams but then… you aren’t trying to be a comedian, are you? And as for the ‘who am I to do this bit’ well I think you are obviously really good at it and have enjoyed your blog a lot.
    Ps I can very much relate to performance anxiety, being a performer myself, and suffering years of being a gibbering wreck (literally) on stage, so full of thoughts of how much they all criticised me and wanted to tear me to shreds. Singing on video turns me into a very strange creature indeed!! Most unnatural!! Am better now, a bit…! LOL.

  12. I think you feel that if you make one mistake on a video then your entire career will be wasted. In other words, that a specific mistake means a general failure.
    Kinda like in school (aka education camps). It doesn’t matter how much you have studied or how much you understand the subject in general, if you fail the specific questions in the exam you are a failure at the subject in general.

    1. Yes, you’re right. That perfectionism is the invariable side effect of striving to escape from shame by appearing ideal. And of course, you’re either ideal or you’re not; there’s no middle ground.

  13. I have really enjoyed reading all of the above posts and found some of them humorous , all of them interesting, but in particular I laughed at the comment about the idea of you smiling more and how there isn’t exacly alot to smile about when describing human suffering……good point! I think some of us are natural ‘smilers’ when we ‘perform’ and some of us just aren’t. I fall into the latter category and if I try to make myself smile on video when it dosen’t feel natural to me I end up looking odd and this is not just my observation. I have watched the videos and experienced you as genuine, warm and sincere and the lack of smiling for me represented a respect for the topic, that’s just my take on it . Regards to everyone, by the way I was smiling when I typed this : – )

    1. Thanks very much for that. I’ve just been watching Brene Brown’s videos again as I’m preparing to review her book and I so admire the warmth she exudes, the way she smiles and laughs. I wish I could be like that. On the other hand, I feel that the way she comes across makes the problem of shame seem much less serious than it is, so in the end, I guess I prefer to remain as I am.

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