One of the most common phobias known to mankind is the fear of public speaking. Also common is the fear of heights. Both fears used to stop me from participating in certain activities.
One day, I decided to face my fears head-on. I didn’t necessarily get rid of the fears altogether. Fears come and go. Sometimes the fear is there, and sometimes it’s not.
But I discovered firsthand that you can take effective action regardless of your fears. Fear serves a strong purpose. You can use it to your advantage.
Fear of public speaking
I used to dread even the prospect of public speaking. I thought it would be terrifying to step into the spotlight. Who wants to have a bunch of eyes staring at you – watching your every move, witnessing you trip over your own two feet, and noticing you stumble for the right words? Despite constant prodding from teachers and social pressure from classmates, I managed to escape joining the debate team in high school.
When I started college, I decided it was time to face my fear of public speaking. I was majoring in communications with an emphasis in public relations. How could I do this line of work if I was afraid to speak in public?
So, I took an introductory speech communication class. As it turned out, I loved it. By getting up to talk in a room full of people, over and over, I gained skills and confidence I didn’t have before. I ended up completing a minor in speech communication as part of my undergraduate studies.
I now speak before audiences on stress mastery, finding focus, and other professional growth topics as a life & career strategist. I also present oral arguments before appellate judges and represent clients at court hearings as a lawyer. I would not have these opportunities if I were still crippled by fear of public speaking.
Yet, irrespective of my experience, I can still get nervous when I speak before an audience. It doesn’t matter that I enjoy oral arguments before appellate judges and feed off the adrenaline that comes with speaking before large groups. Fear has a funny way of showing up when you least expect it.
Last Wednesday, as a Faculty Mentor and instructor at the University of St. Thomas law school, I spoke on networking before a small group of 16 second-year law students. It was an 8 a.m. class. When I woke up in the morning, I was looking forward to it.
But 5 minutes before I walked into the classroom, I began to have racing thoughts: Did I prepare enough? How would the students receive me? Would anyone show up? Would the interactive exercises teach them anything? Despite having some self-doubt and feeling a bit nervy, I walked in and had a great time with the students.
Fear of heights
As for my fear of heights, I learned to truly embrace it by skydiving! Ok, it was tandem skydiving. But nonetheless – audacious – wouldn’t you say?
A couple months later, I was invited by my sister and her friend, an expert climber, to go outdoor rock climbing. I myself had very limited climbing skills. I had only done indoor rock climbing at Vertical Endeavors a few times. But since I had recently jumped out of an airplane, I figured that outdoor rock climbing would be a piece of cake when it came to dealing with heights. Boy was I wrong.
When we got to Taylor’s Falls, I enjoyed climbing up the steep cliff and seeing the beautiful views from way above. It was the rappelling down that posed the greatest challenge.
Rappelling is a climbing technique that allows you to do a controlled descent. It involves your sliding down a rope on a cliff face to get back to flat earth. Sometimes it’s the fastest, easiest and safest way to get down.
On the surface, rappelling seems much simpler than climbing up a cliff. But it can be very nerve-racking and dangerous. It includes creating anchors, tying knots, managing the rope, rigging the rappel device, and using safety back-up systems to ensure safety. When rappelling, you need to focus, use good judgment, and lean into the descent.
I freaked out when I learned that I would need to rappel down from the top of the cliff. I felt like I was going to die. My legs were complete mush. My palms were sweaty. My heart was racing. My stomach was churning. Minutes felts like hours. Then I finally took a deep breath, leaned back on the rappel rope, and descended into the unknown.
Here are some things I learned about fear and how to move through it:
Fully experience the fear.
When fear arises, you naturally want to get rid of it and everything that comes with it: the physical symptoms (e.g. pit in your stomach, wobbly knees, sweaty palms) and the self-sabotaging thoughts (e.g. I’m a wuss. I’m not good enough. I can’t do this.) Driving out your fear or willing it away is usually impossible. It’s easier to just be with it. Make space for it. Tap into it as a source of fuel for action. Let it be your guide.
Observe, with genuine curiosity, the thoughts and feelings that accompany your fear. Let go of your judgments and preferences. Bring your fear into light and into your consciousness. Investigate it. Learn something big or something minute – about yourself and about the fear itself.
Keep your sense of humor.
When I was first instructed to rappel down from the top of the cliff, I felt like crying. I took it as a serious, life-threatening decision. But then I recalled I had recently jumped out of an airplane.
What made the difference? On the airplane, before I jumped, I was relaxed. I was smiling, laughing, and joking around with my tandem master and fellow skydivers. So, to deal with the fear, I began to play around and have fun with it. Next thing I knew, I was rappelling down – despite the wobbly legs, sweaty palms, racing heart, and churning stomach. I accepted the physical symptoms as part of the adventure.
Fear often arises from your memories about the past and projections of the future. I tripped over my tongue the last time I gave a toast! I could crack my scull on the side of the cliff with one false move!
When you find your mind racing with negative thoughts, come back to the present moment. You don’t need to spend tons of energy trying to change your thoughts or think positive. Just let the thoughts come and go without hooking you.
Start by counting your breath. As you breathe in, count 1, and as you breathe out, count 1. Repeat 10 times and then return to 1 again. Focus on the pure sensation of your breath. Notice the rise and fall of your shoulders, rib cage, and abdomen. Most times, your breath will become quieter and deeper. Even if it doesn’t, that’s fine. Simply noticing your breath helps you to be present.
Instead of hiding from or fighting the present moment, be with it. The now is when you have the most power. Once you realize this fact, you tend to calm down. You gain clarity. You decide what you want to do or what you need to do. And you do it.
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Photo by: TOM81115