Over the years of performing and teaching singing I have seen many a singer stop performing because the anxiety of being in front of an audience. I would like to shed my own light on this dreaded-stop-you-in-your-tracks fear that I have also experienced in my life as a singer.
There are many levels of this anxiety that range from a mild annoyance to a severe, paralyzing dread when stepping onto the stage. Some cases can be dealt with by simply practicing and addressing any technical issues that might be causing this anxiety. Some people might require a slight tweak in their approach, and, some might need to face something deeper in them that is crippling them. This is what I speak about here. This something deeper.
Performance Anxiety that comes from a deep hidden fear of being rejected and judged by the audience. It could be also called Rejection Anxiety.
Singers who have this anxiety are afraid of the audience rejecting them by judging them harshly like Simon on the television show American Idol, who has no mercy when it comes to the Soul Threading of a human being.
I know this sounds obvious, the fact that the singer is afraid of the audience bit, but to the singer it’s very complex and kills singers in their tracks from ever sharing their gifts with others, and, sometimes with even themselves.
In my experience it’s because there has been some kind of rejection in their past has been left unhealed and then gets projected onto the audience. This feeling is so big that the singer is certain that it is coming from the audience. Projection being the minds way of protecting the performer from this big-bad-feeling that’s in them from their past.
I have heard these slights and hurts over and over when I say to my students, ‘what do you think the audience thinks of your voice?’ and they share the awful rejections and judgements that this seemingly cruel audience is saying about them.
Take one of my students Amy who suffers from this anxiety. Amy is an extremely talented young singer and very confident in her singing but when she gets in front of the audience she starts to shake and wants to ‘back up’ from them, and actually does physically backup.
I ask her why she wants to back up and she says she doesn’t know but everything in her say’s ‘Back up! Danger!’ After a short conversation we run into the ongoing rejection of her Father in her life which leaves her with this huge feeling of rejection and self doubt. She of course doesn’t recognize this big ‘back up’ feeling as having to do with her Father, she just assumes it means there is something wrong with her for feeling the way she does.
This big feeling and seeing the audience makes her back up. Her projection of rejection from the audience is trying to back her up away from the feeling and potential threat of the rejection happening again.
She tells me there must be something wrong with her and she has to change herself to be accepted by her Father. She feels a huge expectation to be more than what she is when she is with him and feels she needs to be really, really good so maybe he will love her and want to spend time with her.
I say to her does that mean you have to somehow change and not be yourself in front of the audience to be accepted by them also? And that to be accepted by the audience you have to also be responsible for them by making them happy? Somewhat shocked she puts the pieces together and says yes.
She says for them to like her she has to give them what they want, or be what they want. I interpret; in order for my Dad to like me I have to give him what he wants or be what he wants me to be. And so she works really hard at trying to figure out how to be that.
Kids don’t have the option to think the parent must be wrong, their brains are not wired for that yet. The child has to think that she is wrong because their survival depends on it. To think that a parent is wrong is not possible, they might get confused about the behaviour of the parent, but not think they are wrong. This is where the wiring gets all messed up around rejection, abandonment and the taking on of shame and blame in ones life sometimes for-ever.
And when shame steps onto the stage it usually sticks around for a long time.
I ask Amy to put her Father in the chair opposite her and tell him how she feels. She tells him how he made her feel when she didn’t see him for long periods of time and says bravely ‘you are the parent and I am the child and you are supposed to look after me!!!
Now it’s not always this easy for sure, but with patience and care we can find the cause of this anxiety somewhere and start to slowly walk back from it towards the innocence and beauty of the performer and being on stage.
Singers who have this performance or rejection anxiety feel responsible to the audience in a confusing mix of emotions that are hard to understand. And what’s more is most of them will never get past the ‘there’s something wrong with me’ part into the deeper reason. So most get to work perfecting their voice and trying hard to make no mistakes. This is very Hard Work, to say the least.
I see it as though there is a Storefront that comes in-between the singer and the audience to shield the singer from the seeming cruelty that the audience is offering up. This is the protection that the singer needs to protect her vulnerability from being rejected, again. This storefront is also in cahoots with their inner-judge which is doing the backstage work of rejecting her before the audience does. Oh boy.
When these feelings of rejection exist as a sense of ‘this is who I am’ versus ‘this is how I am reacting right now’ then everything is seen and coloured within a fish bowl lens of rejection and judgement that is unconscious.
So what to do? How does one cope with the big giant feelings that rise up when faced with facing an audience? This is no small thing and there are many ways tender ways to approach this. I like to re-create this Rejection Anxiety in a safe and supportive situation to feel through whatever arises in that moment. So I set up a compassion audience consisting of, you guessed it, compassionate people for the anxious singer to be in front of.
When these feelings are met with love and acceptance that’s when everything changes. This outward initial meeting of love then has a chance to move inward to slowly begin to replace the rejection and pain. This thing that we don’t talk about. The thing that most people in charge of dolling out the advice don’t have either. People don’t prescribe what they don’t know about or can’t feel for themselves.
There is nothing scarier than facing feelings of rejection on a stage with people staring back at you, watching you do it. These big feelings make you work really hard to do two things; fight the feelings from taking you over, and, doing the job of singing and delivering a song.
This was my experience for many, many years of singing and performing. I created huge blocks in my voice and my body which slowly stopped me from singing for a while because I thought I was never going to be a good enough singer. In other words I thought I was the problem and that I was never going to be good enough. I blamed myself for the failures in my career. Failing is one thing but being a failure is another.
Being a singer offers the possibility of true healing of some really deep rejections and hurts that all people have in their lives. Some singers are able to channel this energy without the anxiety stopping them onstage and some, well can’t.
Whoever you are and however you have been wired is okay, really, really okay. As I have said to myself and others many times, ‘there’s a way back and there’s a way through that doesn’t leave behind any part of you.’