Performance Anxiety and Your Inner Fears

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume C, No. 5May, 2000

Jackelyn S. Frost, CSW

Performance anxiety exists in all spheres of life and it can appear at the most inappropriate times – usually when you are most eager to prove yourself. Performance anxiety usually happens in situations when we expect to be judged on some important aspect of ourselves: our performance, our intelligence, our looks.

While a moderate level of performance anxiety can give your performance the added edge that can make your music exciting, strong anxiety – especially if it continues over a long time – can lead to failure, because it can interfere with your ability to concentrate, function, take initiative and make decisions.

Stage fright often arises from your inner, most personal fears – like the secret terror you may harbor that you are unworthy, unlovable or somehow flawed. You may fear that these supposed flaws will be exposed to the world. These feelings of being flawed can lead you to feel anxious, depressed, even self-hating. And self-attacks can get in the way of performing at your best and lead you to sabotage yourself.

Many find that such fears often stem back to their childhood. The drive for perfection that many musicians share tends to develop in those early years, when parents and teachers may have demanded high achievement or been overly punitive if the performance did not meet their expectations. You may have used performing as a tool through which you hoped to get people to love you, and often it may have worked – but it may also have brought rejection if your performance was at times not a success.

One musician recently told me that her mother would tell her, “Now, don’t embarrass me!” just before she stepped out on stage. Although she has become a successful musician, she says she is left with the fear of being a shameful disappointment, and of never being good enough. Ironically, as she becomes more successful, these fears have intensified because she has more and more to lose should she fail.

The communication involved in being a performer may open you up to the possibility of revealing some “horrible” inner secret to the audience. You might be suppressing feelings that arouse guilt, some negative factor about yourself, or fear of a negative reaction from the audience. You might be struggling with a sense of inferiority or, conversely, with the feeling that the public is not good enough to appreciate your music: a sort of “superiority complex.” Or you might be worried that the public will humiliate you in some way.

Rather than fearing the audience, you may fear the panic you will experience – thus developing fear of fear, a vicious circle in which your irrational fear generates anxiety that impairs performance.

When confronted by something threatening, people defend themselves and try to overcome the fear. If it is very great you may try to avoid contact with the source of the danger. Thus, stage fright can take the form of withdrawal, blocked creativity, a singer’s chronically hoarse voice or creative burnout. Frightening memories of past failures become magnified and these images may accompany your every performance. If this fear becomes unmanageable, it can immobilize you, shutting down your ability to function well.

Becoming aware of the negative things you may be telling yourself – about your ability as a musician, your intelligence, your worthiness – can be the first step in changing self-attacking behavior and instead accepting yourself as you are, valuing yourself more, and allowing yourself to have more self-esteem. This can help you to feel better about yourself and to curtail self-abusive behavior like overeating or abusing substances, two of many possible responses to feeling untalented, unworthy and fearful.


If you do not usually experience performance anxiety but suddenly begin to, this may be a signal from your unconscious that something is wrong. Once you identify the problem, you can take steps to address what is troubling you. For example:

  • Is there something about the music that you are uncomfortable with?
  • Does the music, the location, or anything else about the performance have upsetting associations for you?
  • Is there some conflict between you and another musician or the conductor that you are not dealing with?
  • Is something in your home life being brought to your work?
  • Which of your important needs may not be getting met?

Once you identify the problem and your fear, anger or worry becomes conscious, you can take steps to address what is troubling you. As a result, your feelings of anxiety will very likely diminish.

Ultimately, self-understanding and a strong sense of self worth and self-caring are the good defenses against the stresses of life as a musician. It can be hard to work through these issues on your own, and so the objective perspective of a therapist can often be invaluable in gaining perspective on your thought process and how you are treating yourself.

A ten-week, confidential Performance Anxiety Group will be offered to musicians free of charge through the Musicians’ Assistance Program at Local 802. The group, which will begin on June 16, will be held on Fridays from 10: 30 a.m. until 12 noon. If you wish to join the group or would like further information and confidential assistance, please call the MAP office at (212) 397-4802 to schedule a meeting with a social worker.

This column is based on material from the following articles: Penina Rappaport, “Controlling Stage Fright Without Drugs: A Group Treatment Model.” Stephen Day, ed., “Actors’ Stage Fright – and How to Beat It.,” from “Stage Fright: Performer’s Friend or Foe?” from columns. “The Demons Within: Confronting Performance Anxiety,” by Diane Nichols, in Chamber Music magazine, Dec. 1995.