It doesn’t apply only to sex.
I was born a runner – not the fittest but definitely fitter than my peers. And somehow, knowing that such was the case didn’t help me run faster. Instead, I became even more frightened by the prospect of performing up to my established standard: one that required me to be in my top form at all times. I wanted to be able to run effortlessly without having to lift a finger; I wanted to be able to float in the air and not have to feel the weight of my overburdened legs stomping on the ground with each loud pant. More than anything else, I didn’t want to have to live up to my own self-imposed benchmark of excellence that meant having to put myself through the consistent rigour of mental preparation each time before I ran.
It wasn’t my lack of determination that was stopping me, but rather, it was the reservations I had within my mind telling me that I wouldn’t be able to perform as expected (if not better). Every time there was some sort of running competition or physical test, I would instantly freeze up and not feel like giving my best during the run. This was my strategy to counter my psychological inhibition that was putting brakes on my ankles and knees. But it wasn’t so much that I intentionally wanted to give up either. Deep down inside, I just wished I could perform at my highest level without this mental constraint weighing me down. It didn’t help that others were watching me running and telling me that I wasn’t fast enough, or that my timing wasn’t on par with my previous ones. Therein, my anxiety only enlarged and took over my mind. I became conditioned by this notion that other people were the ones setting the bar for me: everyone but myself. I eventually grew shaky and overwhelmed by this constant fear that I would not be able to please others while trying to outdo myself. It was akin to pushing myself to beat this imaginary record that I had implanted somewhere in my own biological DNA. My unrealistic self-expectations and I were intertwined together like vines on a fence.
I wasn’t suffering from delusions of grandeur. I was suffering from what is known as ‘performance anxiety’. When we think of ‘performance’, we immediately relate it to ‘athlete’ or ‘sales’ (think ‘annual/quarterly performance’). Little do we know that performance can also be something as uninteresting as running an errand or taking an examination. In both cases, there are certain requirements to meet and they are almost always time-sensitive. While it might not seem to be the case for the former, we actually often set time limits for ourselves when we carry out daily tasks, as a means of apportioning our time wisely. But the effects of performance anxiety tend to be more prominent when these tasks are administered by someone else. That’s when we start to realise that we are no longer pleasing just ourselves but someone else too. Of course, who wouldn’t want to be able to do their own things without being scrutinised by others? If that were the case, we’d probably be more lenient on ourselves when it came to goal setting and putting pressure on ourselves to perform up to mark. But even if we were more self-motivated to actually pressurise ourselves to push our own boundaries, then it wouldn’t necessarily negate the effects of performance anxiety either. Performance anxiety happens to those put under the stress of having to reach goals that are not readily in sight in environments that are often competitive and cutthroat. It’s when we know that any slight slip-up could make all the difference between hanging onto the edge of the cliff and falling off it that would trigger our instinctive fight or flight response. And if our nervous systems become overloaded by the excessive triggering of this heightened response, our bodies could go into a kind of panic mode that will force them to shut down.
It’s actually more common than you think. For example, you could be tasked to perform a presentation in front of your company’s board of directors, all of whom you know to be ridiculously strict and demanding. It’s moments before your presentation when your palms and feet begin sweating profusely for no apparent reason. You have the proverbial ‘butterflies in your stomach’ and your mind goes blank like a sheet of white paper even though you rehearsed the presentation multiple times beforehand. You try to calm yourself down and tell yourself that you can do it. But all you get in response is a huge, powerful dose of self-doubt beating you back down. With your back against the wall, you panic and can either choose to continue with the presentation (which you know will most likely be a disaster) or break down in tears and just back away. It’s no wonder you see athletes or stage actors/actresses crying after their performances. It’s not so much the hours of practice they suffered leading up to the actual performances, but the overcoming of this specific performance anxiety that leaves them shaken and relieved.
I still get goosebumps just by looking at the running track and thinking of how scary it would be for me to actually run 5km. And the fascinating part is that my mind doesn’t see it as 5km. Rather, it sees it as twelve and a half rounds around a 400m track. Just the thought of running twelve and a half rounds is insanely scary. I would tell myself to run more slowly or end up giving myself an excuse not to do it altogether. I would get quite bad muscle cramps too – all because of unnecessary muscular tension from the build-up of anxiety. If only I could avert the problem by skipping running entirely. But that wouldn’t solve the root cause that is my psychological preparedness and resilience (or lack thereof).