My heart is beating super fast, my hands are clammy, my body is trembling, and my mind is going blank. I’m not me right now. I can hear myself reading out loud, but the words don’t make sense. The only words that do make sense are the ones that I can’t stop thinking: Everyone is going to laugh at me. I’m not good enough. I don’t know what I’m talking about. What makes me relevant and interesting enough to listen to? Nothing! Everyone is staring. I’m possessed by fear. It has taken over my body, mind, thoughts, and feelings…the fear of public speaking!
How many of you are afraid of public speaking? According to statistics, the majority of us have been there: terrified and unable to breathe in front of an audience. Yet, we still have to do it. We have to speak in public for various reasons: job presentations, at school, and in social settings. Most of us go through our whole life with this fear and never really address the issue. We either ignore our fear and hope things will magically get better, or make excuses.
I have felt like this for as long as I can remember. But why? You would think I could avoid feeling this way by doing something about it. Like the infamous saying, “Mind over matter!” But I feel the same way each and every time I give a presentation: petrified. And I’m not exaggerating. It seems everyone has got some trick up the sleeve that works for them, but not me. What’s my problem? I have done research on my fear of public speaking, read books, and followed endless advice and remedies, but nothing seems to work for me.
There are many explanations for fear of public speaking, and they all explore different sources of phobia. While on a walk with my daughter, Hope, I told her that I was considering writing about the fear of public speaking and asked her opinion. She began sharing an incident that happened six years ago when she was a student at City College. I could hear the reluctance in her voice and see the embarrassment in her expression as she began to share her story, and I realized at that moment that the fear of public speaking might be genetic. Hope always felt nervous in front of an audience too, particularly after that awful experience of giving a presentation. The difference was, that my daughter understood that her fear would be a barrier to her future, and worked to overcome it.
I understand my fear is a barrier too, and yet, none of my efforts have yet brought me closer to overcoming it. I can choose any argument that fits neatly into a narrative I have concocted to hide behind. But I’m tired of hiding. I just want to break free from these restraints.
Change begins with questions. So I asked myself what seems like a simple question: How did I get here? Why am I like this? Why can’t I stop being so nervous? What’s my problem?
When I was very young, I was not a good reader and I wasn’t a confident student. I remember an incident in eighth grade, a time when teen hormones were going crazy. The kids were always busy chatting about who they had crushes on. I had a deep crush on this guy named Danny. I thought he was so cute, but I was too shy to let him know how I felt, much less talk to him. Whenever we had a class together, I couldn’t concentrate on what the teacher was lecturing about because I was so consumed, gazing at Danny with warm and fuzzy feelings. Our class together was every Tuesday and I always made sure I got dressed up super cute. I sat two rows behind him—not too close, but where I could check him out without being noticed.
Mrs. Davis, our teacher, walked into the classroom with her familiar appearance: crow’s feet, frown lines, and always dressed matronly. It seems as though the sun got the best of her skin, or perhaps life has taken a toll on her appearance and attitude. I think maybe it was a combination of both. She had long, dirty blond hair that she always pulled back halfway up with a surprisingly cute hair clip. It sparkled with an array of vividly-colored jewels—a dragonfly. I used to wonder why she cared so little about her appearance and had a bad attitude towards her students, yet valued the pretty dragonfly hair clip so much. I never knew the answer, but staring at it each day made me daydream and wish that I could hop on to the dragonfly and fly right out of the classroom.
Mrs. Davis started teaching, but no one—least of all me—was really listening. I was way too busy being preoccupied with and daydreaming about Danny. Until I heard Mrs. Davis’ voice: “Marie: would you please read chapter three, from the middle?” I thought, Wait, from what? I went into panic mode. She’d never asked anyone to read out loud before. What did I miss?… Ah, I guessed I missed the part where Mrs. Davis said we would be trying something new to improve our reading skills. I was too busy being infatuated with Danny. I began to fumble through chapter three until I got to where I thought she meant by “middle” and started reading. She abruptly stopped me and with irritation said, “Angela has already read that part. There’s no need for redundancy. Go down one more paragraph and begin from That summer…”
I began in the right spot, but I felt like passing out with embarrassment and insecurity about my reading. Nevertheless, I continued, reading haphazardly and inconsistently. I kept pausing, and I felt as though I read like I was back in elementary school. I was horrified and ashamed. I wanted to cry! All I could hear was complete silence and isolation. I have never in all my life experienced that type of silence. I was all alone and petrified. Mrs. Davis interrupted my dreadful reading and called on another student. I stopped almost in slow motion and glanced at her face, and for the first time, I could see in her expression a bit of empathy, and humility—something I did not recognize at first because she had never shown that type of expression before. Somehow, that made the whole thing even worse.
I wanted to drop out of the class. Drop out of school, never to return. I was truly mortified, I could not imagine going back the next day. Dropping out of school wasn’t an option, but I could mentally escape. Imagining my way out was definitely a feasible option: I could hop on to that beautiful symbol of escape, “the dragonfly,” and be rescued from this embarrassing situation to a secure place without judgment. A place I want to be in whenever I have to speak in public—as far away as possible!
Could this traumatic incident be what caused my fear of public speaking? Perhaps. But I also think it’s more than any one experience. A multitude of complex feelings cemented my compulsion to escape. It likely stems from caring way too much about what others think about me, and the fear of not living up to that image and their expectations. I would love to be a confident person who has no reservations about reading out loud or voicing my opinions to a group of strangers. But I’m not like that. I care too much about what people think of me, even though I know I shouldn’t. I desperately want to be rid of this anchor that has kept me confined to these insecurities. But how? Every time I tried to face the source of my fear, I felt like I was going in circles with no answers. It was like being in a dark cave searching for the light. Every cavern I entered always seemed to guide me through by shining a little dim light, hardly enough, to get me out of this emotional captivity. But it was always just enough dimness to sustain my glimmer of hope, to persevere.
Recently, I was tasked with a huge project that culminated in a presentation. During the preparation for the project, I was overcome with anxiety. Just the knowledge that the day would come when I had to present in front of a lot of people caused those same feelings of fear to come crashing down on me. As the weeks moved closer to the dreaded date of the presentation, I began setting myself into panic mode. I knew I was most certainly going to stumble on my words and fail, and I could feel a huge dark cloud of shame cast over me. It felt so cold and isolating, just like I felt in Mrs. Davis’s classroom. I felt I was waiting hopelessly for the dreaded day of my presentation because it seemed there was nothing I could do to change the situation.
I remembered reading somewhere that practicing a speech prior to a presentation has helped other people. I’d tried that before and it did not help me, but I decided this time had to be different. I took the internet’s advice and decided to practice every day twice a day with different people. I got advice from my friend, Jane, to put the speech into my own words, enabling me to speak in a way that made me feel comfortable. That was different for me. I went back and rewrote my speech in the way in which I naturally speak. I noticed the words rolled off my tongue with ease and flowed so much better. Three days before the presentation, something weird started to happen. I felt something I have never ever felt before when faced with a presentation. I felt weirdly happy, even a bit confident, although still apprehensive. I honestly cannot begin to explain this slight exhilaration I was starting to feel. Each time I practiced, I felt like I was training for a big marathon. I felt stronger and more optimistic, a glimmer of hope peering through the dark, cold clouds. I could see there was a possibility of not stumbling on my words or my voice shaking badly and it honestly felt amazing! Hope is just an amazing feeling, it’s like having a shot of caffeine and feeling you can conquer anything.
The Big Day arrived! The day when joy and fear intertwined. There was no turning back, no escaping the invasion of fearful feelings. I knew that I had to stand strong and fight! I knew if I did this, I would liberate not just myself, but maybe others too, those who feel the way I do. Yet, I stood waiting for my turn, right next to my inner critic telling me that I’m not good enough and people are staring and judging. I went to the front and center of the stage, with the spotlight shining directly on me. I wanted to escape…run, hide, disappear. But I couldn’t move, my legs were cemented in place.
The thoughts came back: Everyone is going to laugh at me. Everyone is staring.
Time was up. It was now or never! I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. And I tried to think new thoughts: I just have to do it. I have to fight. If I don’t change, nothing else will. It’s up to me. I have to take the first step. As I opened my eyes, something so beautiful and amazing started to happen. I could hear myself speaking in a smooth rhythmic flow. My voice sounded calm, gently flowing without any interruption, distraction, or obstruction. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of calm and freedom while speaking to an audience! I did it! Even though deep down inside, I knew I still had a long way to go, at that moment, I felt I was on top of the world.
I don’t need to pretend that I don’t care about the feeling of being judged, because I care very much. But in my experience, if one slowly addresses their insecurities, they can then begin to address their fears. Although I care about what others think of me, I care more about what I think about myself. All of us need to accept and understand that we are imperfect human beings who harbor some personal fears that limit us from greatness. As a classmate of mine, Patricia, said: “We clip our own wings.” Understanding and challenging yourself to face your fears will help renew a sense of self-confidence and freedom that has always belonged to you. It’s time to rise from the shadow of fear and reclaim your power. It’s time to fly.
I am not a person who has come close to overcoming her fears completely, but I have begun the process of inquiry and hope. This new beginning in itself feels good, a step in the right direction. I feel a sense of lightness and freedom because I realize that these insecurities of not being able to speak in public aren’t going to resolve themselves unless I move forward. I cannot keep on traveling down the path of the past, I have to take a leap of blind faith into the future and trust it will be ok because I have the power to fix myself, we all do. The future is calling my name. It’s a piece of abstract art full of vibrant colors that are beautiful and alluring. I can hardly wait to enter this new path in my life of discovery, learning, trusting, and mending. There is nothing more to do but feel optimistic about the new opportunities that await me. I know I can do this with practice and a lot of hard work. I trust myself. I trust my voice. I am ready!