My Struggle with Performance Anxiety and How I've Overcome it.
Although music is one of my biggest passions, I almost gave up my singing career at one point in my life because of performance anxiety. In this chapter, I want to tell you the story of how I managed, after many years of struggle, to overcome this issue once and for all.
My name is Elisa Di Napoli, but when I'm on stage, I call myself Elyssa Vulpes. The main reason is that when I first started my clinical practice, I felt embarrassed, scared, and sometimes even ashamed of also being a performer. The official reason was that I didn’t want people to look me up on Facebook and find photos of me singing and playing drums and generally going wild at festivals. I was worried they’d lose trust in my abilities as a therapist, but I also felt too vulnerable to allow myself to be fully seen and heard, so I split my identity in two.
I’m telling you this, because every time we hide a part of ourselves for fear of rejection or embarrassment, we suffer and find less of that acceptance that we crave. Luckily, my commitment towards integrity, wholeness, and a sense of authenticity kept demanding I bring these two aspects of my life together—but for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how.
For many years before becoming a full-time therapist, I had tried to ‘make it’ as a musician but suffered from a bad case of the not-good-enough. I never felt comfortable with both self-promotion and public performances. This is because both have as their foundation a firm belief in our worthiness of being seen and heard. I never entirely gave up on my dreams, but when it became clear to me that I had “failed” at my goal of achieving fame and fortune, I decided to shift focus, and my passion for psychology and healing led to starting my own business.
Having a successful clinical practice helped me a lot in terms of developing a healthy dose of self-esteem, but after many years of dedicating myself to the business of serving others, I still felt a lack of balance in my life. I needed to rediscover my creativity so I could overcome my fears and limitations.
Fish don’t know they are in the water, and in the same way, I could not see the obvious solution to my performance anxiety problem. Although I had been helping people with anxiety using hypnotherapy for years, it just never occurred to me that I could try it to overcome my performance anxiety. Instead, I went about it in all the wrong ways: I tried to drink wine before a gig, but it only made me feel sick and forget the chords of my songs. I tried Beta Blockers, but they made me feel strangely dissociated from my performance and my audience. Improv classes worked to keep me a little more ‘in the moment’, however I still felt like a wreck whenever I had to play my own songs.
I realised I needed to understand the mindset of those who were able to perform well despite their nerves. Would they feel nervous or distracted while playing? Would they always be thinking about the mistakes they could be making? Were they ever worried about what they imagined others were thinking of them? Or would they not be concerned at all with how they came across? Wouldn’t it be more likely they just cared about the piece they were playing or the speech they were giving and were wholly immersed in its feeling and message? They seemed to be enjoying themselves, and that joy seemed to pass over onto the audience. I needed to feel the same way they did, and to do that, I needed to think the same way.
I knew that was something hypnotherapy could help with, so I sought the assistance of a colleague. A couple of sessions with him helped me realise that anxiety was at the core of my distracting thoughts, and that could be reduced by a mindset focussed on staying in the present. The sessions also addressed my concern with trying to focus on the enjoyment of the moment, rather than to fixate on perfectionism and judgment.
Although this approach helped, it didn’t ‘fix’ me completely. I decided to get back to studying so I could approach the issue from every angle and find the best ways of resolving it. After doing a lot of research and helping many clients with this problem, I ended up developing an entire system that addressed all aspects of the question to make sure that even the most complex cases could be successfully treated.
At this point, I started thinking about writing a book and preparing an online course to teach others what I had discovered so that as many people as possible could benefit from it, but something kept stalling me. A question at the back of my mind demanded: who was I to write a book about performance anxiety?
I had not entirely overcome my fear, so I was just a fraud! I would be found out and publicly shamed! I hoped the problem would vanish in time, but of course, that didn’t happen.
Finally, one day the obvious answer came to me: I had helped hundreds of people successfully deal with their issues in this area, and I already had all the tools I needed to leave my problems behind, but I just refused to use them, because I wanted someone else to save me.
The solution would be to actually practice the techniques outlined within my book. By taking responsibility, doing the work, and walking the talk, I could stop feeling like a fraud and transform into the performer I wanted to be. I would also be able to merge my two identities back together, revealing who I was and risking judgment, but becoming whole in the process.
I want this to become your success story, too. Because it is possible not only to be on stage and feel calm and confident, but also to look forward to it as an opportunity to be seen, heard, and to share your light with the world. So, let’s jump right in and have some fun!
Before I get into the details of this course, I want to make sure you understand why the techniques I use are effective. Here’s how my approach is different and what makes it so successful.
Many books have been written on how to overcome performance anxiety. So, why should you trust my approach? My method is different because I will not just present you with theory, speculation, or even research on the matter. This book will not be simply an exposition of case studies and interviews, and won’t just offer you some good advice. I also won’t go into the details of the content of your ‘performance’ as that is beyond my area of expertise, and there are excellent books out there on the subject.
Instead, I am going to present you with a practical program that will guide you step by step to achieve the results you want. This approach is holistic, pragmatic, practical, progressive, and complete. Let me offer you my take on these terms.
A “holistic” system considers the person as an integrated whole that is more than the sum of its parts. This method of treating the issue at hand takes into consideration how each part of a human being interacts with all the other parts.
I am alluding to your psychology, your feelings, your behaviour, your body, and your energy. This is because for you to change, you need to have the right mindset: you need to think the right thoughts and talk to yourself in the way a mindful and completely present performer does. You also need to feel like someone who enjoys being on stage.
Your energy needs to be in the right place, and finally you need to have the right experience of what it’s like to give an excellent performance so you can do it again and again. In other words, your positive thoughts need to reinforce your positive feelings. This will change your energy, and as your energy changes, your body will be at its optimal level to allow positive experiences to be formed around performance. This, in turn, will reinforce the right mindset, which will feed the right feelings so you’ll find yourself in a positively reinforcing spiral.
I only use whatever has worked before with hundreds of clients. My approach is not dogmatic, and it combines the principles of Cognitive Behaviour Hypnotherapy, Human Givens Psychology, as well as Psychodynamic and Humanistic theories of psychology, which have been proven repeatedly to be effective in my clinical practice. What this means is that the body of work I am presenting looks at the issue of performance anxiety from different and complementary angles, leaving nothing out.
Cognitive behaviour theory is based on the idea that our thoughts determine our feelings and behaviour and that in turn, can influence our thinking. Negative thinking patterns and negative bias will create negative interpretations of reality, which give negative meanings to our experiences. These, in turn, produce negative feelings which create behaviours that reinforce the original negative thinking patterns.
For example, if you think that you are not good enough as a speaker, you will not feel confident on stage, which will lead you to give a poor performance. As a result, you are likely to judge your performance as below standard, which in turn will reinforce the original thought of you not being good enough.
This approach is complemented by Human Givens Psychology[i], which states that every behaviour serves the function of trying to meet the individual’s emotional needs in a sometimes functional, sometimes dysfunctional way. When we understand what need the behaviour is trying to meet, we can answer it in a healthier way. The strategies I use involve promoting positive thinking as well as encouraging behaviours that serve a positive function in our life by helping us cope well in the present.
For example, you may have developed a drinking habit trying to cope with your nerves. The drinking behaviour serves the function of trying to help you relax. However, the need to stay calm is not being met in a functional way, since drinking may slow down your thinking, slur your words, and in the end, can cause you to develop a dependency. A more functional way of meeting this need would be to learn diaphragmatic breathing, which is proven to calm you down effectively.
Psychodynamic theory holds that past experiences shape how we behave in terms of both conscious and unconscious forces. Therefore, this book deals with the underlying causes of your fear of performing in public. When you allow emotions to be released, conflicts can be resolved, and events that caused the fear are reframed in a helpful light.
You may have suffered from traumatic experiences related to performance in the past. Perhaps you were shamed in public, or you may have felt extreme embarrassment while performing. This has caused you to subsequently fear similar situations. During a regressive hypnotherapy session, you would go back to the memories of these events to release unresolved emotions and reprocess them in a way that helps you move forward.
Humanistic theory believes that people seek to grow psychologically and are motivated by a wish to feel more fulfilled. They have free will and can choose their destiny consciously. It also holds that the way we interpret events is essential to how we experience life.
For example, you may have broken your leg. How you interpret the meaning of this event is your choice. You could see it as a terrible misfortune that means you are missing out on work, or you could see it as a way to catch up on all the Netflix series you have been meaning to watch, or an opportunity to relax at home with your favourite book. If you choose to see the event negatively, you are more likely to feel bad about your circumstances while the opposite is also true.
This book places the responsibility of how you choose to interpret events and situations in your life in your own hands, while at the same time guiding you towards finding what is helpful for you.
My approach is practical because it puts ideas into practice. In each session, I shall present you with:
1. An explanation of the session’s content so you can consciously align with it. By understanding what needs to be done differently, you choose to collaborate with the process and set the intention of conditioning your mind in a healthy, helpful, and positive way.
2. Hypnotic audio sessions that affect positive change at the subconscious level, bypassing the conscious mind, and therefore allowing for the effortless creation of a helpful mindset.
3. Homework that involves both reflective practices and behavioural exercises. These will help you cement what you have previously learnt at the conscious and unconscious level by putting it into practice in everyday life.
Progressive and complete
The practical sessions in this book will take you on a step-by-step process that is designed to leave nothing unattended. They will not only help you overcome stage fright, but they will also show you how to thrive and excel so that you feel thrilled every time you are under the spotlight.
Is this just NLP?
To be transparent, I would like to reassure you that this book is not just NLP redressed and renamed. Before I offer you my take on NLP, I think it appropriate to provide you with some background understanding of what it is.
NLP stands for neuro-linguistic programming. It is a series of techniques developed by John Grinder and Richard Bandler in the 1970s. These men were fascinated by the idea of ‘unconscious genius’ epitomised by three masters in the field of psychotherapy who could affect change in patients in a highly intuitive and unconscious way. They set out to model Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erickson in particular.
Friedrich Perls was a German psychotherapist who developed Gestalt therapy; Virginia Satir was the mother of Family Therapy, and Milton Erickson was an American psychologist and psychiatrist famous for his creative approach to the unconscious mind as a solution-generating apparatus. He is considered by many one of the founding fathers of hypnotherapy.
These three figures had something important in common; they were all pioneers in their field and could consistently achieve positive results treating complex clinical issues.
So, what did Richard Bandler and John Grinder do with these highly influential figures of modern psychotherapy? Bandler and Grinder’s idea was that by replicating the language structure and behavioural patterns of these geniuses, they would be able to construct a language-based therapeutic model which would be capable of influencing neurological processes to achieve specific goals in life.
I find the philosophical and theoretical frameworks of NLP useful to adopt, insofar as they reflect the thoughts and methods of Perls, Satir, and Erickson. However, what I consider most useful in NLP is understanding the power of positive language structures and the use of techniques that bring about practical change.
However, I have observed in my clinical practice that these techniques are a lot more effective when used under hypnosis. This is because NLP’s efficacy seems to depend on whether it is employed by highly charismatic practitioners and received by subjects who are very susceptible to suggestion with minimal input. The trouble is that only 20% of the population are somnambulists, which means they are highly susceptible to hypnosis.
The rest of the population, however, would not benefit as much from NLP exercises because their critical conscious mind gets in the way and a lot of NLP practitioners use their models ‘cold’ on clients by dismissing the effectiveness of the hypnotic induction.
This is a problem for most of the people with performance anxiety as they may not find it easy to relax instantly. As a result, I always use the best NLP techniques in conjunction with hypnosis, thereby enhancing their effectiveness.
Now that you know what is different about my approach, let us delve into how to make change happen fast.
[i]For more info on this modality, I would suggest you visit https://www.hgi.org.uk/