Why do we perform when it terrifies us so much?

For most of my 20s, off and on in my 30s and again in my early 40s, I suffered from performance anxiety. Often crippling performance anxiety. Dry mouth, shaking legs, unable to get my breath under me.

In my 20s, it was because my technical ability wasn’t at the level I needed to be at to get out of thinking it was all about me and what people thought about me. (See Your story informs your use informs your function or “self-fulfilling prophecy.”) I’m not a perfectionist in every thing I do – just look at my cooking and housecleaning for examples of that – but singing was another story because it’s perceived as a perfection-based art form.

In my early 30s, the technique was coming along, and when I was on stage in a role, I was confident that I was good at this. I could “hide” behind a character. I could figure out how to sing based on the character’s emotional arc, what was happening on stage,  But when I performed in a concert, especially oratorio, I suddenly started worrying about whether my technique was good enough to do this because this was very traditional, and there were so many people who had come before me who had done this very thing and probably better. (Not that people hadn’t done the roles I was doing before, but staging makes it seem new – standing and singing just put the focus on what was coming out of my mouth.) It got better because I got out of the situation I was in, I went to grad school, and I was performing with high level people who valued me and inspired me to get better. I performed in a variety of venues in lead roles, supporting roles, in a top-tier professional opera chorus, and

In my 40s, I had moved back to Milwaukee and again, I had issues. I was back in my hometown and I was back to thinking that people were saying negative things about me (and in some cases, I wasn’t wrong). And although I felt like I was at the top of my game, technically and artistically, I was dealing with imposter/fraud syndrome, and feeling as thought I was perceived as, somehow, “too big for my britches.” After a few less-than-gratifying performances (again, see “self-fulfilling prophecy”), I wound up not auditioning for things because I felt like I wasn’t going to get it anyway, so why bother. The anxiety wasn’t on stage, because I didn’t let myself get that far.

That ended for me in 2009, first in March, when I started performing cabaret, and later that year, when my mother died.

I know. That sounds bad, It wasn’t something I wanted or welcomed. It wasn’t even something I personally noticed. A chronic back spasm disappeared the day after we returned from her memorial service. I woke up and turned to my husband and said, “it doesn’t hurt,” and he put two and two together. Some jaw tension I’d had for years disappeared, to the extent that I was having issues articulating clearly because my jaw felt too loose (at one point, I was afraid I’d had a stroke)! My teacher said, “You probably have been holding back so much that now that you don’t have to, your jaw doesn’t know what to do!”

I also did my first 5K in 2010, which was something I’d never even considered doing. (I’ve done two. It turns out I don’t really like running. Plus I had a few knee injuries.)

In 2010 I also decided to start taking regular lessons and work toward getting back to performing. I discovered that I was enjoying my performances more than I ever had, in every circumstance – oratorio, stage, recital, cabaret – and I felt like my audiences were enjoying them much more. Which was then more fun for me as well, and I gave more. I have also done a lot of work on myself to figure out what my triggers were/are, and have a lot of resources that I am more than happy to share with others who are going through the same thing. Now that I’m back on the East Coast, I’m performing at the same level that I was before I left.

Even when I wasn’t performing, when performing wasn’t giving me joy because I couldn’t get out of that negative mindset, and when no one was hiring me, I considered myself a performer. Even now, when I’m not performing because of the pandemic, I still consider myself a performer. That is why I continued performing even during those times when I questioned, “WHY AM I DOING THIS WHEN IT TERRIFIES ME?”

I did it because I had something to say. I didn’t know how to say it when I didn’t have the technical ability, or the emotional ability, and apparently, I forgot how to say it when life reverted back to the way it had been after I’d gained those masteries. But I still have something to say, and I intend to keep saying it for as long as I can.

Anxiety & Performance

If performing terrifies you, why do you keep doing it? Tell me in the chat!



If you have something to say, and want to work with someone who has been through it all, bad and good, contact me, and we can see if we might be a good fit!



Published by Mezzoid Voice Studio

Christine Thomas-O'Meally, a mezzo soprano and voice teacher currently based in the Baltimore-DC area, has performed everything from the motets of J.S. Bach to the melodies of Irving Berlin to the minimalism of Philip Glass. As an opera singer and actress, she has appeared with companies such as Charm City Players, Spotlighters Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Theater of Northern Virginia, Opera North, the Washington Savoyards, In Tandem Theatre, Windfall Theater, The Young Victorian Theater of Baltimore, and Skylight Opera Theatre. She created the role of The Woman in Red in Dominick Argento’s Dream of Valentino in its world premiere with the Washington Opera and Mary Pickersgill in O'er the Ramparts at its world premiere during the Bicentennial of Battle of Baltimore at the Community College of Baltimore County. Other roles include Mrs. Paroo in Music Man, Mother Abbess in Sound of Music, Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte, Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro, both Hansel and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel, and many roles in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Her performance as the Housekeeper in Man of La Mancha was honored with a WATCH award nomination. Ms. Thomas-O'Meally received an M.M. in vocal performance from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She regularly attends master classes and workshops in both performance and vocal pedagogy, and is certified in all three Levels of Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method. Her students have performed on national and international tours of Broadway productions, at prestigious conservatories, and in regional theater throughout the country.

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