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Fear and trembling and an audience

Posted Jul 30 2008 9:15pm

publicspeakingSpeaking in front of an audience is reportedly more fearsome than death. It doesn’t have to be a crowd - simply another person.

And an audience of any size can be helpful in encouraging our creative expression and personal development - more so if we can be relaxed and authentic.

In his articleFear of Public Speaking Hardwired, Daniel J. DeNoon (WebMD Health News) notes “Fear of public speaking strikes some people harder — and differently — than others.”

He quotes Paul L. Witt, PhD, assistant professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth: “If speaking in public scares you, you aren’t alone. It is even scarier than rattlesnakes. The idea of making a presentation in public is the No. 1 fear reported by people in the U.S. Anytime people make verbal remarks that need to be clear and persuasive, we find widespread reports of stage fright and nervousness.”

DeNoon points out, “it’s not just making a speech. Anxiety strikes any time we present our ideas in front of other people.”

Anxiety can start early. Actor Kim Basinger relates an experience many of us can empathize with: “As a child, I was very shy. Painfully, excruciatingly shy. I hid a lot in my room. I was so terrified to read out loud in school that I had to have my mother ask my reading teacher not to call on me in class.” - From postIs it a disorder, or just shyness?

Dying of EmbarrassmentIn his articleSocial Anxiety Disorder: Myth or Misery?, Ron Pies, M.D. explains some of the origins of this sort of anxiety, and its potential relation tointroversion/shynessandhigh sensitivity.

“You always hated it when the teacher called on you in class,” Pies writes. “Even now, you get those big, fluttering ‘butterflies’ in your stomach before making a speech. You stay away from parties because you feel a little self-conscious around people. Your mom always described you as ’shy’ and you admit you’re a bit of a ‘wallflower.’

“So do you qualify as having a diagnosable mental disorder? Unless there’s much more to your story, the answer is no.”

He continues with an example of Gina, a patient described by psychologists Barbara and Gregory Markway, in their book,Painfully Shy.

“In school, Gina not only dreaded being called on by the teacher, she would also ‘freeze up’ and literally be unable to speak — a condition termed ’selective mutism.’

“Now, in her adult years, Gina never dates and is so anxious about how her co-workers will judge her, she won’t eat lunch with them. Gina tells Dr. Markway that, ‘I feel like I’m always under the spotlight, as if people are evaluating every word I say, every move I make. Sometimes I feel paralyzed by it. I just know I’m going to do or say something to make other disapprove of me.’

“Does Gina have a psychiatric disorder? Probably so, and it goes by the name of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). Some clinicians refer to this as ‘Social Phobia,’ but others reject this term. They point out that the generalized form of SAD often pervades the sufferer’s life in ways that so-called simple phobias, such as an intense fear of spiders, do not.”

Deanne Repich, the Founder of the National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, explains more about the fear and how to deal with it in her article Making Public Speaking a Breeze:

“When asked why they fear public speaking, most people say that they fear humiliation, embarrassment or judgment from others. In a nutshell, they fear rejection. Why is the fear of humiliation and embarrassment so strong? For most of us the idea of speaking in public triggers childhood memories of embarrassing times when we were made fun of and rejected by other kids in school.

“Picture this: One morning Jimmy decides to wear his new red outfit to school. Jimmy feels on top of the world as he walks to school in the new outfit.  The moment Jimmy reaches the school door a kid from the ‘popular’ group points at Jimmy. He says: ‘Look at Jimmy’s pants! That’s a sissy color. Jimmy’s a sissy! Ha ha!’ The ‘popular’ group laughs. Although Jimmy puts up a good front and laughs it off, on the inside he feels crushed and humiliated.

“Here’s another scene that plays out in countless schools. The teacher asks a question. Magda’s positive she knows the correct answer. She enthusiastically waves her arm, practically jumping out of her seat because she’s so excited. Finally the teacher calls on her.

“Magda gives her brilliant answer — and guess what happens?  The teacher says: ‘No, that’s not the answer I was looking for.’ The room bursts into laughter. Magda shrinks back in her seat, hoping that the further down she slouches, the more invisible she’ll become.

“Each of us has experienced embarrassment and rejection similar to Jimmy and Magda’s. We carry these feelings of rejection with us as baggage when it comes time to give a speech or presentation.”

scaredy catBesides standing out “too much” for knowing more or being able to do more, highly creative and talented people are, according to research on giftedness, often susceptible to perfectionism and unreasonably high standards and expectations that can lead to exaggerated self-criticism, not to mention anxiety.

Lesley Sword, director of Gifted and Creative Services, in Australia, finds that gifted children are “highly self critical and over reactive to the criticism of others. They express dissatisfaction with themselves; they see what ‘ought to be’ in themselves… They have a vision of perfectionism that they measure themselves against and they can become despondent sometimes even depressed, at their perceived failure.” [From my articleBeing Creative and Self-critical.]

One form of that “failure” may be stumbling over some words when giving a presentation, which can lead to self-criticism and shame.

Shame can affect anyone’s self-actualization, but may be especially potent for talented individuals, who often have high sensitivity and other qualities that can support feelings of being an outsider or unworthy.

Shame is connected with one’s identity and sense of acceptance by others, and can disrupt and destabilize esteem and confidence in abilities, leading to a self-diminishing judgment: “If I feel this bad about myself, I must really be inferior.” [More in my articleShame.]

Deanne Repich makes several suggestions in her articleMaking Public Speaking a Breeze, including these:

“Practice singing your speech. When you sing you organize words (left brain activity). You also use musical notes and rhythms (right brain activity)…. Empower your nonverbal communication. Approximately ninety percent of our communication with others is nonverbal. Your presentation begins the moment you walk into a room.”

> Two programs that may be helpful:

Deanne Repich’s Conquer Anxiety Success Program

Conquering Social Anxiety - fromThink Right Now.

The middle image is from the bookDying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia.

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