Today’s November Challenge item falls into the category of “Things I’m Effing Terrified to Write About.”
I used to love public speaking. I loved giving presentations, and I loved speaking with authority on topics I knew a lot about.
Until one day when I didn’t. One day while giving a presentation during my last semester of grad school, I suddenly found myself totally crippled with fear that came out of absolutely nowhere.
My heart was pounding like a jackhammer, my hands started to shake, I couldn’t get a full breath of air, and my voice started to warble.
It had happened out of nowhere. I hadn’t been the least bit nervous about the presentation, I knew the topic well, and I’d been totally confident when I began. The presentation had started off swimmingly.
And yet, one minute in, there I was: unable to breathe, barely able to speak, totally gobsmacked and confused by what was going on. To say the least, I was also incredibly embarrassed by the fact that in 30 second flat, the confident speaker I once was had degenerated into a bewildered, panicked mess.
Since that day, I’ve been terrified of public speaking. I mean, we’re talking absolutely panicked and run-for-the-hills terrified. I avoid it like the plague now.
Even then, it pops up at random times. Take today, for example: I was in a totally innocuous staff meeting, and I had no reason to be worried. It’s about as non-hostile of an environment as you can get.
My hands started shaking, my heart made a valiant effort to palpitate itself right out of my chest, and my voice started to shake.
Like I always do when this happens, I started to cough and asked if I could go get some water. I always try to pass these things off as coughing fits and act like I’m totally fine, simply because it’s embarrassing to admit that I’m undone by a thoroughly irrational fear of speaking to more than five people at a time.
It’s particularly hard to admit in DC. In DC, swagger is a form of currency. It’ll get you places. And given how much grandstanding people do in this town, swagger in public speaking is a must.
Admitting to fear of any sort, but particularly fear of something like public speaking, just isn’t done here. It’s interpreted as a sign of weakness, and most people simply don’t talk about anything that makes them look vulnerable, weak, or less than 100% in control.
I’m tired of that motif, however. It doesn’t work for me. (And although it appears to work outwardly for some people, my guess is that doesn’t fare so well internally.)
So today, I’m trying to own up to my fear. After the staff meeting was over, I spoke with my colleagues and superiors and told them what was going on. (They all knew I didn’t like public speaking, but they’d never seen the full-on reaction happen before.) I told them that this is what happens when the fear rears its ugly head, and that it wasn’t just a coughing fit.
Was it embarrassing? OMFG, yes. But they all took it well, and they largely understood my problem.
The second step to owning up to this is, obviously, writing about it here. Frankly, it’s more than a little bit scary for me to not play my cards close to my chest — and I’m more than a little bit wigged out to be writing this post. But I know that if I’m going to tackle this problem, I need to be honest about it.
It’s embarrassing as all get-out to go public, if you will, with my fear of public speaking. But still, hiding it sure isn’t going to help. If owning up to my fear helps me figure out a way to conquer it, then I’m all for it.