Secret #2 – Fear Is Like Excitement And It Can Be Harnessed

Many professional speakers and performers claim to experience some version of stage-fright no matter how often they perform. You’re probably aware of the legendary pre-show jitters reported by Barbara Streisand, Sir Laurence Olivier and Carly Simon, but it may surprise you to learn that even Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud and Donny Osmond (even DONNY!) have reported significant anxiety prior to performing. You may be thinking:

You: That’s just great, Stephanie. So now you’re saying that even the pros can’t bear performing. How the heck can I be expected to do it?
I’ll opt for something less painful, like ripping out my fingernails.

Here’s where that very powerful sensory capability – perception – comes in. We have a choice.

Although the physical sensations associated with anxiety really and truly feel like those that immediately precede a painful death, they are purely the product of the mind and, as such, can be manipulated. Additionally, many of the sensations we associate with fear and anxiety, are shared with an emotion that we actually enjoy: excitement.

Don’t get me wrong; like Babs and Abe and Donny, I have experienced those scary feelings. In my case, the darkness manifests as a tiny, loud-mouthed critic who sits behind me hissing 1) “who do you think you are;” or 2) “you’re not good enough;” or 3) “you will blow it so badly that your failure will be a favorite topic at cocktail parties for years to come.” (This critic looks a lot like Helen Gurley Brown, but that’s not important.)

Despite this nay-sayer, I strive to interpret those feelings as excitement, directing my perception toward whatever offers the greatest opportunity. Why am I listening to a critic whose opinion I don’t respect anyway?!?

Another thing to try as the fight-or-flight responses kick in is to talk to yourself (you may want to do this silently to avoid the possibility of being involuntarily institutionalized). You can tell yourself:

I am not dying.
This is a prehistorically programmed and misdirected autonomic nervous response reserved for real emergencies (like running from a charging woolly mammoth.)
1, 2, 3… (Counting out breaths – one of many relaxation techniques I use with clients.)
Hmm…My throat’s dry. I should bring some water.
Hmm…My palms are damp. I’ll have to bring a tissue.

“Talk yourself down” when fear threatens to derail you. The goal is to learn to live with the symptoms and lighten their effect through practicing these and other techniques. How you think about yourself has a lot to do with how easily you take to these changes. If you’ve decided that being a professional and being a human are mutually exclusive, your road will likely be longer.

In this way you may find that public (or other) speaking is not as miserable and frightening as you first thought. And it’s no woolly mammoth.

UPDATE Sept. 2013: Finally, science has caught up with my theory (from 2009)

Thank you, Kelly McGonigal & the WSJ

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