I sat at the edge of my seat, waiting to be called up. Hands freezing, heart racing, I tried to slow my breathing and calmly remember what to do. Breathe, got to breathe.
The instructor called my name. I walked to my spot, inhaled and expanded my rib cage. Nodded.
And began to sing “Shenandoah.” With an accompanist, in front of an audience: a class of 20 fellow voice students.
It was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of my life.
Fear and exhilaration do go hand in hand, and fear of failure is common. A recent survey by the social network Linkagoal found that fear of failure plagued 31% of 1,083 adult respondents — a larger percentage than those who feared spiders (30%), being home alone (9%) or even the paranormal (15%).
Los Angeles-based publicist Sharon House knows the euphoric lift many people get after doing something that frightens them. Always afraid of heights, House would never even go out on balconies. “It kept me from doing some things I really wanted to do, like going to the top of Machu Picchu.”
So, for Mother’s Day last year, House’s daughter Laurel helped her jump off a cliff. “She took me rappelling at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs,” House remembered. “They take you up a very slippery climb, put you in a helmet and harness, and then say, ‘OK, go.’ It was 5 feet to the edge; I walked to it on my tiptoes, then jumped backwards and free-fell about 6 feet. Pushed off and did it again. I did it all the way down, for about 10 minutes. There was no stopping me.”
“Fear of failure is fear of the unknown,” she said. “In some cases, we need fear. It’s what keeps us alive. But at the same time it can freeze you.”
Not everyone can do anything they want. “I do a thorough intake on a client, because sometimes they are not equipped for what they want to do,” Hamilton said. “They haven’t had the training, for instance, to start trying to be a professional ballet dancer at age 25. But we can find strategies for what to do instead.”
What often happens, according to Hamilton, is that people reframe their fears, and use a cognitive technique to see that the concerns are unfounded. “My client who was afraid of dating was also terrified of making friends, fearing that she would lose them if they moved or got pregnant. What she was really reacting to was feeling she had to be perfect for her mother, who kept all her feelings to herself. The girl took rejection very seriously and anticipated it even if it wasn’t real.”
“The experience of going out of your comfort zone is not a pleasant one,” said Hamilton. “But the confidence, the feeling of relief — we call it ‘excitation transfer’ — are very intense. That sense of mastery, ‘Wow, look what I just did,’ is a learning experience. The fear itself is not pleasant, but people never remember it. What they remember is that positive high.”
When fear is crippling
Many performers experience a type of post-traumatic stress disorder in the form of stage fright. One incident may scar them for years. Barbra Streisand, famously and early in her career, forgot the words to “People” during a free concert in Central Park. She was so mortified, she stopped performing in public for almost three decades; she simply kept reliving that moment. Performers who have stage fright do not get that reward of euphoria. First there is terror, and then hyper-criticism.
Sara Solovitch, author of “Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright,” played classical piano from a very early age. When she was 11 or 12, she developed crippling stage fright, so severe that her fingers, dripping sweat, would slip off the keys. “I was a talented pianist, but what I was experiencing was not natural. Even though you know your life is not being threatened, that you aren’t skydiving or bungee jumping, what happens in your body and your brain is the same. It doesn’t matter: Your brain is being hijacked, and your rational mind isn’t there anymore.”
Her fear of performing in public, however, “had been preserved in formaldehyde,” Solovitch was surprised to discover. “Every time I play, when I feel I have some skin in the game, I have to deal with it.” To cope, she studiously prepares. “Winston Churchill said that for every minute of a speech he’d prepare for an hour. I have to make sure every note is in my head. Then, the last day or two, just relax, meditate, go for long walks and be very thoughtful.”
A surprise reward
Jenna McCarthy, author of the new novel “Pretty Much Screwed,” found herself unexpectedly invited to do a TED-X talk in her hometown of Santa Barbara. “I had no aspiration whatsoever to be a speaker,” said McCarthy. “I’m more of a sit-down comedienne.” But she figured she would rather have a learning experience to live through than live with the regret of “what if?”
Now McCarthy is getting work as a speaker. “I stepped out of my comfort zone, and it changed my life. I learned a great lesson: Don’t not do it without first trying to do it.”
Life and a lesson
Sharon House, now “not a thrill seeker, just accomplished” at conquering her fear of heights, went on to do a one-hour zip-line tour over the rainforest in Costa Rica and realizes the value of her feat: “I think as we get older, so much is happening that we might not be involved in — pop culture, social media, super miniskirts — so to be able to have a couple of things that make us feel good about ourselves is very powerful.”
Linda Hamilton agrees: “There’s nothing worse than thinking, ‘Here I am, and nothing more is going to happen to me.’ The brain keeps developing and learning. I think everybody benefits from that.”