There was a time when I was too proud to admit any form of weakness. My time in the military taught me never to let my insecurities or vulnerabilities bubble to the surface for fear of being judged by my peers, superiors and subordinates in what was a highly competitive milieu.
With my recent study of mindfulness in my MBA, I’ve reflected on a real weakness that has surfaced in my working life in the past two years. In the past, I would have kept this bottled up, but I think it will be cathartic if I tell you about it.
I’ll preface it by saying that I pride myself on my written and verbal communication skills – these are fundamental requirements of my job as a consultant – and I am known among my colleagues and peers as a reasonable orator. I’ve spoken in front of 400+ people at numerous conferences; I’ve been the MC of an event at the National Press Club (and plenty of weddings, too); I’ve presented oral briefs to the Chief of Army and the Minister for Defence; and I’ve delivered day and week-long courses in the classroom. My website even says that I deliver training and speaking as part of my consultancy services.
Yet there have been three occasions in the past 12 months where I have ‘broken down’ in front of an audience, completely debilitated by anxiety and fear. On each occasion, I have had to ‘take leave’ and regain my composure before continuing.
I found each situation extremely embarrassing. I came away hating myself for not being able to deliver to my own exacting standards. I felt that I had irretrievably damaged my credibility in the eyes of my audience. Each situation served to dent my self-confidence a little further.
I have never been a 100% confident speaker. I marvel at public speakers who are able to get up and speak confidently and naturally without any notes. I’ve always felt the need to prepare thoroughly before a speaking engagement and I always carry a script to read from in case things go awry. On most occasions, I do feel nervy and uncomfortable before taking the stage, but I quickly get over it once I’m into the swing of the presentation.
But in recent times I’ve had real difficulty in the initial stages of the presentation. As soon as I start speaking, the tension takes a hold in my lower legs and rises up through my body like I’m being squeezed by a boa constrictor. I start hyperventilating, gasping for air, as I try to press on and make out like nothing’s wrong. Finally my brain becomes scrambled and my mouth starts gabbling incomprehensible rubbish. I can see the confusion on the faces of the audience, but by this stage my head has ‘checked out’ of the present and I’m no longer in control of my body.
At that moment, the ‘fight or flight’ instinct kicks in. My head is ringing, my temples are throbbing and my heart is pounding out of my chest. I bow my head, resigned to the fact that it has happened ‘again’, and ask for a moment to gather myself. ‘Flight’ wins out.
After taking some time out, my pride forces me back into the fray. My heading is still buzzing, I feel a heavy weight of expectation on me, and consequently my delivery is poor. The audience is forgiving – ‘just think of us as having no clothes on’ – but it doesn’t help. In fact, comments like this simply reinforce the fact that I have made an ass of myself.
So, where to from here? Avoid public speaking? Not possible – it’s a big part of my job and I have multiple speaking engagements coming up in the next few weeks. The only option is to deal with my anxieties.
Having been exposed to mindfulness at university this year, there are a few strategies that I plan to use when dealing with this situation in future:
- Work with the discomfort. We often consider uncomfortable circumstances to be bad news, but mindfulness helps us to ‘lean in’ to these feelings, to acknowledge and accept them, but not be consumed by them. We should face discomfort like an ocean wave washing over us – an insight that I gleaned from reading this article about mindfulness and panic attacks.
- Slow the breathing. Focusing on breathing is well-known mindfulness technique. It’s a little difficult to start deep diaphragmatic breathing or counting breaths when you are standing up in front of an audience, but a conscious effort to slow and regulate the breathing is a good tip.
- Be kind to yourself. It’s important not to punish ourselves for experiencing uncomfortable feelings (something I have been guilty of). They’re natural and we should allow them to be there. Beating ourselves up over these feelings won’t help. Accepting them will.
If these strategies fail next time I have a speaking engagement, I’ll have to go back to picturing the audience in their birthday suits.