I find that people can be helped so much by hearing the stories of others and I hope it will help you to hear the story of my personal journey with this fear and how far I have come over the years.
My first recollection of feeling really uncomfortable with speaking up in a group setting was in 3rd grade as the teacher went around the room and called various students’ names to read a paragraph out loud to the class (while seated). I remember not liking the feeling of being singled out from the group when it was my turn to read and I felt a lot of pressure to read correctly as everyone seemed to be listening closely to every word I read. I did not like being put on the spot and forced to do something I didn’t want to do and feeling I had no choice.
I then remember feeling very uncomfortable in 6th grade when I had to recite a poem while standing in front of the class. I made sure I knew my poem cold and did a lot of preparation and rehearsal. When the time came to stand in front of the group I remember feeling extremely self-conscious with being the center of attention and having everyone looking at and listening to me. I got through it okay, though I recall not liking the feeling of all of that attention on me and having the responsibility to deliver on something that people were expecting from me. And once again it felt like I was being forced to do something I didn’t want to do and had no choice, which made it feel even worse.
I seemed to get through the rest of my grade school, high school and college years without having to present in any significant way. I don’t know how much I avoided or how much was just not asked of me but I know I didn’t have to confront this issue for years.
Then, things unraveled very quickly when I went off to graduate school. It was a high stress time for me with leaving my job and friends behind as I moved to a different state to start a very rigorous program at a highly regarded school. I felt in over my head and very anxious about this major life change and the demands I was facing. All of this culminated in my first panic attack as we went around the room doing introductions in my very first class.
I was completely overwhelmed by this experience and have no idea how I got through the panic I felt in the room that day but somehow I managed to move my mouth and some words came out when it was my turn to speak. I strongly member the intense Fight or Flight feeling I had as I eyed the door and desperately wanted to bolt out of the room (and out of the entire program).
I was traumatized by that incident and that moment made a deep imprint in my nervous system. I never knew I could feel so out of control and it deeply scared me. I was also feeling very ashamed that I “lost it” like that (even if others did not know) simply by being asked to introduce myself to the class. It felt as though something was really wrong with me and I was afraid for others to find this out about me.
I remember feeling I had this deep dark secret that I had to keep. I felt so burdened by it and so scared each time we had to do introductions, or any type of presentation, that I would be found out. I became preoccupied whenever facing these challenges and felt like I had a black cloud hovering over me, even weeks or months before I had to do whatever it was that I was dreading. I had a thesis to present at the end of my 2-year program and I remember being haunted by that for the whole two years.
Somehow I made it through all of this and was even complimented at times on my speaking ability. No matter how well something went, it didn’t matter as it always felt like the shoe could drop at any moment. I never felt on steady ground and my successes with speaking did not lead to more trust or confidence in my ability to be okay when speaking in front of others. It felt like I was just lucky to survive each one and that trouble was always lurking around the corner.
When I left grad school I was hoping that maybe this issue would ease and that it might have been a reaction to the intensity of the program I was in. Unfortunately, this was not the case and the problem followed me to my first job (as well as the job interviews I had before landing a job). My fear strongly reared its head in a Monday morning case conference that I had to attend and often had to present at in front of my boss and peers. I vividly remember feeling like I was heating up in the room and feeling the room closing in around me whenever I had to present. I hated waiting my turn to be called upon (again feeling like I had no choice). I recall hating Sundays as it was one day closer to the meeting and loving Mondays at 10am as I had a whole week to feel more free of this burden before I had to present again. Clearly this fear was continuing to get the upper hand.
I decided to go on medication as I was on the verge of feeling like I wanted to quit my job over this. I first tried an anxiety medication that I took daily and it did not work well for me. That is when I found out about the use of beta blockers for performance anxiety. Once I tried a beta blocker (Propranolol), I felt incredible relief. My body symptoms of heart pounding, trembling, flushing/blushing, shaking voice and general feeling of being out of control all subsided and I was able to think more clearly and rationally. It was a godsend to me and I continued to use it for every meeting and for some other speaking I had to do in that job. I found it interesting to note that speaking weekly at the very same meeting with most of the same people for six years never led to desensitizing from the fear.
After leaving this job to go into Private Practice, I felt free as a bird as I no longer felt forced into speaking and it finally felt like I had control over my choice with this (which was to avoid doing it!). Within a few years, though, I ended up becoming a partner in a group practice and once again I was faced with a request to speak. This time it was on a much bigger scale: at a hospital Grand Rounds with my new partners. YIKES!
I write about this in my In The SpotLight book so I won’t go into detail other than to say that this is when I felt like “Enough is enough” and that I had to do something beyond medication to help myself. So, I rallied and learned as much as I could about ways to help myself better manage my fear and anxiety, create a more positive mindset, and develop better coping skills in meeting this challenge head on (both in anticipation of the event as well as when I was right in the thick of it). I mentally prepared as much, if not more, than preparing my content and was pleasantly surprised by how good I felt when the moment arrived. I got many compliments on my presentation and this time I felt like I could feel proud of myself and did not feel like an imposter, as I did in the past. Even though I chose to take a low dose of the beta blocker to help with the conditioned fear response in my body, I still felt this was a major accomplishment based on the dramatic shift in my attitude and mindset.
That event was a turning point for me and I no longer felt dread and foreboding when I had to speak. I still felt anxious and uncomfortable – sometimes more, sometimes less – though the intensity of my feelings was ramped down many notches. I decided I had something to share with others who had a similar phobic level fear that I had, which led me to create my workshop, write my books, create my CD and offer personal coaching.
Soon after starting to help others, I decided to stop using the beta blocker and simply use the tools that I was teaching. It worked. I was able to manage any feelings of anticipatory anxiety, as well as the stronger feelings of anxiety that often came the first few minutes of a talk. I did it this way for at least 10 years.
Then one day I felt more anxious as I was waiting to give a radio interview. It had started to feel harder at times (which I believe was partly related to going through some hormonal changes) though I was always able to manage it far, far better than before. This one day, though, I asked myself why I wouldn’t allow myself a very small dose of beta blocker to make it easier on myself, as well as more enjoyable. I had already proven to myself I could do it without the medication and now I wanted to give myself a break and enjoy the experience more.
So, I decided to not be so hard on myself and allowed myself to use a small dose of beta blocker whenever I felt it would help support me (and I continue to use it to this day). I finally reconciled myself to this when I thought about the thyroid medication I take to balance my system and that I don’t take issue with that, so why would I take issue with needing to balance my system in this way? My ego doesn’t like the idea of relying on any medication, though my spirit likes the feeling of my body being in a comfortable state so I can feel more myself and be at my best for others. I still always use the many tools I teach to help with any anticipatory anxiety (which is immensely better than it had been in the past) and anxiety while speaking. I embrace the holistic approach that I teach and do many things to take care of my body, mind and spirit to help with speaking challenges as well as overall wellness.
I believe that if I were in a situation of speaking regularly, I would desensitize far more now than earlier in my career given I have the right mindset about it. I had tried Toastmasters a few times over the years but the groups I tried never really worked well for me. I had more regular speaking opportunities for a period of time and that was when I felt most at ease. When things slowed down with that and the speaking became more sporadic, that is also when it got a bit more challenging.
My work-life and lifestyle do not present me with regular opportunities to speak in public so I know that has been a factor in not fully getting to the other side of this fear. I will admit that, as an introvert, I have not felt moved to seek out regular, frequent speaking opportunities over time (it has gone in spurts instead) and this has somewhat limited how fully I have resolved my own issue with speaking.
I can say, though, that my mindset is in a very good place about speaking (light years from where it had been in the past) and I know I can do it whenever I am faced with an opportunity to speak. The only issue I still have is a conditioned fear response in my body when I start to speak – sometimes stronger, sometimes gentler. When I choose to take the medication, it is a non-issue. When I don’t use the medication, I practice accepting it, riding the wave, and focusing on my purpose and my message, remembering, “It is not about me”.