You may ask: what do performance anxiety and pumpkins have in common? First I have to tell you about my good friend, Patty.
Patty has been my friend ever since we were in kindergarten. We stayed friends all the way through high school. Then we became separated by miles, life events, and passing years. We recently reconnected at our high school reunion (the first I ever went to), and we have enjoyed a vibrant e mail correspondence ever since.
Patty sends me funny and interesting e mails. Often she includes some photos. Recently, Patty sent several beautiful and unusual pictures of pumpkins at the Dallas Arboretum which you will see below. I was struck with the splendor of these orange, green, and white gourds of all shapes and sizes and particularly their artistic arrangements.
For me, pumpkins mark a demarcation from summer to fall and to winter. I love visiting pumpkin patches, going on hayrides, and choosing just the right shape and size to bring home. Actually, I like to pick out several sizes and colors – the most perfect shape, most interesting shape, the largest, the smallest, and the most unique pumpkins I can find. The color orange is one of my favorite colors. I love the season between Halloween and Thanksgiving as summer heat merges into crisp cold autumn days, trees become radiant with bright reds and yellows, and snow eventually turns the landscape white.
When I received the photos of the pumpkins from Patty, I wanted to share them with some of my friends. I copied the images and decided to write an e mail with the pictures. I wrote (or tried to write) “that I was sharing these fabulous photos”……and before I could write any further, I discovered that my computer, with all its artificial intelligence, had the nerve to change my word “photo” to “fool”. Apparently my self-correcting auto spell-check function thought that “fool” was the word I intended to type, which of course it was not.
I made the correction and continued typing my e mail. My computer, by now convinced it knew better than I what I intended to say, subsequently substituted the word, “yard” for my intended word, “year”. Once again, I had to revise my text to express what I wanted to convey. Has this ever happened to you?
When the word “camel” came on the screen when I was trying to type the word “cancel”, I had had enough. I had not made typos. I had not been careless or hasty in my typing. I began to feel like my smart computer was trying to read my mind. It had been wrong every time.
As I thought about all this I recalled certain interactions with some of my performance anxiety patients. Sometimes a person insists they “know what I am thinking”. Or will say to me “I was thinking the same thing you just said just now before you said it” or “I am trying say what you want to hear”. Since I don’t believe in mind-reading or thought-syncing, I always inquire about their magic beliefs.
Various themes and variations emerge: some people want to please me. Others want to one-up me. Others want for us to think as “one” and not be separate individuals with different thoughts and feelings. Some people feel competitive and need to speak first. Others do not want to depend on me so they try to succeed instead of waiting to hear what I have to say. Some people say what they think I want to hear believing that their authentic and different ideas and feelings would make me reject them if they are not on my wavelength. As this dynamic unfolds with my patients, we always discuss what “knowing what I am thinking” means to them. It is empowering to help people find their own voices and the relief that comes from the comfort of expressing and owning their own thoughts.
Now here is the connection between performance anxiety and pumpkins. It is very common for performance anxious people to focus on audience reactions. Many anxious performers are overly concerned about what “others” think. Others can be a therapist, a friend, a family member, or an audience. The mind works that way. It transfers thoughts and feelings about someone onto other people. The audience often is experienced by performers as parents – substitutes. As such, the audience/parent can love or leave the performer –accept or reject them – applaud or boo. The performer wants to please, to give a technical and virtuosic performance – convinced this will win approval, applause, and confirmation. A “perfect performance” is in the mind of the performer. There is no such thing as a perfect performance. Perfection is a wish, a fantasy, an illusion.
Performers (musicians, speakers, writers, athletes, academics, test takers and many others ) are very tuned in to coughs, movements, sounds by those who listen to a performance or who grade a paper or judge one’s offering. For example, if a presenter is giving a speech, he may think that someone leaving the auditorium is bored or disapproving even though the person who leaves may have another appointment, a personal crisis, or need to use the bathroom. Students may become convinced that another student who finishes a test early and leaves the exam room knows everything and has aced the test . A writer may assume she has to please the reader and sacrifices her originality and pleasure in writing for what she thinks is desired by publishers, critics, and readers.
In all the situations mentioned, people project their own thoughts and fears into others – not realizing that they are attributing to others what they think about themselves. It’s both easier and harder not to take responsibility for one’s own ideas and anxieties. If it’s “them” then the burden is “not me”. But the larger burden is trying to do the impossible – to be a mind reader and people -pleaser. Or a people- rejector if you are convinced you are not liked. A guide to catching this trait in yourself is to realize that when you think you know, without being told, what “they” think you are actually expressing what “you” think.
If you think people don’t like you and are disapproving and critical – are you aware of how you may be rejecting yourself and putting yourself down?
So often, this type of magic thinking is involved in performance anxiety. It exacerbates performance anxiety!! Learning to recognize and to own your own thoughts is a significant step in the journey to feeling greater comfort in public and reducing performance anxiety. Frankly, it is downright empowering.
When my computer produces words that are not my own, it cannot know what I am thinking (nor does anyone else unless I tell them). Anyone who appreciates these pumpkin photos is not a “fool”. Thanks, Patty, for sharing these fantastic photos and for being my friend. I really mean to say that.