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My Fear of Public Speaking is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me

fear of public speaking

Fear of Public Speaking

This mindfulness journey starts with a horrible, crippling and utterly absurd and overblown fear of public speaking. You might know this fear well because so many of us humans share it.

If you know this feeling well you know it feels something like this: you get invited to speak/told you need to give a presentation and you immediately start strategizing ways you can get out of it. When it becomes evident that your strategies have failed and that you are indeed going to have to go through with this horrible, terrifying and unthinkable act you immediately start losing sleep. You feel nauseous. You start picturing completely ridiculous worst-case scenarios that are highly unlikely to happen but yet you are completely convinced that these things will happen. On the way to deliver your speech/presentation you fantasize about getting hit by a bus so you can get out of said speech/presentation because this genuinely seems like a better outcome than having to speak in front of your fellow humans.

It’s a strange phobia because merely opening your mouth to speak a few words will not actually kill you or harm you in any way, yet it is the most common fear in the human race. It ranks before the fear of death. We are one irrational species.

My phobia was born in my first year of university and intensified throughout my student years and followed me right into my working life where it really started to become a problem. I was passing up great opportunities at work and even worse, I was shirking my duties as a friend by saying things like “No, I can’t/don’t want to/am too chicken shit to give a speech at your wedding.” I really hated that this fear had such control over me, dictating what experiences I was or was not open to. It felt so limiting. I needed to get over myself, fast.

First, I started by taking a public speaking class. This was a 10-week class that subjected me to speaking in front of an audience every single week. I was so deeply fearful when I took this class that it was more akin to exposure therapy than public speaking lessons, but it really helped. Facing my fear every week for 10 weeks straight helped me practice opening my mouth in front of an audience, and started to reprogram my brain to believe that nothing bad would happen. By the end of it I was still really nervous, but I believed I could do it. The fear was dialed back. Huge relief.

But while the fear had subsided, the nerves followed me for years.

While I now believed I could stand before an audience and give a presentation, I couldn’t shake those nervous reactions. I was still way too hot, shaky and sweaty for my liking. This also coincided with a significant increase in overall work stress, that left me increasingly hot, shaky and sweaty even on a good day. I started googling shit. I needed another solution.

This is when I stumbled upon a YouTube video clip of ABC News Anchor Dan Harris having a panic attack on live television. When I watched it I thought I feel you brother. The gasping for breath looked so familiar. Fortunately for me, Dan’s panic attack sent him on his own personal quest for a solution, a quest that led him right to mindfulness meditation. He wrote about this quest and his discovery of meditation in his book 10% Happier, and I’m so glad he did (thanks Dan). His book sent me on my own multi year journey through a stack of meditation books, a series of meditation classes, and a pile of meditation apps.

Mindfulness meditation has proved to be an incredibly powerful tool in my life. Not only has it helped me to manage stress and anxiety, it has helped me to cultivate more joy, compassion and meaning in my life.

Dan Harris says meditation made him 10% happier. I totally agree. For me I might put the percentage a little higher because I feel 10% more calm, 10% more aware and 10% more compassionate. I’m not sure if that equals 30% happier, but the compounding effects have been incredible. Not only did meditation help me control my nerves in front of an audience, it’s had an incredible spill over effect into all other areas of my life. Manage work stress – check. Increase self awareness and personal growth – check. Improve relationships and empathy towards other humans and living things – check. Increase gratitude – check. Decrease reactivity – check. Check, check, check.

So, what is mindfulness meditation?

It’s a practice.

Mindfulness is all about cultivating present moment awareness. More simply put, it’s about practicing living in the now. Our human minds are wired to constantly be thinking or planning or worrying about the future, or ruminating or replaying the past. As a result, we often miss the very moment that we are living in right now. And all of this living in the past and future really gets in the way of being happy right here and right now. My excessive worry about my public speaking performance? Living in the future! Rumination over how a work meeting went? Living in the past! When we are in the present moment and we aren’t worrying or ruminating we can find true happiness – a sense of calm and focus settles in.

Mindfulness meditation is a tool that we can use to help us cultivate mindfulness and present moment awareness.

By practicing meditation, we train our minds to pay attention to present moment experience with open curiosity and a willingness to be with what is, whatever that may be at that moment in time.

There are different techniques to do this but it usually involves putting your attention on something specific – some meditations teach us to focus on our breath, some teach us to focus on body sensations or sounds. For example, we might sit quietly and pay attention to our breath and specifically to the sensations of our breath going in and out of our bodies. At some point our minds will wander because that’s what minds want to do – that is perfectly normal. But then you will also notice that your mind has wandered and you will pull yourself back to the breath. This is the point of meditation! Not to stop your mind from wandering but to notice what your mind is up to. Because once you notice what’s going on in your mind, you can start to make different choices on how you want to react to things.

Once you notice, you are aware.

Now when I’m preparing for a presentation, I notice the self-defeating thoughts that pop into my head (“You’re going to look so nervous!” “You’re not qualified to be speaking about this!”) and just notice them as thoughts, nothing more. Just because I think it, doesn’t make it true. Then I practice letting go of that thought. I practice replacing it with a more positive thought. Right before I start my presentation my heart rate increases and my breath gets short, I notice these body reactions. I take some deep breaths. I visualize a positive experience. With this awareness, I can choose to cultivate a little calm and most of the time, it really works.

It is important to practice this with as much kindness towards yourself as you can possibly muster. Shauna Shapiro (a great mindfulness teacher, check her out) points out that if every time your mind wanders you form a habit of berating yourself and beating yourself up, you aren’t actually practicing mindfulness, you’re practicing self judgement and criticism. If the mind wanders all you need to do is gently catch yourself and return to the breath. Keep practicing that over and over and it starts to really change your brain. Suddenly it’s a much kinder place.

Let’s Do This:

Go get your crystals out, light up some incense and give this meditation thing a try.

JK, you don’t need crystals and incense (although totally cool if that’s what you’re in to). You can meditate anywhere. Your bed. Your couch. Your chair at work. The bus. It’s remarkably simple.

I recommend downloading a meditation app to get you started. 10% Happier has a great free beginner course that will teach you the basics. So do Calm and Headspace. It doesn’t really matter which one you pick, just download one and give it a go.

Remember it’s called a meditation practice for a reason. You have to practice regularly for it to start to change your brain. The more you practice, the more you notice. Try to practice every day if you can. Even a little meditation has beneficial effects and is better than no meditation at all, so even 10 minutes a day will have a positive impact. Try to set a specific time every day to make it a habit. I like meditating when I first wake up to help set the tone for my day. It doesn’t matter what time you pick; just pick a time you think you can stick with.

So that’s it. Give it a go. Practice for a few weeks and tell me what you think. Share your struggles/successes below. Let’s do this together.

2 Comments

  1. […] took a regular meditation practice, and working on my fear of public speaking, to really develop an appreciation of practice. The simple act of sitting cross legged and […]

  2. […] Harris’ first meditation book, 10% Happier, is the book that sent me down the mindfulness meditation rabbit hole, and I’m so glad it […]

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