It feels horrible to struggle with performance anxiety when you’re trying to do ritual.
It can suck all the joy out of doing ritual.
The usual advice is that more practice will solve everything. But you’ve probably discovered that doesn’t always work.
Know that performance anxiety is common and perfectly normal in active Freemasons. And that there are techniques which will improve things for you.
Here are nine quick and simple tips that you can use straight away.
When you feel nervous before a ceremony, one of the most helpful things you can do is to consciously take a slow, deep breath. Then take a few more. It’s really as simple as that.
But the benefits come when you get the details right, so let’s go through them quickly. Don’t worry – they’re not difficult.
The three key details to notice are as follows:
Slow means simply that you’re not rushing things. You don’t have to be aiming for the slowest breathing possible – it wants to be at a pace that’s comfortable for you.
Deep means that you want to get your belly involved rather than only breathing into your chest. This doesn’t mean that you’re only breathing from your belly. And it doesn’t mean that you’re trying to cram as much air into your lungs as possible. Keep your breathing smooth and easy rather than forcing it.
Conscious means that you keep your full attention on your breathing throughout. Be aware of when you’re breathing in and when you’re breathing out. Notice how it feels.
And don’t worry about whether you’re doing all this “correctly”. It’s possible to get better and better at this as you practice. But the most important thing is to start doing it with the intention to get the basics right.
As long as you have the right intention as you breathe, then it will give you a huge benefit. If you want to go on and improve the details later – then great.
The ideal way to make this type of breathing automatic is to mentally learn a quick pre-performance routine. As well as calming anxiety, this will also lead to better performances.
2) Choose your focus ahead of time
You probably know that to do ritual well, you need the ability to keep your concentration steady and in the right place.
But you might not realise that a strong focus is equally effective at reducing performance anxiety. Trying not to think about something that’s worrying you is almost impossible.
Instead, the key is to guide your focus towards something positive. If you do that successfully, then your thoughts will automatically move away from everything else.
The secret to making this work is preparation.
Choose where you’re going to put your focus in advance, rather than hoping you’ll pick the right option when the time comes. That way, there’s no worry or doubt about whether you made the right choice – you’ll just be following orders. And practice hitting this target over a period of time. Until you automatically know where to aim without having to think about it.
That way, you reduce the mental effort you need in performing ritual, rather than making your mind work harder.
This may not come easily at first. Over time, however, it will become more and more natural to constantly check whether your focus is in the right place.
3) Remember that the physical effects are normal
When performance anxiety strikes, it can be tempting to think that there’s something wrong with you. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Your body’s response to pressure is something that has evolved over millions of years. It may not be the response you want, but it’s perfectly normal and healthy. You should be more worried if you didn’t react in that way. It would be an indication that something wasn’t working properly. Once you accept this, the game changes.
If you think that performance anxiety is a huge problem, and that you should be calm, then you can fall into a destructive spiral. Each time you try and calm yourself without success, it adds to your anxiety. It feeds off itself and just keeps getting worse.
NOW – This isn’t going to make any nerves disappear. But the more that you accept how things are, the less those nerves will affect the presentation of your ritual performance.
You may even find that the strength of your performance anxiety decreases over time when you adopt this attitude. That would be a nice side-effect, though – it’s not guaranteed, and it’s not the point of the exercise.
4) Reframe any nerves as ‘excitement’
There are several different components to performance anxiety – some physical, and some mental. You probably notice the physical aspects more easily and pay less attention to how nerves affect your thinking. But it’s the mental side that often has the bigger impact.
Your body’s physical response when you’re nervous is very similar to when you’re excited. What’s different is the emotional component on top. Negative emotions for nerves, positive for excitement.
This means that there are big improvements you can make without having to change your physical response at all. You just have to reframe any feeling of nerves as excitement.
Easier said than done, right? Actually, it’s easier than you might imagine.
Amazingly enough, you don’t have to get hung up on whether it is something you truly believe at the time. Just the act of thinking “I’m excited” to yourself has been shown to have a positive impact on performance.
5) Think about the candidate
Would you agree that your goal should be to give the candidate a great experience?
I hope so.
But it’s all too easy instead to get caught up with thoughts about how YOU want things to go.
Change your perspective so that you’re focused purely on giving the candidate an enjoyable experience. This is obviously good for the rest of the Brethren. But it’s going to help you too.
When you switch your focus to the candidate’s enjoyment, you’ll find this moves you from unhelpful thoughts that interfere with your own effort.
There’s no time to beat yourself up about past mistakes. No time to worry about what’s coming up next. To give them the best experience possible, you’ve got to leave that all behind. You’ve got to concentrate fully on what you’re saying right now.
6) Set realistic expectations
One of the reasons you get nervous is that you expect too much of yourself.
Demanding a perfect performance from yourself every time is not an achievable goal. It’s definitely not a helpful goal. If you set unreasonable targets for yourself, then it’s no surprise that you’re nervous about whether you’ll achieve them.
If you’re presenting a charge that you feel you’ve mastered, then just loosen up a bit. It’s fine if it’s not perfect – the odd slip won’t matter. If you loosen up, then you’ll feel less pressure – it will be more like fun. You’ll also probably speak better if you’re ok with occasional mistakes than if you’re set on avoiding them at all costs. When you’re not chasing the idea of perfection, you may find that you present that perfect performance after all.
If you’re giving a charge that’s really challenging, though, then it’s time to recalibrate your expectations. If something is way too hard for you, then expecting to present it brilliantly is unrealistic. In that case, maybe make your goal for success, just to get through it.
7) The Brethren don’t pay as close attention to you as you think
When you’re getting ready to walk up and perform, it can feel like the Brethren will be focusing on every word you say.
But the reality is very different.
Everyone’s thoughts tend to be heavily focused inward on themselves.
Scientific studies show that, as a result, people inevitably overestimate the amount of attention that others pay to them. The phenomenon even has a name, it’s called the Spotlight Effect. And the research shows that this effect occurs just as much in performance situations as it does in everyday life.
For a surprisingly large part of your performance, many of the Brethren’s thoughts will be elsewhere. If something doesn’t quite go to plan, then most of the Brethren won’t even be aware of it.
8) Remember that the Brethren are on your side
Think about it: The Brethren have come along to enjoy themselves.
They’re not secretly hoping for a poor performance just so that they can criticise the flaws later. They’re cheering you on. They want you to ‘produce the goods’.
In short, they’re on your side.
And this means that they’ll actively latch on to all the best moments in the ceremony. Simultaneously, their minds filter out as many of the less-polished moments as possible. They’re not genuinely interested in dwelling on those – either now or in the future.
You might be tempted to think that the Brethren will be judging you. Resist that temptation. Remember that they’ll applaud your successes and forgive you any slips.
9) Replace unhelpful thoughts
We all get unhelpful thoughts popping into our minds from time to time, and if you’re nervous about performing a charge, then you’ll probably get more of them.
That’s not actually a problem. It’s totally normal.
What IS a problem is wasting time holding onto those thoughts, rather than just letting them disappear as quickly as they arrive.
Luckily, there’s a simple way to get rid of unwanted thoughts. You simply replace them with something else. To make this easy and effective, you want to have an alternative thought prepared ahead of time. If you notice unhelpful thoughts running around in your head, then simply say to yourself, “It will be fine”.
You can repeat this phrase as many times as you need to. This works well because it’s always true, so you can always believe in it. The consequences may seem terrible at first glance whilst you’re in the grip of performance anxiety.
But when you pause and think about the bigger picture – you’ll discover that it always will be fine. Whatever the result of your delivery, life goes on pretty much unchanged afterwards, and the sun still comes up in the morning.
So there you go.
Nine quick, simple and practical things you can do to reduce performance anxiety whilst delivering charges.
Don’t attempt them all straight away, though. If you try to remember too many different, unfamiliar things at once, then none of them will work very well.
Pick the one that appeals to you most and start with that. When it’s working reliably, then add in another. And so on.
Eventually, you’ll be able to use all of them together. Add them all up and they should hugely increase your enjoyment of delivering charges.