February 21, 2018 by Cláudia
I decided to join a communication class. I am not a great communicator and I thought that it would be a good idea to try to improve on that. I did not remember that everyone in that class would be expected to be a great communicator since it was a part of a master in communication.
I walked in the classroom, I nervously asked: “Is this the strategic communication class?”, and I sat down. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t know anyone in that class and everyone seemed really comfortable and confident. There is nothing worse than being surrounded by comfortable people in an uncomfortable environment. I pretended to be really busy writing things on my phone. I was just pretending.
The teacher finally arrived and I can only describe her as intimidating. She smiled but her eyes were dead serious. And she made a lot of eye contact. Too much eye contact for comfort. She asked everyone to introduce ourselves.
Introducing myself is a very simple request that I get very frequently. So, naturally, anxiety creeps in, I get sweaty, my chest starts hurting and I don’t know what to say. While all the others naturally talked about their academic path and explain their interests, in my head something like this was happening: Okay, don’t panic. I still have time to figure out what I am going to say. Just listen to what other people are saying and copy. It’s totally fine. What am I supposed to say? Okay, people are saying their name. Okay, that’s easy. Oh no, people are talking so much, I don’t have that much to say about myself. Should I talk about how I love animals? No, definitely not. Oh my, don’t be ridiculous, just think of something to say, no one cares.
And it is my turn. At this point, it is important to talk about my pen. Yes, my pen is an important part of the story. My mom is a dermatologist and the labs that sell the products that she prescribes always give her free stuff with publicity for their products. Growing up I always had a funny conversation starter with my cool post-its shaped like feet or markers shaped like hand-cream. The other day, my mom gave me a pen that came with an orange silicone ball which, when you bang it against a hard surface, starts to shine intermittently like a mirror ball. It’s quite funny.
“You”. When she points at me, I get so nervous that I drop my pen and it does its thing. I try to cover it with my hands but the orange intermittent light can still be seen through my fingers and the teacher has already looked at it anyway. She looked so dismissive and impatient (no sense of humour!) that I basically just say my name. She waves her head as she was saying That’s it? and I force myself to open my mouth and do one of the hardest tasks there are – speak. My speech is trembly and I am not getting enough air. She answers “okay…” and moves on.
The other students are so articulate and comfortable (now that I’m done I can listen to what others are saying). According to them, speaking is the easiest thing in the world, but considering my reaction it would seem it is a life-threatening experience. This class evaluation included multiple oral presentations and the first chance I got I quit the class. Abort mission. I was already so nervous that none of those presentations would come without a panic attack.
I feel like I have potential to do great things: I care about other people, I believe in change, I always want to learn and I think I have good ideas. But I have one thing holding me back big time – I am terrified of speaking in public, no matter the public’s size.
Most people feel a little nervous in oral presentations, but I take it to a whole different level. I get shaky, red and have trouble breathing. My heart starts pounding so fast that my chest hurts. Sometimes my vision gets foggy and I have the feeling I might pass out.
I believed over time I have developed a phobia.
It has not improved over the years or with practice and it frequently refrains me from exposing my ideas. It makes me feel ridiculous that I have this irrational fear of speaking. I prepare my presentations, I have interesting ideas, I have worked hard, I practice at home multiple times… But when the time comes, I start feeling sick, I get jumbled and my presentations are just not good. The crowd gets uninterested and I am so nervous that it is actually uncomfortable to watch. I’ve heard complaints that it is really hard to pay attention to what I’m saying because it looks like I am about to suffocate. And I feel like I might. People look at me like it is ridiculous to be so nervous about such a trivial situation and I honestly feel ridiculous too.
Rationally, I know that there is no danger. The worst case scenario is that I do a terrible job (which is what ends up happening) and no extreme negative consequence comes from it. I believe in my abilities and that I have interesting things to say. Even if someone criticizes me unfairly, I still believe in my value as a person.
But there is a disconnection between my rationality and the emotional response that public speaking triggers. While I am perfectly aware that there is no danger, my mind and body act as though I am in grave peril.
If I had to guess the reason behind this, I’d say I am afraid of looking stupid. It is a vicious cycle where I get nervous because I don’t want to act inappropriately and I end up looking ridiculous because of how nervous I get. Because every time I have done an oral presentation I got so nervous, it triggered visible symptoms and I ended up looking inadequate, now I fear those symptoms. Basically, I get anxious with fear of getting anxious.
Deep down, this fear of looking ridiculous can only mean that I am really worried about what others think of me. I struggled with depression and anxiety and this was one of the symptoms. But now I am recovering and I believe in my self-worth for the first time. In the past, if someone tried to put me down, I would agree with them (I remember one girl once said I was boring and I said yeah, a little bit). But not anymore – if someone says I’m not interesting, or not worth it, or that I am ridiculous, I say that they are wrong and I mean it. I don’t believe them, therefore, unfair criticism cannot harm me anymore.
Yet, when it comes to public speaking it seems like I have made no progress at all – I am still the insecure girl who’s extremely worried about what others think of her. I’m still afraid I’ll look ridiculous or uninformed or uninteresting.
I have actively avoided public speaking situations multiple times, wasting great opportunities to share my ideas and create conversations. I’m not reaching my full potential because this phobia is holding me back. It is harming my academic success, my professional success but perhaps most importantly my self-esteem. I want to believe I am a confident person who is sure about her own self-worth. I want to believe I can do whatever I set my mind to do.
I can only imagine what I could have achieved if it weren’t for this. All the times I could have spoken my mind but instead kept quiet. The times I could have volunteered to speak because I researched so much on a topic. The times my message could have spread but didn’t because the way I communicated wasn’t effective.
I need to overcome this fear, otherwise I’ll live forever in a shadow, too afraid to speak, too afraid to take space, to make a difference. And I’ll regret it forever.
This was a crucial realization because from now on I want to really be proactive in finding a way to overcome this. But I don’t really know where to begin. I’ve tried every single tip to reduce anxiety in public speaking situations and nothing helped. Has anyone experienced something similar? How did you cope with it?
I want to be able to speak.