Sunday, July 22, 2012

Stage fright = selfishness?

Via Big Think, actor Jonathan Pryce characterizes stage fright as selfishness:

It's an interesting thought, and I'm not going to say he's wrong, but will point out a few things:

1. Self-consciousness and selfishness are not the same thing. Portraying it as selfishness isn't just "cruel" because it's hard to hear someone telling you that you're selfish (though it is), but because it suggests that the anxiety they feel while speaking publicly is because they are somehow trying to monopolize everyone's attention and make the audience think they're better than they are. I've seen speakers who give off this impression, and they don't appear to be frightened in the slightest. When a person obviously has stage fright, it's perhaps as painful to watch and listen to them speak as it is for them to do it. Their voice quavers and they speak too quickly, and you want to whisk them away to a safer location where they may relax, have a beer (or two or three), and record their talk so that you can listen to it later. It would be a better time for all parties involved.

2. After describing stage fright as selfish, Pryce goes on to contrast it with something that sounds, to me, more like selfishness: focusing on what you have to give the audience. It assumes that you have something to give the audience, something important, something they perhaps can only get from you. I've never been quite able to make this assumption, though I don't know whether that's ultimately at the root of my own stage fright. I do know that mine is very real, and it has a very physical manifestation: I go faint. It feels exactly like I feel when I try to give blood, which is a light-headedness combined with nausea, and I start to see red and blue spots. I want to throw up or flee the room, or both. I actually did faint once while performing in a competition in high school-- dropped straight to the ground. It was an unpleasant and embarrassing experience, to say the least. Since then I've found that I can speak before an audience only if I have a prepared paper in front of me from which to read, and the prescribed assistance of Propranolol to stop my heart from beating out of my chest as I do so. As you can imagine, I try to avoid the necessity of doing this very often. Some of us just aren't performers.

3. This is, notably, an instance of a person who has succeeded at solving a problem deciding to diagnose the reason why people who have failed, have failed. It seems as though there are degrees of stage fright, and people who get a small amount of it tend to assume that their experience is universal-- that nobody else experiences something worse. People who have a "trick" that makes their stage fright manageable are rather like people who have a "trick" that makes it easier to avoid eating too many sweets. It might work for them, but there's no particular reason it should work for anyone else. And yet because of the popular doctrine of self-empowerment, it seems as if a trick that works for someone else should work for you, and if it doesn't then it's your own fault. I wonder if that creates a similar effect to that of failing at dieting-- the failure brings with it a sense of personal futility that compounds the original concern and discourages future attempts to improve. This seems like something that a person trained in clinical psychology should address, and...that person would not be me.


  1. That's a bit unfortunate, because I think you would make a great college professor.

  2. Indeed, this sounds suspiciously like universalising one's own experience to me, and it sounds like it might double-down on the sense of guilt and failure that those of us who literally *can't* perform due to this kind of thing already have. I mean, I'm already cross with myself for not being able to bully myself into being better at it, and this kind of commentary is not really helpful! Not your commentary, obviously - that I liked :-)


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