In the physical world, pressure is defined as an expression of force exerted on the surface of an object. Let’s dig a little deeper and look at a slightly different definition taken from the Merriam–Webster Dictionary:
- The burden of physical or mental distress
- The constraint of circumstance: the weight of social or economic imposition
- The stress of urgency of matters demanding attention.
In the physical world the amount of pressure is determined by the weight of the object pressing against another. If the weight is great enough, the pressure can do a lot of damage.
In the psychological world, it is essentially the same. The amount of psychological pressure depends on the variables involved in the situation. If the pressure is great enough and sustained over time, the potential damage is extreme.
Small amounts of repetitive pressure, over time, can create greater and greater amounts of damage. Just as water can erode the largest rock, psychological pressure can erode mental and physical health if it is strong and continuous.
So, for our purposes today, what exactly is pressure?
Even if it difficult to define, it is probably safe to say that we are all familiar with pressure. Maybe you were going for an interview for a job you really wanted – one that you had been preparing for, for a long time. A job, that could have been the beginning of making your dreams come true.
Maybe it was when you were asked to do a presentation to an important client. It was a great opportunity, but one that could make or break your professional reputation.
Maybe you are a musician who has performed in front of hundreds of people – or an athlete who had to qualify for a regional or state championship.
Pressure is always present when you have to “deliver” – whether it is a performance, an interview for college, or the most important speech of your career. Pressure is always present when you must deliver, or suffer the consequences.
Pressure comes with all types of life situations – not just professional situations. It can be a powerful force in academic pursuits and in personal relationships.
Mid-terms and final exams carry palpable pressure. Getting through a rocky patch in a personal relationship is another type of pressure. Regardless of the situation – academic, personal, or professional – the pressure is there because there is a desire for positive results in that moment. This brings us to one definition of pressure that works great for this article:
Definition of Pressure
- Physical and psychological reactions brought about by a situation where immediate, positive results are required. If those results are not obtained, then failure and shame will be the consequences.
In other words, pressure comes from the fear of failure. The fear of not performing up to expectations produces a significant sense of dread. This feeling has many different names. Some refer to it as butterflies, nausea, apprehension, terror, mind goes blank, and “flop sweat.”
No matter what you call it, the feeling is not pleasant – and because we are human, we do not like unpleasant feelings and do our best to avoid them.
So, when we find ourselves in situations that produce this terrible feeling of dread, most of us will do anything to make the feeling go away – including running from the situation. This is one of the biggest challenges for performers.
In an effort to avoid the sense of dread created by performance pressure, the result is often a lower level of performance than you are capable of – you “choke.” It is like flinching when you think someone is going to hit you in the face. You instinctively flinch to avoid being hit.
Choking in a performance is similar. When the pressure to perform creates the feeling of dread and the possibility of failure is staring you in the face, you flinch. At the very moment you need to be operating at your absolute “best” – rather than giving it your all, you may actually do the opposite.
What can you do? You have to confront the pressure!
To explain what I mean, in my next post, we will look at the force of pressure.