Overcoming Performance Anxiety: Internal Family Systems

Big feelings. Conflicting feelings. Arguing in my head. Telling myself I shouldn't feel that way (especially about performance anxiety!). 

There's a solution to this way of being: all of it is welcome. Identifying each voice and feeling, hearing it fully, and showing it love and compassion allows the arguing and big feelings to settle and calm. 

This is the process of Internal Family Systems coaching and therapy. In my journey to heal performance anxiety, coaching with expert IFS practitioner Melissa Sandfort transformed my life and changed my inner world for the better.

There are three main ideas in IFS. First, we are made up of Parts. Parts are simply the voices in our head, or the various emotions and reactions. You know how you might have a voice that yells at you to practice more, and then another voice that resists and wants to watch TV all day? Those can be considered Parts of You, but not the whole You.

Second – all Parts are trying to help. That voice that yells at you to practice? It perhaps is mean and nasty and says things you would never say to anyone else. Notice that it is actually trying to help. It knows your goals of being a better musician and wants to get you there. Other voices or desires come into play – practicing is hard, working on imperfections sucks and makes you feel like sh@#, so other parts want to avoid the hard work. Those parts are trying to help too! They don’t want you to feel bad about yourself! Inner conflict is the result.

While all Parts are trying to help, the kicker is that not all parts are helpful.

The third principle of IFS is All Parts Are Welcome. Because all Parts are trying to help, we want to honor and respect their efforts. And just like people, what Parts really need is to be seen and heard. Simply being with them in their feelings releases pressure over time.

Of all the tools I’ve explored, IFS has had the biggest and longest lasting effect on my performing, and coaching other musicians. I’m learning to be more in the moment as the voices are heard, addressed, and then they can relax and step back. I notice more frequently the emotions simmering in my body, and make space for them, rather than fight them. Nerves for performing still happen sometimes, but now I talk to them, understand why they are there, and am able to roll with it, rather than the nerves controlling me.


How you can apply:

The first step is always identifying the voices in your head. When you catch yourself in an internal battle, ask yourself, what individual voices are arguing right now? Who are they? See if you can separate the desires into different parts or persons or categories. Notice that these voices are not you, but only one part of you.

The act of identifying the voices goes a long way to releasing the intensity and pressure in our heads. Melissa has a great exercise located here on her website.

This may feel silly and imaginary for a while. You may have resistance. That’s all very normal.

Any kind of transformational work takes time and patience. Of course, doing this work with a professional makes it so much more manageable, and sometimes downright fun. Can you tell that I highly recommend this process? 
The long and short of all I’ve written in these four blog posts (the first three can be found here): overcoming performance anxiety takes practice and dedication, but it is completely possible. When I was in the throes of anxiety, it was hard for me to see a way out and to have hope that making music was still a viable career. And the journey of healing my anxiety, while having its ups and downs, is its own reward. Cliche! I know! And so annoying at times. But all those sayings become true and tangible once you embark upon the mission to improve yourself and your inner world in the service of your calling in life.