Could you survive the X Factor Experience?

walking out the door

In just a few minutes, another individual’s dream is crushed……

“Stick to your day job darling!”  Natalie Bassingthwaighte said after another contestant put her hopes on the line.

“I enjoyed the dancing, but you can’t sing” Mel B says in her blunt way. Despite boos from the crowd to her bluntness, Mel B sticks to her guns giving her judgement and says emphatically “It is an absolute NO”.

Does this sound familiar? The thing about reality TV shows is they have a habit of bringing people back to reality as quickly as they can change someone’s reality. Recently I was again watching one of the auditions for the X Factor and was struck by the power of hope and dreams for the contestants and the willingness to step out of their comfort zone for the possibility of all sorts of personal dreams held close to the heart.

For some the driver is the possibility of success or fame, for others a fulfilment of a lifelong passion, or in other more extreme cases a lifeline from a string of setbacks or even homelessness. As viewers, we get a small insight into the emotional response from those rejected and those who pass the audition, but I can assure you that the full breadth of this emotional response will be much greater than we see on television and is likely to have long lasting effects on confidence, motivation levels and mood, depending on the individual’s ability to manage this feedback. What we know from the research about the psychology of performance in auditions is that the more importance the person places on the outcome of the audition and judge’s credibility and knowledge, the greater the possibility that performance anxiety will be experienced as a hindrance rather than a useful tool to channel peak performance. What we also know from experience is that our last performance, particularly if it is an important one, is generally the one that stands out as the most vivid in our memory and therefore has the potential to positively or adversely affect future performances depending on our response to it.

As a singer myself and psychologist who has worked with many performing artists, the reality is that being a performing artist is not a walk in the park. It is a competitive world where opportunities may be limited and criticism, both covert or overt, is something that is simply part of the deal. Performers need to have thick skins to survive as it is a world that seems to sometimes work on a different set of rules than the non performance world.

Having said that, The X Factor like many reality shows appears to have taken audition feedback to another level with recent public and media responses accusing the judges comments as being akin to bullying and harassment. In conjunction with this, the laughing of both the judges and the audience during the performance results in public humiliation that could have long lasting effects on certain personality types who are not prepared for this.

In the real world, performers hone their knowledge, skills and experience over time and learn skills to manage audition processes to prevent themselves from becoming disheartened at every knockback. Obviously the promoters argue that people give consent to participate in this program knowing what will happen, but I would argue that there are some people who may not read the fine print or really anticipate the full impact of what they are letting themselves in for given their limited experience with auditions and the media. Surely we can have some more ethically responsible and respectful panels who are both straight and honest in their feedback, while not giving false hope to those who are hanging on to a dream that will never happen in the real world, or sending them away traumatised and hopeless? It is interesting to me that when I did my Masters research on students which was a treatment study to assist tertiary music students with performance anxiety, it was a huge deal to get the study passed via the ethics committee. The committee needed to be reassured that what I was doing was ethically sound and would have no harmful effects on the participants who were at that impressionable age and in the midst of training for a professional career. I find it ironical that this was so difficult to get through and yet it seems increasingly easy for a show like this to support this public humiliation of participants with the justification that it is entertaining and makes good television.

Certainly, being a professional performer in any field means being willing to expose oneself to the judgement of others, and as a singer there is nothing more exposing than standing on a stage in front of an audience of 1000’s with just a microphone and a backing track, several judges, and cameras to film the entire process. As far as auditions go, you can’t get much more exposing than this and for many contestants this will be the first time they have ever auditioned in a setting that even comes close to the degree of exposure! The anxiety that we observe people going through before and during a performance is relative to the level of pressure that people are put under in this environment and the additional prospect of public humiliation or instant stardom (which can be just as confronting for some) takes performance anxiety to huge heights.

Take Susan Boyle as an example of that; she coped with the actual performance but the aftermath of her instantaneous fame as a result of YouTube contributed to her being hospitalised. From all reports she struggled to adapt quickly to overnight fame, but over time learnt to accept the change to her life and made the adjustment that was necessary in order to survive and continue her career. Some people fear failure and the loss of the dream they most desperately wanted and if unsuccessful are then forced to either accept the feedback and feel the pain of that or struggle against it and keep battling for something that is objectively out of their reach.

Others secretly fear success as success represents the need to always maintain a high standard, leaving no room for mistakes or public attention that changes a person’s life overnight. So those who get through the first round with a glowing audition have set the bar high for themselves and others and may begin to panic at keeping this up. As a contrast being just very good with potential or even better “the underdog” allows people to be shielded from the extra pressure that comes with expectation.  I see many performers who shield themselves from stepping too far out of their comfort zone despite incredible ability preferring to stay safe than branch out into territory that draws more attention to them or contributes to more stress.

So what can we learn from all of this? Those that enter shows like this need to be willing to accept whatever is thrown at them, including the possibility that their hopes and dreams will be crushed or the contrasting possibility of a new kick start to their life which could literally turn things upside down overnight with social networking forums sending footage viral. Sometimes contestants could benefit from taking heed of the feedback and be prepared to let go of the struggle with feelings of loss, disappointment and anger and accept that they might indeed be better off sticking to their day job! There certainly is a lot that is out of the control of the contestant but one thing is for sure, how a person responds to this feedback is critical in terms of predicting their emotional response, behaviour and future as a performer. Could you survive the X Factor experience? Watch out for the next blog which will outline some tips to cope with auditions and will address the importance of psychological performance preparation.

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