My Fear of being Heard

Talking out loud

Like many people I know, I have struggled with speaking in public for as long as I can remember. My reluctance to engage not only restricted to public speaking, but public appearances in general, photographs, interviews, anything that requires the promotion of self has been mentally filed under ‘best avoided’. If avoidance wasn’t an option, reluctance showed up instead.

Its fair to say the majority of people I meet, don’t enjoy speaking in public either. I come from a long line of speech-avoiders, taking comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my plight, I’m ‘normal’ – or at least ‘the same as’, which is closer to the mark. I’d love to enjoy it rather than experiencing dread and fear. I’ve even heard celebrities whose job it is to perform, say that they feel nervous and anxious before a performance, making it acceptable in my mind that not enjoying a thing doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t do it. Worth noting, there is a difference between feeling nervous or anxious, to experiencing fear and dread.

I have long since admired the confident, capable speaker who appear to thoroughly enjoy their skill, it’s no coincidence that they also excel at it. I have encountered a number of excellent enjoyers in my time. Their confidence flows, filling the room with positive energy, mesmerizing the audience who are left hanging on their every word, uplifted, enthused and inspired -and I’ve often wished I could perform ‘just like them’.

With the onset of Covid and the rise of the video call, many of us are likely to have experienced the polar opposite of inspiring talks.  Death by power-point, a less than enjoyable presentation. I am guilty of inflicting a few of these in my time, but then everyone has to start somewhere.  Some of us will have encountered the odd uncomfortable wedding speech or worse still, the seemingly endless, mind-numbing tutorial delivered by someone who clearly wishes they were somewhere else instead. I often fell asleep in history lessons at school, thanks to the hypnotic low level drone of the teacher whose delivery had the same effect on the class as a tsetse fly armed with a tranquilizer gun. No one wants their performance to be recalled brutally years later in a former students blog post. No one wants to be a reluctant or poor public speaker, but in reality, many of us are.

Avoidance

I spent a number of years taking the most frequently travelled route; avoidance, circumnavigating any situation if there was mere a hint of having to stand up and address an audience. Even as a manager, being part of a team of managers meant I found no issue dodging the dreaded limelight that appealed to a number of my more gregarious colleagues, I was comfortable on the periphery.

Eventually, I was forced to confront my fear of public speaking following a change of career.  Thrust on the spot at a conference, I had to accept that avoidance was no longer an option, as my new role required I step up. My first day as a Project Manager – the only manager there,  the super confident CEO,  who no doubt figured my recruiter would have qualified that the title ‘Manager, meant it was safe to assume I was reasonably adept at talking out loud. Mid conference, she unexpectedly announced my recent appointment to an audience of around 500 members, swiftly followed by the heart-stopping sentence ” Would you like to come on up to the stage to introduce yourself, and tell everyone about the work you’ll be doing”. What? The voice in my head was screaming in panic “F*&% OFF –  NO, I absolutely would NOT like to come to the stage” (is the clean version of what popped into my head); the familiar sense of dread along with the flush of embarrassment completely consumed me.
Quickly”, she summoned gesturing with her hand for me to join her on the stage. In the meantime, the entire audience turned their heads in one synchronized movement and were now all staring directly at me. Stunned?  like a rabbit caught in headlights. I immediately resented my summoner, blaming her for making me feel so bad. A quick mental scan of my options, I realized my first choice, of dropping down dead on the spot wasn’t forthcoming, leaving me nowhere to go but the stage. I considered a Gillian McKeith style floor-flop, but my brain and body were no longer communicating, which meant there was only one thing left to do.

I reluctantly, dragged my body onto the stage with all the enthusiasm of a Victorian convict heading to a public hanging. My heart pumping, palms sweaty and my mind completely blank – shell shocked and feeling awkward. I smirked at the sea of expectant faces with an expression that no doubt told them how delighted I was to be there. My mouth as dry as a stick, I attempted to say something coherent, I can’t honestly say whether I achieved it or not, as I  only remember the things I wished I hadn’t said. I squirmed my way through it, loathing every single second, impressing no one in the process. For days afterwards, I analyzed my performance, re-playing it in my head. My inner critic, scathing as always ‘What did you look like, why did you say that, What on earth were you thinking‘. I realized something had to change and that something had to be me. There was no way I could regularly handle the sense of shame and disappointment that consumed me following that performance, I could either quit or move forward. It was touch and go for a while, but moving forward was eventually the decision I made.

I enrolled in a few classes, read some self-help books, studied inspirational speakers. I was determined to improve myself to at least feel a little bit better about having to talk out loud.

Containing the Fear

I’ve persevered over the years, I have a couple of framed certificates on my office wall suggesting my perseverance paid off. I’ve chaired hundreds of meetings, delivered loads of presentations and workshops both big and small, I’ve accepted invitations to the odd podcast and the occasional interview – passing myself off as a fairly confident and capable speaker. A vast improvement – outwardly at least. In as much as I learned how to ‘blag’ my way through. It’s true what they say, you can fake it til you make it – however the feeling inside never changed. I still dreaded it with a passion, and avoided where I could.  I still beat myself up in the aftermath, over analyzing my performance, scolding myself with internal head-talk, “You shouldn’t have said that, and You should have said this”, never ever happy or comfortable with who I was. I convinced myself it was normal, aligning myself with others who said they felt the same. Logging as “it’s just one of those things we have to do, we hate it,  but we still have to do it.”  Which joyful soul came up with that golden nugget of wisdom?

Its something we tend to do as humans, rather than addressing how we feel, or endeavoring to understand why we feel it, we swallow down the emotion, ignore it and just get on with it instead. Stiff upper lip and all that – no wonder we so often struggle. Hoping we’ll get used to the feelings of dread and fear that are churning up our insides, by pretending that they’re not! That doesn’t even sound like a very good plan, but we run with it regardless. Hoping that the dread and fear that we are experiencing on the inside will some how miraculously transform itself into something else to deliver a joyful, inspiring outcome, it doesn’t make any sense. We know it, we can reason that ‘what goes in, is what comes out! we just struggle to apply it is all. We conclude that lots of people feel just as bad as we do so that’s okay, then if I’m not alone, it means I’m normal, regardless of how bad I feel. In this day and age of live feeds and social media marketing, the pressure to perform, and perform well has increased dramatically. We convince ourselves, never mind if it makes me feel lousy, everyone experiences the same thing and so that makes it perfectly acceptable. The problem with that is – We are supposed to FEEL good!

Facing the Fear

As I began focusing my attention on my purpose, stating my desires and intentions for the future, invitations for promotion through connections who share my passions, started to increase. Exactly what I was working towards and hoping for. Yet, instead of feeling the joyful excitement and enthusiasm at the opportunity to promote the very thing I wanted the most, I was feeling the worst kind of dread and fear, more than I’d ever felt before. I instinctively knew something wasn’t right, It needed my attention, since I understand the importance of always being true to myself.

If I wanted to realize my ambition, I had to address the fear, rather than continuing with what I was doing, which was masking the feelings with a persona I had created to carry me through. Experience has taught me that acting positive on the outside, whilst feeling negative on the inside can never really work.

Its about integrity, truth , honestly and being authentic., everything has to match up. Expressing on the outside what is being experienced on the inside is integrity – and for me, at this stage in my life, nothing less will do.

Understanding the Fear

My first encounter of public speaking was at the age of 9 in primary school. Mass was held every day at lunch time, and I was given the task of standing on the alter and reading a prayer out in Church. I was so stressed leading up to it, my insides twisting and turning like a corkscrew rollercoaster,  I fainted before I could finish the first sentence. The school Christmas concert aged 10. I had been learning to play the recorder, and was due to perform in front of all the parents, including my own Mum and Dad. As my classmates prepared to go up on stage, I instead was hugging a toilet, missing the entire performance. At the age of 12, at secondary school,  a carbon copy of my first attempt. Given the task of reading in the school assembly, again, I passed out before I’d finished and had to be carried off the stage. After that, I fainted every single time I went into the assembly hall. It became such a problem that on assembly days, my form tutor Mr. Bond,  would send me directly to the sick bay rather than the assembly hall – essentially cutting himself out as the middle man, fed-up of trying to catch me before I collapsed and hit the ground.

As a teenager I joined the local colliery brass band, playing second cornet. My first remembrance Sunday parade, and much to the disappointment of my parents, proudly watching the parade, I was missing in action.  At the age of 23 my Grandad died, heartbreak and grief ensued. It is usual for me to express my emotions through rhyme, so I’d written a poem, a heartfelt, personal tribute that I intended to read out at his funeral. Even though I was determined to read it, when the time arrived I couldn’t. I chickened out at the last minute, passing it to my cousin to read on my behalf. I felt every inch a coward but learned the art of easy avoidance.

Like many people of my generation, who were brought up to believe children should be seen and not heard, a crazy notion passed down through the generations by some grumpy old sod no doubt, I wasn’t practiced in voicing my views, so didn’t believe I had anything worth saying. Unlike today, kids were not encouraged to vocalize opinions, rather we were actively encouraged not to. Kids who did have a voice were viewed as rowdy reprobates in need of a bloody good hiding. No one wanted a good hiding, bloody or other, especially if it could be avoided.
As a young woman, barely out of my teens, I endured 5 years of domestic violence at the hands of a narcissistic sociopath, being voiceless kept me alive. I lived my life like a ghost, desperate not to have any impact on the world. I knew every piece of gum on the pavement in our village, I was so used to looking down. Neither of these experiences were the root cause of my fear of publicity, but they certainly reinforced the limiting beliefs I held about myself.

The emotions of dread, panic, shame and embarrassment, were first experienced by me at the age of 7, at the hands of a middle-aged primary school teacher. I was the New Girl in a New school, having recently arrived in a foreign country. She called me out to the front of the class and demanded I remove my cardigan to show my new classmates what a ‘dirty girl’ the ‘new girly was. She’d noticed the stains on my dress, and she wasn’t going let me get away with it. The children stared as I stood there, gormless. I felt like such a fool. I was wearing my favourite, sleeveless light blue dress with a brown and beige checked collar that zipped all the way up the front. Over the top of the dress, I wore a thick woolly brown cardigan, which tied around my middle with a matching belt, 70’s couture, considered overdress on the equator.

Annoyed by my stubbornness and failure to remove my cardy, she yanked it from my shoulders, revealing my sponged, food stained dress. The children jeered and pointed, while the teacher shook her head in disgust, clearly very pleased with her discovery at catching the dirty girl out.  She invited Everyone to ‘ look at the dirty girl’.

Rather than just reading the words in this post, Imagine, just for a second if this was you, or your 7 year old child, consider how you’d feel. Put yourself in that position, it feels uncomfortable right?

For me, the humiliation and shame was excruciating. I wanted the ground to swallow me up.  I knew my face was crimson red, because I could feel the burning in my cheeks.  I wanted to cry, to run, to hide, I didn’t dare, I just stood there for what seemed like forever, with absolutely nothing to say.

“Why are you wearing that dirty dress?

“Doesn’t your Mother clean your clothes”

I felt a sharp stab in my heart, silent tears rolled down my burning cheeks,  I felt protective of my family, and I knew for sure my Mum would be devastated if she knew what was being said.
How dare this awful woman judge us, she didn’t know my family, she didn’t have a clue. Still, I felt responsible for causing these judgments that were being levelled at us. I’d let my family down by being such a messy eater, having spilled my supper down my dress. The entire class now knew the truth about me and were openly criticizing me and my family.
Where would I go from here?

The truth was, I didn’t have any clean clothes, but I wasn’t willing to say that, because I was already ashamed and embarrassed about it.
I didn’t want to hear those words being said aloud, because that would make the situation real.

Unbeknownst to the teacher, the Airplane that was carrying all of our possessions had crashed and everything we owned was lost. All I had were the clothes I was stood up in, clothes I’d been wearing for days. The news of the crash had made my Mum ill, she was in bed for several days suffering with a migraine, she wasn’t coping at all well. As the eldest, I was doing what I could, which wasn’t very much.  Rather than disturbing my Mum while she was unwell, I’d attempted to clean my own dress by rubbing it with a damp sponge. I was 7, it made sense.

I was there when my Mum was told about the plane crash, I’d seen the look on her face, I’d felt sad seeing her crying on my Dads shoulder. I knew how worried she was, I wasn’t an idiot, it was obvious. Stuck in a foreign country with three young children, no clothes, no personal possessions, everything they had worked for lost. Even at the tender age of 7, it was perfectly understandable  to me why my Mum was ill, it may have been understandable to the teacher if she had taken the time to ask.

Assumption & Criticism

Whatever her issue – which as an adult I understand were hers to own, not mine, the teacher assumed the worst of me and my family. It didn’t occur to her to ask why my dress was dirty, because she had assumed to know the reason why and concluded her assumptions were right. In her mind, her assumptions became the facts of the matter, giving herself permission to deal with me however she saw fit.

Her humiliation of me in front of the class, had a huge impact on my ability to make friends, to gain the respect of my peers, to belong in a foreign country, to feel comfortable in my own skin, let alone experience  confidence or happiness when  in front of a crowd.

We interpret the world through our senses, (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) we apply meaning as we process the information.

Our minds often draw on past experience, filling in the blanks as we go. i.e ‘The last time this happened I felt, X, Y & Z = file under ‘best avoided’. 

Her life may have been structured and organized, with everything working out exactly as it should. For me, that wasn’t the case then and hasn’t been on many occasions since. Mine and my families lives, like many peoples lives, were temporarily thrown into chaos – we were doing the best we could with what we had. That’s how life tends to be. I didn’t fit into the teachers idea of how things should be, humiliating was how she thought of dealing with it. Maybe that’s all she knew!

I was so ashamed and fearful of those feelings of vulnerability, that I tried never to think about that experience again. I’d decided to never to put myself in any situation where those feelings might surface. The trouble with avoidance is, the more you try to avoid, the more likely you are to encounter it, which is essentially what kept happening.

Suppressing emotions inside and pretending all’s well on the outside isn’t the answer, because there comes a point when the mask of pretense no longer works.  It takes time to process and work it out, but work it out we must.

Life Lessons

We live in a society where we constantly judge and are being judged by others. We compare ourselves to others, compare others to others, and by others we are being compared. We criticize and are criticized, we humiliate and mock, whilst leaving ourselves out of the judging. Very few people know the way out, because few people truly know themselves.

It’s impossible to move forward in life unless you are willing to let yourself be vulnerable and face the fear. Being vulnerable is a scary, difficult and often painful place to be. (filed under best avoided) It seems much easier to give up, take cover or mask the pain, rather than run the risk of losing face, being shot down, mocked, rejected, judged or publicly humiliated, which is where our fears are often based, allowing no room for – what if it works out better than expected. What if actually works out!

The only thing to fear is fear itself

We live in a culture where fake it til’ you make is considered sound advise and where persona replaces authenticity, preventing us from knowing each other and more importantly, from knowing ourselves.

As humans we make so many assumptions about people rather than communicating authentically. We assume people who have encountered ‘similar’ experiences to us, understand how we feel and imagine they are more likely to sympathize with us, which simply isn’t true. We take offence when they don’t get it, even though we were wrong in assuming they would

We assume people with particular job titles will understand our perspective because we assume its their job to know.

We assume people who know us, who love us or who we believe should care about us, understand how we are feeling and should respond accordingly. We feel hurt and rejected when we realize they don’t.

In my experience, assumptions are seldom correct and usually unhelpful.

Communication is all we truly have. If we asked rather than assumed, we’d all be better off.
If we learn to value ourselves and our opinions, rather than accepting other peoples opinions of us, we’d all feel much happier and healthier inside.
when we accept that other peoples opinions of us is really none of our business and understand that they are only assuming to know then treating their assumptions as facts, we’d feel better about ourselves.
Its not our job to try to change other peoples minds about us, It’s our job to mind about ourselves.

Change a mans mind against his will, and he remains of the same mind still! 

We shall overcome

When something is really important to us, when we are passionate about it. faking joy isn’t enough. The difference between a speaker who inspires and a speaker who doesn’t is Joy. The inspirer loves it. Genuinely enjoying what they are doing, they are passionate about it, and its that passion and joy that comes across – Joy, Love and Passion. The positive energy that flows into the room, is the joy and the passion they feel within them. Go watch an Andre Rieu concert on YouTube – experience the joy he feels.

It’s entirely possible to overcome a fear and go on to enjoy it. You really can fake it til’ you make it, in as much as – you can act as though you are already in possession of (confidence/happiness/abundance/ insert as required)- as long as you are feeling the relevant emotion on the inside. The Inside emotion has to match the outside experience.

How we feel matters! We are supposed to feel good. Yet we spend a huge part of our lives feeling incredibly bad about stuff and then trying our best not to think about it, or talk about it. Why? Fear!

Fear of what people think? How it might look to others? What people might say about us?  Fear of judgement, fear of rejection, fear of being misunderstood. It takes strength to confront your fears, and is undoubtedly one of the most liberating experiences you will ever have.

Sharing

I hope you found something useful in this post. If you did, My hope is that it brings you some comfort. If you wish, feel free to share with others who may find some comfort in it too. Talking about how we feel, especially the things that make us feel vulnerable is perfectly okay. Find yourself a safe, compassionate, non- judgmental environment, such as Counselling, for example, where you can explore and process your thoughts and feelings. Understanding our emotions is important for mental wellbeing. Understanding how our assumptions and behaviours impact others is important for the mental wellbeing of all concerned.

Do not hesitate to get in touch if I can be of service.

If you didn’t find anything useful, thank you for dropping by, and taking the time to read my post.

I wish you joy, love, peace and passion & I hope you mostly feel good about yourself.