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May 22 2014

Humanist Performance Anxiety

This piece was originally published in The Humanist magazine.

Does anyone else do this?

jump for joyI have this set of humanist values, among which is the notion that since I only have one life, I want to live it to its fullest. Back when I had religious beliefs (mine were of the New Age variety, including reincarnation), I was often lazy about taking advantage of life’s opportunities, since I thought I could always pick them up on the next go-around. Now that I know that I only have one life, I feel intensely motivated to make that life matter: to create meaning and purpose, to make things better for myself and others, to be fully present in moments both large and small. Humanism 101. You know the drill.

But lately I’ve been noticing that, in moments when I’m not richly experiencing my life or taking full advantage of its opportunities, I feel this sense of guilt, and even panic. I’ve taken to calling this feeling “humanist performance anxiety.” And ironically (although pretty predictably), this performance anxiety actually interferes with my ability to enjoy my life and imbue it with meaning.

Here’s an example. Throughout my life, and more so in recent months, I’ve been working on being more present in my life: fully experiencing my life, and being conscious of it, and letting it sink in. But in stretches of my life when I’m not being fully present — when I’m just spacing out, watching bad TV or messing around on Facebook or simply staring out the window having little self-aggrandizing fantasies and letting my mind wander — I sometimes snap back into consciousness, almost in a panic. ACK! I’m not being present and mindful! I’m not living up to my humanist ideals! What am I doing? My very existence is a precious, fragile, wildly improbable flickering of a unique consciousness in the vastness of time and space! Why am I spending it watching “Top Chef”?

It’s not that I think every moment of my life has to be spent battling theocracy and helping the poor. But even in my small moments of pleasure and frivolity, shouldn’t I be fully present? If I’m going to spend an hour messing around on Facebook, shouldn’t I be richly conscious of that hour: savoring my deep sense of connection with friends and family and community, and marveling at the wondrous sprawling web that binds us with all of humanity?

I know that’s ridiculous. I know that my brain needs down time. I recently did a day-long secular meditation retreat, during which I worked to be as present and mindful as I could for as long as I could… and at the end of the day, I was exhausted. It was an extraordinary experience, but once it was over, my brain needed a break. I strongly suspect — although I’d have to ask the neuropsychologists about this — that semi-conscious spacing-out is essential for our brains to function, in much the way that sleep and dreaming are essential. It’s pretty clear to me that some sort of back-burner processing is going on during that down time.

And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that even the hamster-wheel in my head — the near-constant nattering of distracting worries and regrets, harsh self-judgment and harsher judgment of others, endless rounds of “if A then B, if C then D” strategizing for how to live the minutest details of my life, rehearsed conversations and imagined triumphs and worst-case scenarios, all the things that pull me away from experiencing the present moment — is also psychologically necessary. After all, if I lived with no worries or regrets, no plans for the future or lessons from the past, my life would be a hot mess. And if nothing else, I come up with some of my best writing ideas when the hamster wheel is spinning and trying to figure out the world.

But I still have performance anxiety about it. I get anxious that if I’m spending even a minute of my short, precious, fragile life on fretting or spacing out, I’m not being a good humanist.

gravestonesHere’s another example, a somewhat more serious one. In my humanist philosophy, mortality is something I accept. Of course I grieve when my loved ones die — I wouldn’t want not to, I can’t imagine what it would even mean to care deeply for someone and yet not be pained by their death — but I accept the reality and inevitability of death. I have a whole assortment of humanist philosophies that console me in the face of death and mortality, and that let me accept it with some degree of peace. I’m actually convinced that humanism is a better way of coping with death than religion — if for no other reason, it doesn’t demand cognitive dissonance and the denial of reality.

But lately, I’ve been noticing myself experiencing something that can best be described as “proto-grief.” When I look at someone I love or care about, I sometimes get gripped with a horrible sense of how I’m going to feel when they die. When I look at my wife, my friends, my family, even my cats, and I think about how intensely I love them, my mind sometimes gets sucked into imagining the moment of their death, thinking about saying goodbye to them, picturing my life without them… and I get overwhelmed with a despair that, in the moment that I’m feeling it, feels inconsolable.

Again… totally understandable. I went through something of a personal Armageddon a little over a year ago — my father died, and less than two weeks later I was diagnosed with uterine cancer (fully treated and recovered now, by the way) — and it’s not surprising that mortality and death would be in my face for a while. It’s not surprising that death, and fear of death, would be both more painful than usual, and harder to set aside.

But I still get mad at myself about it. I still scold myself: “Are you going to despair over life just because it’s temporary? Are you going to let these rare, delightful moments be destroyed because you can’t deal with the fact that they’re going to pass? Shame on you! Bad humanist! Bad!”

And you want to know the truly ironic thing about this humanist performance anxiety? It actually interferes with my ability to live up to my humanist ideals. Getting sucked into perfectionist self-criticism is not exactly the way to deeply experience my life and instill it with meaning and value. When I can let myself just feel my proto-grief, instead of judging myself for it — when I let myself accept the horrible suckage of death as much as I accept the reality of it — the suckage passes more readily. When I can accept my need for back-burner processing and down time, I can slip out of it, and slip into focused consciousness and presence, more easily and naturally. My anxiety about not living my life to its fullest is one of the things that distracts me from it. It’s as if, in order to see myself as a good humanist, I can’t let myself be human.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But I’m betting that I’m not the only one who does this. And recognizing this pattern is part of what’s helping me deal with it, and helping me let it go. So if anyone else is reading this and going, “Holy mackerel, I do that, too!”… maybe that moment of absurdist, “What fools we mortals be” self-recognition will ease the anxiety. After all, being a humanist means accepting reality — and part of reality is the reality of our own imperfection, our weaknesses and quirks and foibles. If we’re going to be humanist, we have to accept that we’re human.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    Hi Greta

    You often speak my mind.

    I don’t know how we get around the problem of being mentally, perceptively, underpowered to fully partake of the universe about us. Further: anything we do, big or small, seems so insignificant compared to being… well, *not* being … ie: dead. Mortality makes everything else seem so trivial.

    We cannot let these facts distract us. I don’t think a total inadequacy, as I describe, should hold us back. We just need to accept that we are less than we pretend to be. That the huge, overarching, *cosmic* significance we are want to attach to ourselves is not borne out by reality. We are one of billions. We share similar concerns. Our brains function in similar fashions. Our limits, hopes and potentials aren’t much different. We are all inadequate to the task.

    Being more than our, fallible, selves is not about being ourselves-as-individuals. It is about being part of much larger whole. This last is (at least in principle) contained in the religious experience. But also (more relevant in our case) in the scientific endeavour. And ( here is the point) in the Humanist endeavour.

    We have a very real choice as to what we can contribute to. In lasting terms, we cannot contribute much with our very short existences. Ozymandias famously discovered this simple truth( and in a rather simple fashion); he died.

    What we can contribute, we must decide carefully. We each have little to add. For the reasons that you articulate. I think it less important that one contribute little, than that one contribute to the correct initiative. Take care of one’s self. This is very important. Because only then can one contribute to one’s true capacity.
    .

    .

  2. 2
    consciousness razor

    Here’s an example. Throughout my life, and more so in recent months, I’ve been working on being more present in my life: fully experiencing my life, and being conscious of it, and letting it sink in. But in stretches of my life when I’m not being fully present — when I’m just spacing out, watching bad TV or messing around on Facebook or simply staring out the window having little self-aggrandizing fantasies and letting my mind wander — I sometimes snap back into consciousness, almost in a panic. ACK! I’m not being present and mindful! I’m not living up to my humanist ideals! What am I doing? My very existence is a precious, fragile, wildly improbable flickering of a unique consciousness in the vastness of time and space! Why am I spending it watching “Top Chef”?

    When dealing with performance anxiety, it helps to focus on whatever you’re doing. (Also, make sure you’re rested, well-fed, and avoid other things that you find cause or exacerbate such anxiety. Or see a doctor and ask them about it, not me, if you need to.)

    But exactly what do I mean by “focus on whatever you’re doing”? If you’re playing a piece of music, just do that well. (Simple, right?) That is to say, do not turn your attention to yourself, or how well you think you’re doing that thing you’re doing. That is one of the causes of the performance anxiety in the first place. Doing it even more will not help. You’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to feel anxiety/fear/regret/etc. about them. (You can even imagine mistakes that don’t happen or amplify them beyond what they really are.) Overconfidence and hubris and so on can also be detrimental of course. The point is, these will be experiences you have, like it or not, so just go on doing that thing you’re doing. That is (among other things like sleep, food, etc.) what will allow you do it as well as you can — not focusing on your immediate judgment of whether you’re doing it well or poorly, but focusing on what you’re doing while it’s happening. These thoughts are directed “out,” in some sense, to stuff other than you. You’re thinking about the music you’re playing, the speech you’re giving, or whatever work you happening to be performing.

    So, being inward-directed (or “mindful,” if that’s what you mean by that) is definitely not something you should always do. You shouldn’t take it as a failure on your part, if you find yourself not doing it all of the time. I’m sure it would be exhausting, but other than finding out some things about that kind of experience, I don’t know what purpose it would really serve. You should of course always be doing your best, but judging yourself can get in the way of that. Indeed, why would it be a problem that we aren’t always doing it? Self-evaluation isn’t what we ought to be best at — we ought to be best at living a life, not simply best at the constant evaluations of our lives that we might confuse with the real thing.

    I feel like this needs to be stressed another way, because as your interesting article shows, we use lots of different concepts to grasp at these issues, so I’ll try to put it a little differently. Being “present” in the moment, if you’re a musician or a speaker or whatever, definitely doesn’t mean you ought to turn your attention to yourself (i.e., whatever your brain is telling itself that it is doing). You ought to be present in the whole moment itself, which is what you’re creating (in part), not just present “within yourself” and thinking about your own thoughts. Your thoughts only represent what you think is happening; they aren’t the real thing. And you should really save the meditation and such for the period before a performance (which I suppose isn’t applicable in the case of life in general — sadly, we get no time to practice or warm up for that), while trying to maintain a positive attitude about what you’re going to do. Think about what it is to do that thing successfully, not so much about your own feelings toward your success or failure (or past successes and failures).

    I strongly suspect — although I’d have to ask the neuropsychologists about this — that semi-conscious spacing-out is essential for our brains to function, in much the way that sleep and dreaming are essential. It’s pretty clear to me that some sort of back-burner processing is going on during that down time.

    I want to point out that there are countless times I’ve performed when it seems as though I had just been “semi-conscious” or that I was “spacing-out.” Maybe you’d call it an altered state like sleep or dreaming, or maybe something like it is so common that being fully self-aware and self-critical in this extravagant sense is properly what ought to be called an altered state. The point here is that it isn’t just about relaxation or needing down time or something like that. This is an example that is about as active as it gets; “I” just wasn’t quite there to witness the activity and give “my” take on it, not while I was doing it. I don’t mean anything especially profound here, just that the way you focus on a task like that involves taking “yourself” out of the picture in some sense. You don’t need those sorts of self-referential brain functions then, and indeed they only seem to get in the way.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s an “imperfection” or a “weakness” of ours that this is how our brains work. I think the fault lies with unrealistic goals like always being “mindful,” always being “present,” always being self-critical, always battling theocracy (or any other highly-specific goal), etc. Sometimes you just have to actually go out and do stuff. Self-criticism shouldn’t get in the way of that, nor does it need to. It can come in the preparation for what you’re doing, as well as afterward.

  3. 3
    janiceintoronto

    Whoa girl. Take a deep breath.

    Now relax.

    There. That’s better…

  4. 4
    triple3a

    If we’re going to be humanist, we have to accept that we’re human.

    Bravo, Greta.  That last line alone was worth the price of the essay.

  5. 5
    Anjo Brav

    Holy mackerel, I do that, too! :-)

    For me, it’s more like “achievement anxiety”: I get deathly afraid of dying before having achieved anything worthwhile. Of course, “worthwhile” is in the eye of the beholder, so maybe I have already achieved worthy things. Finding love, for one, and standing by my love as best I can. Really, really loving our two cats and trying to make their lives long and happy. (And, like you said, I too sometimes think “Oh noes, they will die eventually!” *much wailing and gnashing of teeth*. Not to mention the times I think the same thoughts about my wife… :’-( )

    I’ve always thought my fear was caused by my being to ill to really do much of anything, but seeing as you did/do achieve stuff, maybe that isn’t the root of this problem. Could it be some kind of midlife thing? Like: when you were young you thought you were going to be awesome and super wise and know everything. And now you’re just the same person you were then, maybe a little wiser but not enough to know everything or even wtf being an adult even means.

    For me, the illness still seems important. I’ve managed to get a Master’s (in Biology), I’m intelligent and creative, but I can’t do much with these assets. Haven’t lost hope yet, but my life is at least halfway through and there’s little to show for it. Although, again, “little” is in the beholder’s eye. Maybe this one gay kid I once talked to online and got to reconsider his self-hatred, maybe that kid will live a happy life and maybe I have contributed to it. Maybe being friendly to some random person behind a counter has had some kind of butterfly effect for that person. Maybe that is all there is, being a part of humanity in whatever way is available and fitting for you.

    Recently I’ve realised that I’m still not a “ma’am” (“mevrouw” in Dutch, my native language) in my own eyes, at 39 years old. Even worse, I’ll probably never become one. Even worser, all those other people, including dignified elderly ladies, probably don’t really feel like “ma’ams” inside either. Don’t know if this has anything to do with what you’re saying, but it feels as if it does. I wish it wasn’t so damned vague…

    Anyway, lots of rambling to let you know that holy mackerel, I really feel I do that, too! :-)

  6. 6
    Anjo Brav

    Is there no way to edit your post? I wanted to add that I’ve lost my father too and it did have a BIG impact on this stuff. Just realising “I am mortal too. No really, one day I too wil DIE. Really, really, for real realz die and be gone forever.”

    I’ve seen someone die now, and this really drove that fact home for me on a visceral level. He died and was clearly dead and won’t come back. Ever. And the same will happen to me.

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