An Interview with Rafael Santandreu: Your Stress Is in Your Mind

24 January, 2021
In this interview, Rafael Santandreu reminds us that we've become a society that barely tolerates failures. The energy we spend trying to be perfect would be much better invested elsewhere.

Psychologist Rafael Santandreu states that stress and anxiety are, essentially, all in your head. Nevertheless, what happens in your mind profoundly affects your quality of life and even your human potential. So what are we doing wrong? Why do so many of us have the feeling that we’re losing control of our own lives?

More than doing something wrong, most of us are looking at the world through a very distorted lens. We often demand too much of ourselves and try to achieve perfection and reach all of our goals.

This desire to be highly efficient and effective often leads to a complete intolerance of failure. You can barely fathom making mistakes, and that limited field of vision can lead to suffering.

One key to effectively managing this problem is to foster a sense of inner peace and calmTry to look at the world with a humble, relaxed, and serene gaze. If you can manage it, you’ll have a much easier time focusing on what’s really important.

An interview with Rafael Santandreu about performance anxiety

Being a little more tolerant of failure could help you accept yourself and shape a healthier, happier, and more balanced life. Rafael Santandreu explains why in today’s interview.

“We aren’t affected by what’s happening, but what we tell ourselves about what’s happening.”

-Rafael Santandreu- [translation from original Spanish]

What’s performance anxiety?

Performance anxiety is the belief that something you have to do will turn out badly. The idea of failure causes anxiety.

One example of performance anxiety is when you feel terrible the day you have to take a test. A lot of us can identify with those feelings, but not everyone experiences them. Why is that? Why does performance anxiety affect some people but not others?

A woman with anxiety looking down.

What’s the secret to avoiding performance anxiety?

It’s practically impossible to avoid performance anxiety completely. After all, we’re human and it’s a normal feeling. As we mentioned above, however, some people experience it very rarely.

If you want to beat performance anxiety, you have to change your thoughts about the need for perfection and efficiency. When you have performance anxiety, it’s because being right and doing things right is very important to you.

Could you explain that a little more?

The value system we try to promote in cognitive psychology is that “efficiency” isn’t important. The ability to love life and love others is much better. Doing things well isn’t bad, but it’s definitely not essential. In other words, doing things well should be a minor goal.

But everyone wants to do things well so that we’ll have good lives

In my opinion, you just said one true thing and another completely untrue thing. First of all, you said that everyone wants to do things well. That’s a natural thing to say because, when you do things well, it’s more fun. The myth, however, is that doing things well ensures that you’ll have a good life. This is a myth of our consumerist and hyper-demanding society.

Does this have to do with having a mind of “preferences” and not “demands,” as you explain in your book The Art of Not Being Resentful?

That’s right. A well-functioning mind says to itself, “I like doing things well, but that won’t always be the case and it’s okay”. A foolish and demanding mind, on the other hand, says “I HAVE TO do EVERYTHING well and if I don’t I’m worse than dirt”.

Are you sure that life won’t be terrible if we don’t do things right? At least some of them?

Now you said it right. If you do “some things” right, you’ll live a great life. Society pushes us to do way too much, and do it all perfectly.

Never, in the history of the world, have we had to be so efficient. You’re expected to have a good education, a partner, children, and a beautiful house. As if that weren’t enough, you should also be elegant, extroverted, good-looking, and thin, have a great job, go on awesome vacations, be hip, multilingual, and ten thousand other things! Our grandparents didn’t feel this kind of pressure.

“The key to inner peace is radical humility.”

Is performance anxiety the product of this intense pressure?

Yes. We all have to learn not to be so demanding of ourselves. Personally, I try not to be anything or anyone. I’m a man who loves and tries not to harm the environment. I don’t need to be a psychologist or smart or any of that. The key is simplicity and radical humility. This idea saved me from anxiety.

What kinds of exercises can we do to get rid of performance anxiety?

I recommend something called “homeless visualization”, for example. Imagine yourself as a homeless person living in a public shelter.

Imagine that, for some reason, you couldn’t work or have money. The question is, could you be happy? The answer has to be “yes”. Then, ask yourself, “What could I do to be happier?” For example, study, help others, make great friends, etc.

Do you have to visualize it in detail?

Yes! And you have to enjoy the process. That way, you’ll understand that you can do great things and enjoy life in a wonderful way. Consequently, you don’t need to have so many things or be a perfectionist to be happy. What a relief!

“We can be proud of making mistakes.”

A woman walking in the forest.

But will I have to quit my job and my projects?

No. You can keep working and studying, but without that insane pressure. For example, I can be a psychologist and try to be a good one. However, if I’m not, I could do 10,000 other things. Or nothing. But I still choose to try to be a good psychologist. If you notice, that takes all the pressure off.

You explain in your books that this is how you got rid of your fear of public speaking, right?

That’s right. I kept thinking over and over again, “Do I need to give lectures?” I realized that I didn’t have to. If I was really bad at it, nothing would happen. My life would continue to be great. When you get rid of that pressure at a deep level, you get rid of your fear. The stress is gone. But you have to really believe it on a radical level.

In your most recent book, Nothing Is So Terrible, you talk about celebrating mistakes. Do we really have to do go that extreme?

Yes, because we have to be radical to get all the mental benefits. Now when I fail at something, I make an effort to make sure it doesn’t matter to me. That way, I reinforce my values system.

It’s all about telling yourself, “I just failed and lost this or that, but I don’t care. I’m still happy”. “Rewarding yourself for failures” means that you’re fine with failing, and you’ll still be happy despite your mistakes. It means you have a great values system. You’re able to display your failures and be proud of them, without this affecting your happiness.