on Fears, the Past and the Future.
I’m afraid of public speaking. The thought of it quickens my pulse, my knees go weak and I break out in a cold sweat. Add a crimson blush and bile up and down my oesophagus you can pretty much say I have a phobia. Glossophobia I believe. I’ve been told it’s all in my head, to get over it, but I assure you, my reader, that the symptoms I’ve detailed above are very real and physiological. A result of that part of the brain neither you nor I have any control over; the unconscious. It’s not uncommon, and was actually rated higher than death in a U.S. poll a few years back that indexed what people fear the most. Ironically that means that at a funeral people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy, in the words of Seinfeld.
I wasn’t born with it. It began around grade nine after an oral assignment that didn’t go particularly well. Add that to a person with a more than regular predisposition to anxiety and a series of compounding events thereafter … long story short it’s something I developed.
It’s not a pleasant place to be, where you avoid having to address a room, or even speak up in a meeting. Introducing yourself to a group of people becomes a nightmare.
When I was twenty-four I somehow became elected class representative while attending a four month course for work purposes. This was fine, until I found out that the title entailed giving a graduation speech in front of the forty delegates, their plus-ones, the entire faculty and VIP’s. In total about one hundred and thirty people in an auditorium.
Obviously I was looking forward to this about as much as I would root canal without anaesthetic, and a dark cloud followed my thoughts throughout course. Rather than do nothing but simply accept my fate I began preparing myself by speaking to progressively larger groups of delegates for different reasons such as admin or the like. To my dismay I couldn’t shake the anxiety and physical effects. I did however manage to hide them, which was nice.
The big day came. I remember sitting in my seat listening to the Master of Ceremonies slowly but surely creep nearer to the moment at which I would be called upon to address the audience. I may have wished a stroke on him. Or myself. Anything to prevent the inevitable. My ill-begotten prayers went unanswered and through my abject misery I heard my name called. I had to think to make my legs work and I hope I didn’t resemble a stringed puppet as much as I thought I did on the way up.
I took the podium – thank heavens for that crutch. Standing there, in emotional turmoil, I gazed blindly out at the crowd. My speech was forgotten already. There was such profound silence I felt in some sort of sensory deprivation. Then I spoke, “Our honoured guests, members from the college, lecturers, friends, family, and my fellow delegates. Good morning and welcome.” It didn’t even sound like my voice. There might’ve been a crack in its timbre somewhere along the line but nobody seemed to notice. The lectern hid my right leg, which was shaking uncontrollably as if the limb had decided of its own accord to throw a rave party and not invite the rest of my body. “It gives me great pleasure to . . .” I sounded a little stronger to my own ears through the loudspeakers, even though I knew that this wasn’t the speech I’d planned and I had no clue as to where this was going. I ploughed on completely by the seat of my pants. The words came to me and with them my confidence grew. The whole speech was a blur but I rounded it off with a final thank you, and the ensuing applause felt like the embrace of a long-lost loved one. I was later told I’d done well and to my surprise I’d yacked for almost ten minutes up there.
I’ll leave my story here. As I’m sure you suspect, I’m not telling you this simply for the sake of fondly reminiscing the good ol’ days. Even now I can barely handle public speaking. The phobia hasn’t diminished, and the symptoms are still there. Nonetheless since that day at the college years ago I have upon occasion addressed groups and crowds and even served as Master of Ceremonies at two weddings. It seems a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it? Well, the only thing that’s changed is that I figured out that I could hide it and get through it. Basically that there some control that I could exert upon the situation.
Then I look at my girls. Are they going to go through life with any psychological hurdles that may prevent them from reaching their goals? A common misconception among adults is that children experience less stress than they do. The opposite is closer to the truth. Things like social stress is experienced acutely by children and our actions toward them will dictate the fears that may or may not manifest later on in their lives. Handle your child’s emotions with care, and watch out for anxious behaviour. Youngest (4) has a complete personality overhaul when she encounters instability or separation from what she knows and/or loves. Eldest (8) is a nervous child by nature, but a brave one nevertheless. It’s difficult to recall what it was like being a child, and though I daresay I forget from time to time to the detriment of my parenting ability, I think that building our children’s confidence needs always be preferred to breaking it.
I know my fear is modest at best when compared to that of other people. In hindsight I see I’m lucky even though it didn’t feel manageable back then. You or others may not be as fortunate as I am, and if not, I hope the best for you. Besides, perhaps you have the ability to manage your fear without knowing it, and isn’t that at least a comforting thought? Some fears can be beaten!