Expectations are a normal part of life. We expect certain things from ourselves and others, and we also have to deal with the expectations of others in our lives, whether at school, home or work. However, too often these expectations become so burdensome that they lead to anxiety, panic attacks, burnout, and mental fatigue. It is therefore so critical that we understand why this happens, and how we can prevent performance anxiety from destroying our mental health.
As I discuss in this week’s podcast, performance anxiety, that is the need to achieve at a certain level in front of people, can come from a variety of factors, such as the perceived need to maintain a standard we have already achieved (like high grades), when we are put on the spot and asked to do something we haven’t done before, or the desire to not let someone we look up to, or care for, down. I speak to thousands of people around the world, and I still experience anxiety if someone puts me on the spot and asks personal health questions or films me for a random interview after a talk! Athletes, speakers, CEOs, performing artists, students, children, parents…we all experience the need to act in certain ways, which can often leave us feeling anxious about our own worth if we fail or make a mistake.
One of the main reasons we can experience performance anxiety is due to the fact that we base our identity on a role we play such as athlete or student. Athletes often define their identity on their ability to perform a specific action on field—every time they go play their sport their identity is in a state of uncertainty, which can make them insecure and anxious about who they are and their self-worth, especially if they do not win. Yet there are a variety of factors involved in winning, and sometimes we just have bad days—this should not affect the way we value our own worth. Nevertheless, in many cases, when we have certain goals or standards that we cannot live up to (whether from ourselves or others), we can feel like a fraud, even though no one can perform perfectly all the time. We are so focused on the goal that we forget to enjoy the process, which makes it difficult for us to change or adjust our expectations.
Why is this so? When we base our identity on extrinsic values like money, or the status, validation or praise associated with being an “athlete”, a “valedictorian” or a “CEO”, rather than intrinsic values like a love of the sport you play or a passion to learn, we place too much importance on things that are, by their nature, unpredictable and uncontrollable. You can be the best soccer player, for example, but you can still lose a big game if the other team is playing exceptionally well—this is not a critique of your character, and should not leave you anxious about your own identity.
Of course, many people face outside pressure from family, friends or their financial situation to reach a certain level of performance, which can be incredibly stressful, especially for children and adolescents, as their brains are still developing. And, if we do not deal with this anxiety, it can build up and lead to mental health issues, including suicide. If you are a parent or guardian, or are in a relationship, I highly recommend you take stock of how much pressure you are placing on your loved ones. Is this pressure necessary? Are you imposing your dreams and desires on someone else? Are you projecting your own desires on your loved one?
In many cases, we tend to see just two options: the winner or the loser. We often do not see the third option: “learner”. The ability to learn from our failures is so important, yet few people are taught how to do so. Indeed, being intentional about learning every time you fail is essential to the kind of success that is durable and not subject to the whims or desires of others, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed. Seeing yourself as a learner will allow you to appreciate the journey (with all its bumps!) and the destination—every “bump” and setback can become an opportunity to learn, grow your brain, and develop mental resilience and flexibility! The more we practice being a learner, the strong this network becomes in the brain, which helps us mitigate the effects of performance anxiety in the future as we make it a habit to learn from our failures.
So, how do you deal with performance anxiety?
1. Redefine your identity.
You need to learn to base your identity off intrinsic, internal values, what I like to call your Perfect You, rather than extrinsic values like what job you have, what grades you get or where you live. Once you begin to understand who you are, how you uniquely think, feel and choose, what you love and what you can give to the world, you can improve the way you process the issues of life, including not living up to certain expectations. This, in turn, will improve your decision-making, your relationships, how you cope at work, school and at home, your sense of joy and purpose, and ultimately your mental health, which will enable you to function in and contribute to society in a significant and fulfilling way.
An important part of redefining your identity is examining your motives: what drives your desire to perform in a certain way? For instance, ask yourself if an expectation is something you want for yourself or is it a goal you think you should achieve because other people have said so? Analyze your motives! If achievement of the goal is based on other people’s opinions, it is more likely a goal not worth pursing, as it can put your brain and body into toxic stress, and affect your mental and physical wellbeing. A goal based on pleasing others is not sustainable and you will lose the motivation to carry on, whereas a goal based on what you want for yourself can help make your life more meaningful. Indeed, we cannot all pursue the same goals in life. We all think, feel and choose in different ways—even identical twins have incredibly different likes and dislikes, behavior, and life choices! As I talk about in my book Think, Learn, Succeed, we need to learn to capitalize on how our customized thinking works (the unique way each of us thinks, feels and chooses) so that we can function at the highest level possible to achieve success in life. Essentially, our goals need to be defined by us, not by the expectations of others, so take the time to get to know yourself, the unique way you think, feel and choose, and what youwant in life. To this end, I have created a questionnaire that will help you understand your unique way of thinking and how you can create your own plan for success, called the UQ questionnaire, which is available in the book The Perfect You, the online Perfectly You program and in Think, Learn, Succeed, which is a quantitative version of this profile (remember there are no wrong answers because there is something you can do that no-one else can do).
2. Reconceptualize your failures.
Each time you become aware of a failure, tell yourself that failures are attempts; attempts are results and worthwhile knowledge that has been gained. Thomas Edison, for instance, tried about a thousand times before he succeeded in inventing the light bulb. When asked about his “failures,” Edison declared that, “I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!” He reconceptualized his failures as successes, because they helped him gain worthwhile knowledge.
So, as you become aware of your guilt and shame, it is important to choose to do some mental autopsy: reconceptualize your failures and disappointment as an opportunity for improvement. For example, think about how you can learn from an experience, improve yourself or help others who are going through something similar. Choose to reconceptualize the negative into positive, and over time you will build this into a positive thinking habit that will help you next time you have to get through a challenging task!
When something doesn't go as planned, take a few minutes to think about the situation, asking yourself why it happened like it did, talking about the it with yourself or a loved one, and thinking about how you can improve the situation to get an outcome you desire. Writing down your thoughts in a journal can be a helpful way to examine any given situation and decide how to learn from past failures. When you write your thoughts down, you are analyzing the pattern of your behavior, which activates the basal ganglia in your brain, along with a rush of dopamine and serotonin, which promotes cognitive fluency and flexibility in your thinking and helps you problem-solve!
If you find yourself experiencing performance anxiety on a regular basis, make a plan of action to change. Choose to spend a specific amount of time thinking deeply about what you expect or how you react to the expectations of others, then choose to change this behavior. If you spend too much time ruminating on where you have been going wrong you can get caught up in your feelings, which can lead to emotional burnout, mental fatigue, and increased anxiety. When dealing with a situation, or life in general, it is best to spend a limited amount of time of defining what the issue is, and focus more on a plan of action to improve the situation.
3. Remind yourself of what you love.
It is so important to examine why you do what you do. Is this something that gets you out of bed in the morning? Is it something that makes you excited? Do you feel like your life has purpose and meaning? If you died today, are you happy with how you have chosen to live your life? What drives you to do what you do? Doing what you are passionate about is so important, because it drives you to work hard and persevere, and builds the brain in a positive way, which improves both your mental and physical health. Trying to live up to the expectations of others, however, in not sustainable in the long term, and will lead to performance anxiety because you are trying to be someone you are not.
In many cases, you will need to learn to remove yourself from the expectations of others. You have to live your life for you, not for your teacher, not for your parents, not for your boss and not for your friends. You need to make a choice to take back control over what you want and redefine your identity, as I mentioned above.
And it is important to constantly remind yourself that there are always more options than you think—things are never just “A or B”. If you find yourself facing a closed door, perhaps talk to a loved one or to see what other possibilities are available. In my book Think, Learn, Succeed I talk about how important it is to learn from our failures and see that when one door closes, another one can open—we all need to have a “possibility mindset”. This type of thinking taps into the optimism bias of the brain, helping us get up when things don’t go as planned because we learn to see all the potential opportunities in any given situation. All expectations and goals are essentially hypotheses that we make, so being prepared to change them in this way, especially when our circumstances change, helps develop mental flexibility and gives us hope because we just keep on trying till we achieve our goals!
4. Accept your mistakes.
Allow yourself to make mistakes. Constantly beating yourself up for not living up to certain expectations will make you anxious and set you up for what I call the “shame spiral” (for more information see my podcast on this) because you feel like you keep failing and are not able to succeed in life. But we all make mistakes, we all fail at times—this is what makes us human. The important thing is not the mistake, but how we pull ourselves up afterwards and how we use our mistakes as learning experiences. Mistakes help us grow, so never allow yourself or other people to make you feel guilty or worthless.
If you are always in a competitive or high stress environment, it is important to learn to build in moments where you can completely relax and unwind, and where you don’t feel guilty about relaxing! It is so important to give your mind a rest by taking mental health breaks throughout your day, such as running a bubble bath, going for a walk or to an exercise class, grabbing a coffee with a friend, enjoying the weekend, or treating yourself to a much-needed vacation now and then—whatever you love to do. When we go into a directed rest state (that is when we are intentional about relaxing!), we enhance and increase the effectiveness of our thinking, which allows us to be more productive when we are working. This, in turn, will reduce our anxiety levels, helping us get things done in less time and achieve what we want to achieve in life.
If you want to learn why it is so important to relax, why you should treat your weekend like a vacation and how to deal with the Monday "scaries", listen to a recent podcast I did on why we hate Mondays and how to prepare for a busy week.
6. Take the time to stop, breathe and think.
When you are experience feelings of performance anxiety, stop, breathe, and ask yourself why you are feeling this way. Become aware of and analyze your thinking, writing down your thoughts or talking to someone about what you are going through. Once you have gone through this process of examining your thoughts and actions, make a plan to change so you don’t develop a negative thinking pattern when it comes to your achievements.
My new app Switch (coming soon!), which is on pre-sale for less 30% at https://theswitch.app/promo/, is a great tool for helping you through this process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your toxic expectations, and help you build a healthy new thinking habit. You can also find out more on toxic thinking and how to change negative habits in my book Switch On Your Brain.
If you would like to learn more about how to manage your mental and physical health, and deal with mental fatigue join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summit this December in Dallas, TX! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click here.