THE BLOG
10/10/2012 12:45 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2012

Fearless Stage Fright

Like most humans, I don't feel great all the time. As my 3-year-old daughter says, "Sometimes Mudder gets frustrated." I taught her the word "frustrated" early in her life, as I needed a way to convey to her when I was neither mad nor sad, just miffed, because it happens a lot.

I am eager to give my children words to express their feelings, even if it means taxing their limited vocabularies. I think one of the best things we humans can do for our mental health is to identify what's going on inside our heads. This opinion is based on no particular expertise, simply the fact that I've behaved my worst when I went through things I couldn't name, and then fled from my feelings.

But my most recent problem is something I can easily identify: I get terrible stage fright. I always have, even back when I taught college composition, but I like a challenge. That's what I told myself when I submitted to Expressing Motherhood, a stage show in which about a dozen performers deliver their own stories about being and having mothers. The show gives performers and audience members alike a space to explore the range of feelings that we have about having and/or being mothers, and I was eager to be a part of it despite my stage fright.

Since I live in Los Angeles, I have plenty of actor friends who gave me good advice on how to deal with my pre-show jitters. But alas, backstage during the first four shows, I wasn't able to relax and listen to headphones, nor was I able to stand in a quiet spot and go over my piece. No, I instead of dealing productively with my anxiety, I fell back into an old habit: smoking dirty, filthy cigarettes.

I began smoking when I was a college freshman and my anxiety could no longer be dissipated by chewing my nails or talking things out with friends. College was a difficult experience for me, and I relived it many times when I later watched my students go through many of the same things I did. The way that new adults deal with their feelings has a lot in common with the way toddlers throw themselves on the ground screaming. I think those flails often translate to, "I feel something I don't like and I don't know what to do!" And that's what's going on with college students -- they can't quite deal with their newfound freedom, so they translate it into recklessness. They take it out on themselves, their bodies, their friends, and occasionally their lowly composition instructors. I don't mean to reduce college freshman to toddlers. No, I mean to reduce all humans to toddlers. We all struggle with navigating the jagged terrain of our headspace.

Myself, I'm a big, old toddler at heart, despite being the mother of actual toddlers who rely on me to guide them through experiencing feelings, negative though they may often be. When my kids tantrum, I want to tantrum, and sometimes I do, but most of the time I'm able, as Ni Hao, Kai-Lan instructs, to count to three as I breathe in and out. As a grownup, I have to deal with my emotions without toppling towers of blocks, kicking, or shouting, "This sucks!" no matter how strongly I feel the urge.

As my sister says to her kids, "Choose a good choice." There's a hierarchy of coping mechanisms for difficult feelings in which, roughly speaking, at the bottom is being cruel or getting falling down-drunk, and at the top is prayer, or perhaps designating a time and space to curl into the fetal position to listen to a Florence + The Machine track on repeat. It's up to us to ensure that our personal source of restoration isn't damaging to ourselves or others. That's why I quit smoking many years ago.

When my students sought my advice for dealing with the anxieties of college, I told them, "This is supposed to be difficult. Feel all those crap feelings. Don't hide your emotions by getting drunk, cutting yourself, lashing out, eating too much, or not eating at all." It's a "Just Do It"-type mantra, but long-winded to adjust for a world that doesn't offer many safe spaces for negative feelings -- well, other than nasty, anonymous comments on the Internet, which I'm looking forward to reading as I just admitted that I'm a mom who sneaks cigarettes to deal with stage fright.

But back to that and Expressing Motherhood. I'd do well to follow my own advice and force myself to experience the pangs of stage fright without turning to cigarettes. I shouldn't revive bad habits to deal with the discomfort of performing. There are four more shows this weekend. As an adult and a mother, there's no excuse for regressing to my 18-year-old self and picking up cigarettes. It's hypocritical at best and self-destructive at worst. I have to do better. So headphones it is, I guess.

For more by JJ Keith, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.