How Adele got over her stage fright

Adele Adkins is one of the world’s best music artists. Her voice is sublime. She has sold over 120 million records and won 15 Grammys! 

But there is something that not many people know. Adele is afraid of her audience. She has crazy stage fright.

Being such a talented artist, she still hates touring and putting on live shows. Because she has a fear: what if the audience believes that her recorded performance is better than her live performance? 

Notice that the fear is not based on fact, but on belief. Adele criticizes herself because of a what-if scenario!

Isn’t it kind of crazy that someone so talented gets anxious before going on stage? Adele has thrown up multiple times before her show. She has had multiple panic attacks, and once she has even run away through a fire exit from her own show!

Understanding Adele’s mind

The mind is a crazy thing. When it criticizes itself, it causes all sorts of problems. 

Self criticism is an essential trait that helps you in making fewer mistakes. Indeed, under fMRI, people who engaged in self criticism activated those parts of the brain that light up for error detection and correction. 

But self criticism can also become debilitating. Are you surprised to know that people with depression are usually more self critical than people without depression?

Your inner self critic makes you anxious. Makes you doubt yourself. Makes you afraid. Makes you avoid action.

So how did Adele overcome her stage fright?

Adele did something that made her stage fright manageable. She learnt a trick from a fellow musician: Beyonce.

To get over her stage fright, Beyonce created an alter-ego. “Sasha Fierce”. As soon as Beyonce would put on her shoes and hear the crowd, her alter-ego Sasha Fierce would take over. And Sasha Fierce has no fear. Beyonce created a character that she could put on, like other people put on clothes.

When Adele heard about this, she created her own alter-ego. “Sasha Carter” which was a mix of Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce and country music star June Carter. Sasha Carter could get on stage and blow the audience away!

Why did such a crazy thing like creating an alter-ego work? What’s going on here? 

How do you avoid self doubt and self criticism to become fearless?

Jenny McMullen and her colleagues from the psychology department of the National University of Ireland conducted an experiment once where participants were given electric shocks. 

Before the shocks began, some of the participants were given a funny task: They were asked to chant “I can’t walk” while walking around in the room. 

These participants could bear 97% stronger electric shocks than others! They could bear almost double the pain!

A brief reminder that your mind is not always accurate allows you to ignore it when it says things hurt! 

When you “say” something and “do” the opposite of it, you realize that your mind is just an organ and your thoughts don’t control your behavior. 

Once you realize this key factor, you can then overcome self criticism and do things that you otherwise wouldn’t.

Building distance between the mind and the behavior

Self distancing is the key. It is self distancing that allows you to view yourself more objectively. That allows you to see the bigger picture and not be bogged down with immediate feelings.

Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan was one of the first people to study this. He conducted an experiment where participants are given a choice between healthy fruit and unhealthy candy.

When participants asked themselves “what do I want?” – they paid heed to their immediate feelings – and more of them opted for the candy. But when participants used third person speech and asked themselves “what does David want?” – they could build distance and opt for fruit!

Rachel White took Kross’s experiments further. And conducted an experiment with 6 year old kids. All of the kids were given a boring task of tapping a key whenever a photo of cheese appeared on their screens.

The kids were prompted to think about their feelings when they found the task to be boring. Some of the kids were told to think “Am I working hard?” while others were asked to think “Is David working hard?”

And like the earlier research, when kids thought in third person, they spent 10% more time on the boring task.

A third group of kids were given an option to completely change their persona and think of themselves as their favourite fictional hero like Batman or Dora the Explorer. And they were told to ask: “Is Batman working hard?”

These kids stuck with the boring task 23% longer than the ones who thought in first person!

Alter-ego works because it helps you build more self distance. But if building a full fledged alter-ego for yourself is too out there, then what can you do?

Name your organ

Steven Hayes, one of the most well known behavioral and cognitive therapists, and the founder of “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” recommends that you give a name to your mind. Hayes himself calls his mind “George.” Hayes says that if your mind has a name, then it’s different from “you!” When you listen to someone else, you can choose to agree with them or disagree with them!

Just like how your stomach grumbles without your conscious thought, your mind sometimes self criticizes without deliberate thought. By giving this part of your mind a name, you can freely decide to not heed to it.

You can decide to kill your alter-ego’s too

Your alter-egos don’t have to be forever. Alter-egos are tools that help you accept yourself when you change your behaviour. 

But your behavior changes you too. Acting confident indeed makes you feel more confident.

Beyonce acknowledged in 2010 that she had killed Sasha Fierce. Long live Beyonce. Sasha Fierce helped her with public performances. But she outgrew the need for it. Beyonce herself had become capable.

Action Summary:

  • Remember that your thoughts can be wrong. And that they don’t control you. Be silly and walk in the room chanting “I can’t walk.”
  • You need self distance to deal with self criticism. So build an alter-ego. Or at least, give a name to your mind.