Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Performance anxiety: when your greatest goal is to avoid screwing up

Back when I was a younger, I was a serious musician. My whole life revolved around being the best flutist I could be. I would practice for hours on end every day. As I remember that time of my life, I don’t know if I was driven so much by my desire to make beautiful music as I was by my desire to achieve perfection.

Performance anxiety was a big problem for me. Once when I was in college and had an end of semester jury, it got the best of me. This was when you played for a panel of faculty people who critiqued you. I had gotten myself so worked up over it that I hadn’t slept for days. Finally, I decided that the only way I was going to get through it without falling apart was to drug myself.

There was an over-the-counter medication called “Nervine” that sounded like it was exactly what I needed. Just a little something to relax my nerves. I took it about an hour before I had to play and it relaxed me, all right. It was all I could do to keep myself awake while I played my piece. Not my best performance. I don’t remember if I made any mistakes or not. But I do remember that I just wanted to lay down on the floor right there and go to sleep. I made my way through it and went back to my dorm and crashed.

One of the last things I did as a musician when I was in college was play this beautiful flute solo in the Bach B minor Mass. There I was, standing in front of the orchestra and the choir, in a huge auditorium filled with people. I don’t know how I got through it. But I remember that the whole time I was playing, I was praying that I wouldn’t mess up. Well, I didn’t. But I can’t say that I enjoyed the experience. It was like torture for me; I was scared to death of making a mistake.

If you’ve ever played for a piano recital, you may understand the idea of performance anxiety. It’s what happens when you become so worried about messing up that the joy of making music becomes lost. Your goal has little to do with the music at all. It’s all about avoiding making any mistakes.

But, you know what? Performance anxiety isn’t just a problem for musicians. It’s a problem for non-musicians as well. Whenever we become so pre-occupied with our mistakes that we miss out on the joy of living, we’re suffering from performance anxiety. It enslaves us.

In Martin Luther’s day, people experienced the ultimate performance anxiety, living under the heavy weight of eternal damnation if they didn’t get it right. Luther knew how oppressive this could be. When he became a priest, before he said his first mass, he was so terrified of making a mistake that he threw up. That moment was but a microcosm of his larger tormented life. He tried to take matters into his own hands by punishing himself, whipping himself, torturing himself, all in an effort to avert God’s wrath and avoid the fires of eternal damnation.

But then, by dwelling in Jesus, Luther came to see the truth and he knew freedom for the first time in his life. That truth said we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do, but simply by the grace of God. It was a truth Luther couldn’t keep to himself. He went public with it so other people would stop living in fear, too. He wanted them to know that God isn’t an angry tyrant in the sky who’s out to zap us whenever we mess up. From Jesus, Luther learned that God is all about unconditional love. This was a message of freedom 500+ years ago. And it’s a message of freedom for us today, as well. Because performance anxiety still enslaves us.

Do you live as if your worth is all wrapped up in how well you perform in this life? The Good News from Jesus is that God is about mercy and forgiveness. This is a message of freedom from performance anxiety. You don’t have to focus your energy on avoiding mistakes in life. You can be free to be fully alive, as the person God created you to be.

The author, minister and peace activist, Marianne Williamson understands this so well when she writes:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

We can spend our lives freely, daring to risk for the sake of loving ourselves and others. It’s the sort of thing Luther was talking about when he spoke about the bondage we’re in by living in constant fear of making a mistake. Christ frees us from that kind of bondage. “God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners,” Luther said. “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”

How different that is from living a careful little life that’s like an endless piano recital where our greatest goal is not to mess up. Freedom in Jesus comes when we realize that we don’t have to go through life playing a boring little piece like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” very carefully with one finger over and over again so we don’t risk making a mistake. Freedom in Jesus is more like playing Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” on the organ with all the stops out and all our fingers and toes moving at once. Yeah, we’re sure to make a lot of mistakes along the way --- but who cares? Certainly not Jesus. The more time you spend with Jesus, the more you realize that truth. God is love. He’s not looking for an opportunity to condemn us for our mistakes. God revels in the joy of our music.



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