Confronting Your Fears Head-on: Performance Anxiety and How to Challenge Unhelpful Beliefs Through Behavioral Experiments

Performance anxiety is closely tied to perfectionism. Excessive worries about how others will negatively view your performance are oftentimes rooted in negative self views, such as "I'm not good enough" , "I'm an imposter", or "I am incompetent." 

By Meng-lin (Benny) Hsieh, M.Ed., Counseling Psychologist in Taiwan

In the show "Schitt's Creek", one of the main characters, David, suffers from crippling test anxiety. On his way to renew his driver's license, his sister, Alexis, decided to give him some advice to assuage his nerves:

David: "Okay I'm gonna need you to step out of the car for 20 minutes, so that I can do my transcendental meditation, before I fail this test."

Alexis: "Okay. You are acting all sorts of crazy right now. This honestly does not matter. Nobody cares…No one is thinking about you, the way you're thinking about you, David. Nobody cares."


Function of Anxiety

We all experience anxiety. Anxiety is uncomfortable, and so that motivates individuals to select a strategy that can remove this physical sensation. Through the sympathetic nervous system, our bodies are wired to react to threats by attacking it (fight), running away from it (flight), or staying still and not making any sudden movements (freeze). These strategies are adaptable, as it increases our chances of survival. It's what animals in the wild do. When anxiety becomes chronic, however, kind of like a fire alarm that is set off by steam from boiling water, that's less adaptive, and may be a sign to seek additional help.

Fear of Negative Evaluation

Performance anxiety refers to fears about specific tasks where some form of evaluation is unavoidable, and when the person expects the feedback to be predominantly negative. Stage fright (whether for musicians, actors, athletes, etc), writer's block, or test anxiety are some of the most common scenarios where people encounter performance anxiety. It is estimated that around 2% of the U.S. population might experience "debilitating performance anxiety".

Performance anxiety is closely tied to perfectionism. Excessive worries about how others will negatively view your performance are oftentimes rooted in negative self views, such as "I'm not good enough" , "I'm an imposter", or "I am incompetent." These self-concepts, or "core beliefs" drive the individual to focus on masking perceived potential flaws, otherwise risk being found out, or even shamed or ridiculed.

Take "Jason" for example. He was a college student who experienced anxiety about public speaking. Whenever he had to make presentations as part of a course requirement, he was filled with worrying that his mind would go blank during the speech, that he would mispronounce certain words, or that he would appear to be unprepared or stupid.

Behavioral Experiment

To challenge these thoughts, Jason's therapist first worked with him to learn to identify and differentiate thoughts, feelings and facts. Once Jason learned that some of his thoughts induced stress and that his avoidant behaviors contributed to maintaining his performance anxiety, he and the therapist conducted "behavioral experiments" to test out some of his assumptions regarding making speeches.

The therapists invited a group of staff members to listen to Jason give a short demo speech related to his coursework, and provide honest feedback about Jason's performance. To take the experiment a step further, Jason was even instructed to make intentional mistakes that seemed egregious and humiliating. Jason was understandably nervous about this, but with the therapist's help and encouragement, decided to give it a go.

After the speech, Jason asked for the audience's feedback. To Jason's surprise, not only did the audience think Jason did just fine, they barely caught on to where exactly Jason intentionally mispronounced certain words, or paused too long in between one talking point and the next. They even gave Jason some constructive feedback about how to make his argument stronger, which Jason eagerly took. No one thought for a second that Jason looked stupid.

It turns out, most of Jason's worries were exaggerated, which worries tend to be. (It's called 'catastrophizing'.) Even though, for Jason, the purpose of worrying about public speaking was to avoid "looking stupid" in front of others, this anxiety kept Jason's focus too much on the details, and prevented him from seeing the big picture. Through this behavioral experiment, Jason learned that the worst case scenario doesn't necessarily happen all of the time, or at all, for that matter, and that seemingly huge mistakes or flaws in his delivery are barely noticeable to others. Jason wrote down these "findings" on a flashcard, and was instructed to review them the next time he had to give a speech and felt anxious about it.


Back to the show, "Schitt's Creek". During the driver's test, David sees that the driving examiner was swiping on his phone and not really paying attention to David's driving.

David: "Uh, can I ask you a question?"

Examiner: "Yeah. Failure to signal will be counted." (He continues to look at his phone.)

David: "How old are you?"

Examiner: "...28?"

David: "And is this what you would like to do for a career?"

Examiner: "Well, I DJ, on the weekends. Why?"

David (shakes his head): "So you don't really care about this. Like, about me, in this car. I mean you care, in the sense that it's your job, but you don't…you don't care about this, do you?"

Examiner: "I've done like, eight of these today. Is that a problem?" (Continues texting without looking up at David.)

David just smiles slightly and shakes his head again, seemingly recalling what Alexis told him right before the test.

David then says: "Nope."


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Photo by: Yogendra Singh: