Last week I spoke for literally 3 minutes about what I do to a women’s networking group. Two women approached me afterwards. One asked, ‘How do you do that? How do you look so relaxed and confident?’ while another said, ‘I was so moved, my eyes welled up while you were speaking’.
For a speaker (after only 3 mins) that’s great feedback, but it got me thinking about just how many people fear public speaking.
Even though it’s obviously not life-threatening if you’re afraid of public speaking your mind can go into overdrive and bring you out in a cold paralyzing sweat.
Anxious thoughts like ‘I can’t do it, I’m a terrible speaker, I’ll make a complete fool of myself’ can take you over and make your heart race, your hands shake, and your mouth dry. If this is you, you probably avoid public speaking at all costs?
However, despite what it looks like to others, I always experience anxiety before, often during and sometimes even after I speak. I’ve just learned how not to let my emotions own me (take me over).
I don’t do that by distracting myself, imagining my audience in their underwear, or repeating positive affirmations.
These widely recommended strategies simply do not work.
Reciting positive affirmations can do more harm than good. Why is that?
Because repeating to yourself over and over ‘I’m confident and I’m going to crush this speaking event’ when you don’t believe it just triggers what I call your Tui brain. Do you know the one? It’s doing an eye-rolling Tui commercial behind your back by reminding you ‘yeah right!?’
And desperately trying to get rid of anxiety just makes the situation worse.
Before you know it, you’re anxious about being anxious. Then self-judgment kicks in ‘why aren’t I more confident, what is wrong with me!?’
However, anxiety itself is not the problem. Almost everyone experiences anxiety, especially with public speaking!
But if your life is dominated by avoiding any situation that makes you anxious or you’re numbing uncomfortable emotions (with alcohol or food or…), then you’re holding yourself back from reaching your full potential and you may end up living a very small life indeed.
Avoiding situations that trigger discomfort or stuffing yourself with dark chocolate and too many glasses of red wine (hmmm…I wonder who does that?) may feel like a solution, but it’s really just a short-term fix with life-sucking long-term consequences.
The good news is there are plenty of extremely powerful in-the-moment mindfulness practices that support you to move out of your comfort zone.
Here are a few you might like to try:
- Instead of letting thoughts like ‘I could never speak in public’ dominate your behaviour start noticing and naming the story your mind keeps telling you, e.g., ‘Oh here’s the I’ll make a fool of myself story again’ or ‘here’s the I can’t speak in public story’ or ‘the story about how unworthy, not good enough, smart enough and how unlovable I am!’
The moment you make the unconscious conscious (see and expose what your mind is up to) it is no longer running the show. Remember, you’re not trying to make these thoughts go away, you’re simply zapping their power.
- Instead of fighting your mind try thanking it for doing its job. Say ‘thanks mind, I see you’re trying to protect me, but I’ve got this!’
Your mind’s primary job is to keep you safe and that includes stopping you from making a fool of yourself.
- Instead of letting your emotions own you e.g. ‘I’m an anxious person and I could never speak in public’ label or give your emotions a name. E.g., ‘oh, I notice anxiety arising’ or ‘here’s guilt and shame’.
There’s a big difference between saying ‘I am anxious’ and changing your inner dialogue to a simple observation like ‘I notice anxiety’. When you own it, you have more choice about how you respond.
While it may seem too small to make any difference, this change of perspective is amazingly freeing. It helps you to unhook from unhelpful thinking and emotions by turning on the smarter part of your brain.
And whatever you do, avoid arguing with your mind because you’ll never win! It is after all – you.
When I notice my mouth go dry before speaking, instead of saying to myself ‘oh I’m scared’ I reframe it to ‘oh, here’s my old friend fear’. I know this feeling. It’s normal, it’s natural. I can use it to help me be more present instead of allowing it to swallow me up! Pausing and taking a sip of water also helps me to refocus my attention.
- Instead of trying to get rid of the discomfort, let that emotion land. Breath into it and notice where you feel the emotion in your body. That’s right, give it some space. I know that goes against every piece of advice you’ve probably ever been given but try it out for yourself.
Every emotion you experience is there for a reason. Ask yourself, what is this emotion telling me is important right now? Then choose as wisely as possible…
- Treat yourself with kindness. Remind yourself that many people experience this same response. Place your hand on your heart – if that feels okay – and send yourself a little bit of love. While it might sound a bit naff to some people, it can be transformative.
In summary, instead of getting hooked by uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, avoiding life, and behaving in ways you rather wouldn’t, mindfulness builds a precious inner resource to stay more balanced and accepting, even when experiencing overwhelmingly difficult thoughts, urges and emotions.
It’s not about conquering your emotions or stopping or getting rid of negative thinking patterns, because that’s not possible. It’s learning new skills and tools and practising them regularly.
No matter what happens, when you know the steps, you’re more likely to respond as your best self.
This is what I do as a coach.
If you’d like to know what it’s like to work with me, please book a no-obligation free call. We can discuss your specific situation and see if we’re a good fit to work together.