I get performance anxiety. PA, I call it.
My brain races, my breathing gets shallow and rapid, my pulse increases and every muscle in my body tightens up. It’s part of the same autonomic response of fight or flight, the same stress that just makes you crazy when you feel under threat. It stops me sleeping, makes me tight and crazy.
When I feel PA, I just want to do my old trick and turn invisible, to disappear from the situation, hiding so I can switch into observer mode until I understand what I can do. I’m a good observer. That’s one reason I need to always give myself permission to become invisible, because if I felt both threatened and trapped, I’m not sure that I could handle it.
The problem is that being tight and panicked is very rarely the way to give the best performance possible. Brett Butler’s trick for auditions was simple, at least in concept: go in like you have just been onstage killing for the last fifteen minutes. Go in hot, in other words, loose and free, relaxed and clicking, confident and limber, bouncing like a a joyous cat who owns the damn stage.
To be your best, you need to be in the moment, and the moment is not in your head. If you are stuck in your head, your heart and muscles and spirit can’t get through and do their job, and they make performance. If they didn’t, great performances would just be people sitting stock-still in chairs droning on about brilliant thoughts.
In the end, people respond to vitality over virtue or rumination. We need to respond to the life energy people put out, from appearance to words to language to smile to movement and so on.
What people respond to is play. It may be the interplay between two people, the wordplay of great writing, the playfulness of wit and energy, or other kinds of play, but when we get to play, we get others involved and activated.
I have proven in the past that I am good at play. What I haven’t proven is that I am good at getting to play, or at staying in the play zone when my PA kicks up again. I was first told that I needed to trust my own possibilities at age 18, that I needed to stop creating failure around me, but that pattern was a gift from my mother, and she made sure it was regiven all the time. Playing wasn’t valued at home, but pressure and doom was.
One of the most powerful components of play is that play doesn’t require control over the outcome. When children play, they do their best, but they allow themselves space to fail, to try, try and try again. This lack of attachment to outcome – the “what the hell” component — encourages risk by not focusing on the prospect of failure but focusing on commitment, inspiration and being in the moment.
Ask any athlete if fear of failure contributes to their performance and they will tell you no, that fear can give them the yips. It is confidence, grace and experience — practice — that loosens them up gives them the edge to make the play.
So, if that’s the theory that explains why PA only somewhat a useful thing, good to remind us to practice and to keep the energy up, bad when we actually have to perform, how do we get beyond PA?
How do I get to playful?
I suspect that any child could answer that question.
You get to playful by playing.
You goof around, act silly, let loose, and just generally play. Not everything you create is going to be good, but getting to creative is always good.
You play and you play and you play, and playing enough gets you a level of mastery of play that gives you confidence and lets you play even better.
One of the big challenges of being playful is to get other people to play with you. If you are going to play by yourself — and believe me, I learned to play by myself a lot as a child — it can be a lonely and unrewarding exercise. As a transperson, I understand this profoundly.
What does a child say right after they say “I won! I won! I won?” Easy. They always say “Now you try it!” To them, play is a path to ownership and success, which is always better when shared.
In this world, it is easy for the spirit of play to be knocked out of us by the earnest and dreary expectations of everyday life. Once things become too serious — when nobody gets the joke — the spirit of play is doused by the attempt to “take things seriously.” When we are trying too hard to fit in, to make others think we are solid, constant and one of them, play tends to be shoved far to the back of our possibilities.
To live without play is to live in a defensive posture, always knocked back and always feeling the weight of expectation and the tension of failure. To live without play is to live a small and fearful life, never moving beyond a shrinking comfort zone to try something that might be creative and amazing.
Today, I know that I need the blessing of play in my life. I need to be loose and free and trusting of possibility, open to risk and open to life.
May I let go of all that performance anxiety and embrace the childlike possibilities of creating a new connections, new creations and a new world out of mastery and imagination.
May I trust that the vibrant spirit that connects all of us connects my playfulness to yours, allowing us to create a shared space where magic can happen.
May I always be reminded that the spark of imagination is the only thing that can make us laugh together, giving us both the resilience to endure the blows of a human life and the energy to dream and create something better between us.
Today, may the spirit of play work through me, leading me to surprises that delight and enlighten, that reveal new connection and new possibility.
And if I can’t manage that, may I at least become invisible.