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Self-Esteem in the Performance Arts

By Dr. Patrick J. Cohn

Many athletes and performers I work with often wrongly determine their self-worth by how successful they feel about their career. When an athlete performs well or feels successful, he or she can feel good about him or herself. But the opposite is also true: despair and low self-esteem results when this person does not perform well or view him or herself as a failure. Self-esteem is a core issue in my work because it affects every aspect of your life, not just dancing.

Ballerinas are especially vulnerable to this problem of attaching self-esteem to one's performances because you are judged by how you look and how well you perform. However, society sends subtle signals that you must achieve in your career to feel worthy as a person and that is the trap that many athletes fall into. In addition, if you are perfectionistic, it doesn't help your self-esteem because you have such high expectations and are always so critical and hard on yourself.

If you fall into this trap, your emotions and how you feel about yourself are heavily influenced by the perceptions of your performance, which can naturally vary from day to day. Thus, one day you have self-esteem and the next day it erodes due to what you think is a poor performance or practice. One girl in my seminar stated: "Even if I felt I had a flawless performance, if I did not get a good audience reaction or the reaction I was looking for, I feel like a failure." This statement highlights how out of control one can feel about his or her success or failure in dance, and thus make negative judgments about one's performance.

What is self-esteem? Self-esteem is the regard you hold for yourself. All of you have a concept of your person (self-concept). If you like your self-concept (who you think you are), then you have self-esteem. Self-confidence is different. Self-confidence is the belief in your ability to perform a task"it is not a judgment. You can have self-confidence, but not self-esteem, and vise versa. Optimally, you want both"high self-confidence in your abilities and self-regard.

Self-esteem should be based on who you are as a person instead of how well you can perform in dance or how high you go in a dance career. Think about this: if you take away the part of you who is a dancer, how would you describe yourself? What are your personal characteristics that describe you? This is what self-esteem should be based on. If you feel like you struggle with self-esteem, have hope. Here are some other ideas about gaining self-esteem:

Assume the Role

When you are dancing, you are in the role of the ballerina. You want to be into that role fully when practicing and performing, but when you leave the studio or stage, it's time to switch roles into other parts of your life and let go of judgments. Don't superimpose the role of a dancer (or how well you can perform) into other areas of your life.

True Friends

People, who are your true friends and family members, love you for who you are as a person first. They don't judge you based on your performance or change their view of you because of how well you can dance. If they do, they are not your true friends. They like you for what you bring to a relationship as a person, not as a ballerina.

Stop the Comparisons

You do yourself harm by making comparisons to other dancers who you think are better or more talented than you. This only serves to hurt your self-esteem and confidence because you put others on a pedestal and criticize your faults. Everyone is unique. Think about how well you did compared to your last performance instead of making comparisons to others.

Accept Your Body Image

I know many dancers worry about their body not being the perfect type for ballet. No one can be perfect or has the perfect body for ballet. Some people are born with more hand-eye coordination, stamina, or balance, but that's what makes us unique. Accepting your body image is the first step to gaining self-esteem. Make the best of what you have by focusing on your strengths and capabilities as a dancer!

Balance in Life

If your life is dance, you are at greater risk for self-esteem problems because you have "all your eggs in one basket and can't separate the different roles in you life. Strive to find a balance in your life with your family, school, dance, friends, and other career aspirations. This will help take the pressure off your dance and allow your self-esteem to grow.

Be Your Own Best Coach

You are your own worst critic and your best friend wrapped into one. We are often harder on ourselves than we are on our best friends. What would you say to a best friend that is feeling down? Can you be at least that supportive of yourself? Always give yourself words of encouragement and reward after a performance or practice. Pretend you have the most positive coach on your shoulder giving words of encouragement.

Define Your Self-Concept Outside of Dance

A good exercise is to define who you are outside your dance career. Use only descriptions that apply to your personal characteristics that you bring to every aspect of your life. Make a list of these positive characteristics and review them every day. Do you like what you see? If so, you have self-esteem. Is there something you don't like? Is so, work to change that aspect of you.

About The Author
Dr. Patrick J. Cohn is a master mental game coach who works with athletes of all levels including amateur and professionals. Visit to gain access to over 500 exclusive mental game articles, audio programs, and interviews with athletes and coaches to enhance your athletic potential: or call 888-742-7225.

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