Sunday, July 02, 2017

Social Anxiety and Performance.

July 2nd 2017

I am (very) often told that "You CAN'T be shy, the way you get up on stage and do what you do, I could NEVER do that". In fact it's very common indeed among performers.
I've always been what I once thought of as 'very shy', more recently came to think of as being 'introverted' and, having worked with youngsters in education and got used to the lingo, now realise is what's now known as having Social Anxiety.

It doesn't mean I don't like people or socialising by the way (these are among my very favourite things in fact!), it just means that socialising is often very draining for me, and can be exhausted by it and will need to re-charge. Alcohol can really help though!

I was going to have a stab at writing a long, eloquent piece on this but there are people much better at that kind of thing (google it, you'll find tonnes, no doubt) so I thought I would strip it right down to some key revelations, personal epiphanies no less. surrounding my own experience of social anxiety.

I get the feeling that performing your own songs is very different to say either acting, or playing in a tribute band for instance. I often hear that actors got into acting because they wanted to be someone else, or that in acting they are channeling/becoming possessed by the character of another, whereas as a performer of my own songs, I feel in a way the opposite to this, that I am emotionally very naked and raw, in fact that my emotions have to be raw and real for me to do this. But I might be wrong about actors and the like, I don't know..

Is it worth it? Well, in a facebook comment on a link to this post, Phil Gemmell put it better than I could:

I'd love to know what you think, or about your own experiences, whether you have similar issues or even very different ones, for instance; I think a significant number of performers have almost the opposite problem, that they are extroverts who therefore really rely heavily on the approval of others to cope. How is it for you? Anyway here goes..

My Top Ten  personal epiphanies surrounding my experience social anxiety (what are yours)?

1. As a kid, teen and so on. Social anxiety stopped me doing some things I really wanted to do. 'Small' examples include one of my all-time heroes Chris Packham (who has a lot of issues himself but... well,  read his book!) regularly coming to work at the same place as me for a time to discuss animals and their habitats to groups of children and families, so I could have had the chance to meet him regularly and even try to strike up some sort of working relationship, but did I even meet him once? No
I used to be a major petrol-head to (I know, I know...), and had a season pass to Oulton Park, I was once offered by a friend of my dad's a pit-pass so I could experience all the goings-on in the pits, with a specific team, during the races, but no, I said I'd be much happier out watching on a windswept embankment.

2. My 'stage fright' used to be so bad, I gave up live performances/'gigs' for what ended up being eleven years.

A person who ended up being a great personal friend told me that when she first started seeing me, with a group of mutual friends in the pub, she had thought I was very arrogant and aloof. I was utterly amazed by this mis-reading of my being too shy to talk to anyone and too worried about saying the wrong thing. I did find this hilarious though (we had already become really good friends by the time she told me this).

A(n ex) girlfriend of mine pointed out to me that I often walked about with my mouth/face covered by one hand (e.g. with one arm folded across my chest as a prop for my elbow, if that makes sense). I had no idea I was doing this until then, but started adopting a more 'confident-looking' type of walk.

5. This led to me adopting lots of other techniques to look and/or sound confident (some of which, later on,  I took from my own advice to students stressed about presentations, researching what you teach is important, folks!).

6. The realisation that the times when I am most anxious or nervous are often when others think I am most relaxed or 'chilled'. I suspect like a lot of other people with related issues, I keep my inner feelings inside and 'hidden' and often being really quiet is a defense mechanism (are you like this or do you do the opposite?) Think rabbit being eyed by a fox. If however, I am making very silly, surreal comments, I am probably OK, or pissed, or most likely, both! I am usually very happy when tipsy, as a lot of the anxiety filters crash away, though I have to be careful about this, obviously!

7. I accidentally (no, really.. but again it's another story) got into teaching and ended up being a lecturer in F.E. which is MUCH more stressful than getting on stage. I did bar work, even more stressful, at times, as you have to 'perform' but with little (and often extreme lack of..) respect. Though both can also be a lot of fun. I thought, if I can do THIS, I must be able to get back on stage!

8. The realisation that performing my music/songs is a vital part of who I am and the need to express my most inner-being or soul, for want of a better phrase.

9. The adoption of techniques that help me get into the relaxed/focused state I need to be in to be be able to perform. I use lots of techniques that help me get into the zone and ready to perform. These are mostly 'inner' techniques that might not be obvious, but they include breathing techniques, mindfulness, and lots of things that come from a book by the Dalai Lama no less, co-written with a psychiatrist called The Art of Happiness. I know, it sounds like a terrible self-help book and probably is. My mum had it and I started reading it a bit and then reading it all, and I found it really helpful!
I also use some opposite sort of techniques that involve kind of burning off excess nerves and anxious energy. In general though on a gig-day I try to psychologically/emotionally/spiritually slow myself right down so that I can release it all on stage that night. I realised at a recent gig that I am (sometimes) getting much better at this, I was surrounded by lovely people who are really nice and who I know quite well, but, well it was that 'loneliness in a crowded room' thing and my anxiety about what to say to them and/or how to join in was much worse than performing on stage, so I couldn't wait to get on stage to avoid the conversation-related stresses. Well, it's a victory of sorts!

10. Knowing that it's not something I 'suffer' from. It's just part of who I am, a big part. I won't answer the phone or invite you round, I might well not turn up to the party I really wanted to go to, but this is the other side of being the same person that writes songs, needs to be in nature and can happily fall asleep playing guitar having done nothing but play guitar, on my own, all day long (on the now very rare chances I get to do this!). That's time never wasted!

Update 3rd July 2017:
 I have made my facebook links to this article private for a few days due to the large number of responses. This is because lots of discussion about my private situation is something I find really stressful, so I don't want to have to be fielding loads of comments on this, though I appreciate this is done in a big-hearted way so I thank you for that.
*Just to reiterate - I am absolutely fine, I have had these 'issues' all my life, I don't even consider them issues, they are just a big part of who I am/my personality. I wrote this post as it is a missing piece about who I am as a musician so it's important to include it, I think.*
Please feel free to comment on your own experiences, but don't feel sorry for me, I'm fine.

Thank you. xx

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