Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 20 May 2013

Performance anxiety: The curse of our time

Although it refers essentially to a kind of “stage fright” experienced by individuals in life’s various spheres of performance, increasingly it has become a kind of national malady; performance anxiety on a grand scale. We are constantly anxious about the country and about its ability to perform as it should.

Fear and failing to perform up to standard are the menacing realities of our lives. We all know what has to be done, and we all know what is broken that needs fixing. But somehow we just can’t believe sufficiently in ourselves. We don’t manage to live up to our own expectations. Open any newspaper and the self-defeating South African penchant for judgement, criticism and paralysing fault-finding is there.

Performance anxiety experts and those professionals who treat it say that it is “all in the mind”. We are also told by neuropsychologists that our words have a defining impact on our behaviour and on how we see ourselves. If we keep on telling ourselves that we are losers, we will lose. Sport psychologists know that one has to build an image of winning in one’s mind to be able to achieve it. Self-speak is the key to success.

Jay Naidoo wrote an excellent article this last week building on the theme “Why are we so angry?”. He starts by saying, “I feel like a dagger has been plunged into the heart and soul of our nation.” Then he goes on to list a frightening number of governance ailments from the Gupta-saga through corruption and the culture of immunity of our politicians. His comments were so profound and we all identified so strongly with his sentiments that, locally, the piece very quickly went viral. It described how far South Africa is falling short, and how anxious we all have become because of it. Sadly, it also was one more example of how practiced we have become at judgement and the critical evaluation of performance.

Because we live in a performance society our greatest fear is judgement, criticism and disapproval. We now know what has to be achieved at every stage of our development. Toddlers have to achieve certain growth and performance goals at the accepted times if mothers are not to become anxious. Senior school sports fields are surrounded by cajoling parents who want their sons and daughters to be selected for the top teams and to be recognised as winners. The performance culture drives us through the graduation- marriage- and parenthood-markers of early adulthood into full-blown life-experts who can judge and assess the performance of anything in every aspect of life.

Technology has become the handmaiden of performance anxiety. The vast and expanding universe of information available on your laptop or cellphone enables you to compare, constantly, the performance expected of your company, your sports team, your investment portfolio, and everything else you may wish to take stock of. Not only have we now matured into experts on every subject, we have the technology tools to prove it. Measurement of performance is a burgeoning science. On the one hand we love it. At the same time it gives us nowhere to hide.

Performance appraisals are the annual meat-and-potatoes of business management. You and your boss agree on your goals for the year and heaven help you if you don’t make it. More serious is the report from China that there is a frightening increase in what the Japanese call karoshi, death from overwork. It is said that there are now upwards of 600,000 people a year in China who die from heart attack or stroke caused by work stress, which in turn, presumably is caused by performance anxiety.

Not that any of our snouts-in-the-Gupta-trough leaders are likely to suffer from karoshi-like performance angst or overwork. It is ourselves, the South African public, we in civil society who have to watch the declining performance of our country, and then have to cope with the anxiety it causes. It is we who forever have to compare our own flaccid performance with the other Bric countries that have to bear most of the pain.

Of course we experience this performance anxiety on a corporate and national level, but it also haunts us on a personal private level. In our careers, our family lives and our plans for a piece of the “good life” we always want to be better and reach our performance goals. A pernicious advertising industry does not help. Advertising shows us all the things we long for and crave to make us happy. It also enables us to compare ourselves with those people who have it all and end up making us feel inadequate and judging our underperforming lives.

On a national level our constant focus is South Africa that is not working, and if we keep on saying that it is not working, it won’t work, will it? Let us not discourage the kind people who still put out “South Africa, the Good News”. In the end it does nothing more than help us to fake it. We should rather be nailing specific individuals for what in the days of Mao Zedong was called “comrade re-education”, where disobedient and obstructive cadres were sent away to far-flung rural centres for party-approved brainwashing. We need to give those leaders that Jay Naidoo says suffer from a culture of immunity an inspiring image of what a winner really looks like. They need to be re-educated and to see a behaviour model of proper governance and real accountability

We must exchange the performance anxiety we, the people of South Africa, feel and give it to our leaders. They are the ones who can make the difference once, if ever, they are sufficiently driven by a need to deliver and to perform. DM

* The opinions expressed by Johann Redelinghuys are his personal opinions.

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