Online sessions now available.Kristian S. Nibe - clinical psychologist and ISTDP practitioner.
Fear of public speaking.
A study found that the greatest fear of most people is the fear of public speaking. In second place came the fear of dying. If one is to take this literally, it means that people would rather be the one in the casket than the one delivering the funeral oration.
The anxiety symptoms during fear of public speaking differ from person to person and changes based on how and with what intensity the anxiety is channeled in the body.
Many people state that the onset of anxiety comes without any apparent reason. They claim to not be afraid or worried, but they’re still unable to explain why the body reacts with anxiety and panic when they speak in public.
So what exactly is it about speaking in public that terrifies so many? Is it the fear of an audience that has its eyes on you? Is it the worry that one will deliver a speech that no one likes? Is it the worry that one will become nervous and that others will see the anxiety and think less of that person? Or is it because of the worry that one won’t be able to control oneself and end up in a panic attack and risk public humiliation?
None of the above hypotheses are the real cause of the anxiety, even though most people that fear their anxiety believe that it must be. Anxiety does not appear out of nothing, nor from our worries. Anxiety is an automatic response from a part of our brain that tenses the body due to unconscious feelings that a part of the unconscious wants to keep out of awareness. In other words, anxiety is trying to cover up our real feelings (i.e. happiness, anger, sadness, guilt, love, disgust).
So, what kinds of feelings are present during public speaking?
That is the million dollar question in this context. “But I’m just going to say my name and where I’m from, I’m not going to share any feelings.” is a common objection.
Speaking in public does not have to be a feared event, it can in many circumstances be a source of enjoyment and energy. It can bring fulfillment by giving an opportunity to express ourselves, share knowledge, experiences, enthusiasm, humor, intelligence, what we like and don’t like, and communicate things that make us angry, sad, or happy. All these actions involve sharing feelings.
Some people grow up in an environment that appreciates and encourages expressive and spontaneous behavior. They grow up in a home where story-telling, interest from parents, and encouragement to explore ideas and to express themselves creatively are a central part of the family culture. Also they are encouraged to take the time they need to express themselves, and their unique individual form of expression is also tolerated without interference or corrections from their parents.
Others come from homes where the parents don’t show sufficient interest in them, or they experience that when they share a story they’ll either be corrected or they’ll receive unsolicited advice on how they could have done things better. Often their parents will highlight what is wrong and not well thought through, and they’ll be ridiculed or made self-conscious for their enthusiasm, happiness, sense of humor, and intelligence.
In a home where criticalness and attempts to make the child self-conscious regarding story-telling and the joy of self-expression has dominated the family environment, leads to a young child that is determined to avoid ridicule and “making mistakes” in order to avoid shame. The child will also start to project that other people always will be critical whenever they attempt to spontaneously express themselves. These defense mechanisms continue into adult life.
Inside every human being exists a driving force that wants to express itself spontaneously and freely. We all want to be fully accepted as the unique individual that we are, and that is why we also want to be able to express ourselves just how our spontaneity allows us to express ourselves without being ridiculed or criticized. Being ridiculed or humiliated for the way he expresses itself makes the child believe he is stupid or that the things he is saying is either wrong or not interesting, and soon the child will begin to feel guilty for being the way that he is.
The emotional brain completes its development when we’re approximately 9 years old. It will then base emotional experiences in adult life on how well various feelings were accepted in childhood before age 9. In a millisecond the emotional brain draws conclusions in adult life based on emotional experiences that happened, sometimes, decades ago.
That is why an apparently trivial act such as saying ones name in public may trigger intense feelings and anxiety. These feelings may be:
* Happiness – from ones enthusiasm and joy of story-telling. The innate joy that arises of being free to express oneself spontaneously and be loved by others.
* Sadness – from the realization that people one wants to share experiences with do not reciprocate with love and acceptance.
* Anger – towards those whom one wants to share experiences with that respond with criticalness and negativity. Anger gets triggered towards people who act indifferent when one tries to relate to them.
* Guilt – both guilt over ones own anger towards those one wants acceptance and love from, and guilt from agreeing with critical people that communicates that one isn’t worth listening to and not worth being fully accepted for who one is.
Not everyone needs to reprogram the brain over the course of a lengthy therapeutic process in order to become comfortable with these feelings again. Many often experience drastic change for the better after just a few therapy sessions where they get to learn how the brain works, what anxiety is and how they can regulate it, and how they can develop their own spontaneity and express themselves with strength and confidence.
Some have a very unrealistic view of what it takes to overcome this anxiety. They only want a technique or a few tips so that they’ll no longer become anxious in public speaking situations without understanding that the unconscious brain stores far more complex and mixed feelings relating to themes such as accept, love, spontaneity, and close relationships that one needs to become aware of and get to know and feel before anxiety is finally overcome. This process may in some instances take a good amount of time depending on the level of resistance, the intensity of the anxiety, and the type and intensity of defense mechanisms.
Underlying assumptions that maintain the anxiety.
Maybe the most common defense mechanism that maintain anxiety is projection. Every time you think that no one will find what you have to say interesting, that others will think you are weird, or you think that others will react negatively if they see that you are nervous, then you are projecting. That is, you are attributing character traits onto people that they don’t necessarily have and you’re trying to predict the future. Projection judges other people in advance, and triggers feelings inside you that you could have been spared for had you been aware of your projection and therefore been able to avoid doing it.
Projections are most often negative, and they attribute character traits onto others that paint them as critical and unfriendly people. But since you in advance can’t know if a specific individual will behave unfriendly or friendly, the conclusion that you draw in advance is based on previous experiences with other people (or that specific person). This is a tendency that started early in life when relating to parents and other attachment figures. If you’re able to observe your own thinking you will notice when you’re projecting, and if you are able to let that go and deal with people as they are in that moment you will notice that your tension level drops and you will become calmer.
The thought that we are about to perform and be evaluated sustains the anxiety. This assumption is based on how we view ourselves, others, and the world. The point is to develop a mindset where you express yourself in order to entertain yourself and speak your own truth, and not to speak because you want to achieve a desired result or get a certain reaction from the audience. It may be that we look at the world as a hostile place, a place where everyone is in competition with each other, that we treat ourselves with too high expectations and perfectionism, or that we believe that others are reveling in others failures and mistakes. These assumptions are possible to reevaluate in order to make them more constructive and optimistic. To be able to separate between actual observations of what is going on in the world in the present moment versus our own mind-reading and assumptions of what others are thinking is important in order to lessen ones own self-consciousness.
A lot of people claim that it is their anxiety about the anxiety that makes them anxious. But anxiety about anxiety is nothing more than a worry one buys into as if it were a given fact. A worry is nothing but a hypothetical thought that nourishes a worst-case scenario that doesn’t yet exist. If you cultivate a catastrophe in your thoughts this will not make you safer, it will only make you more afraid.
By dealing with problems when they actually exist rather than making them up in your mind in advance you will calm down and not trigger anxiety or fear that are based on illusions and worrying. Speaking in public is not dangerous, you are not in imminent danger or threatened physically. A public speech or a presentation may actually be a pleasant experience where you are given the possibility to express yourself freely and to have fun being spontaneous.
Doubt regarding ones own spontaneity is also something that sustains the anxiety. Our thoughts and internal self-talk is something that happens spontaneously and automatic, but when we doubt if this ability actually exist we start repeating to ourselves: “What am I going to say”, and then we start planning in advance how to formulate and articulate ourselves because we wish to control what we say so that we won’t say anything “wrong or stupid” and be humiliated and lose face in the situation. However, this need for control and doubt about ones spontaneity only makes one more afraid and hesitant.
Another assumption that maintains the anxiety is that one must try to hide anxiety, nervousness, or feelings from others. Many people in essence wants to be like a robot that says only the perfect things in a perfect way while they are completely calm and emotionless, but this is not possible. Don’t try to hide that you are nervous or are having other feelings and you will notice that you’ll calm down significantly.
Another worry that maintains the anxiety is that what we have to say is not going to have any value to other people. The worry is that we take from others more than we give to them. For example it is common to think that one is stealing valuable time from others, repeat what others have said, only state obvious or superficial things, or make others bored or think that we are uninteresting as people. This worry is based on an underlying assumption that we are responsible for other peoples level of interest in others. This is a faulty assumption since other people are responsible for their own level of interest, attention, compassion, and desire to learn from others. A shift in perception away from seeing oneself as one that takes energy, steals time from others, and bores others, towards a view of self as one that gives value and motivates and inspires and contributes with new knowledge or a pleasant vibe is an attainable goal.
Practice (in the right way) makes perfect.
No one is born as the perfect public speaker or story teller. Most great speakers and presenters can tell you that much hard work and practice is required before speaking or presenting something that seems to flow effortlessly. Even one of the worlds greatest speakers and entertainers, the comedian Steve Martin, confesses that he practices every speech out loud at least 20 times before presenting it. The worlds best public speaker practices out loud 20 times before presenting a speech!
Even some of the top actors and presenters admit that the butterflies they feel in the stomach before going on stage is something that never completely goes away. This is a fact that needs to be understood. No matter how well you rehearse and prepare for a presentation there will always be a feeling in the body present. It is possible to re-contextualize this feeling as something positive rather than something exclusively negative. To regard the butterflies in the stomach as your emerging spontaneity or as the joy of self-expression that tries to break lose, makes it so that one doesn’t fear the bodily sensations, but rather that one accepts them and asks for more of them so that this bodily activation can take the form of enthusiasm, feeling, and humor instead.
A big part of the process of overcoming the fear of public speaking is to re-contextualize the anxiety so that what is interpreted as fear and discomfort today may be interpreted as expectation, excitement, enthusiasm, and energy tomorrow. This is a realistic goal to accomplish through self-discipline, motivation, and continuous effort and rehearsal.
By getting help and guidance along the way by a professional this becomes easier than trying to do the whole process alone by yourself.
Remember that practice makes perfect, but to practice on the right things in the right way is a prerequisite for that to happen. The better you know your subject matter and the more you have prepared the less nervous and worried you will be. A great exercise is to record your presentation on tape or video. By doing that you can later analyze your own body language, eye contact, and how you use your voice. Look for gestures, wiggling, and mumbling that you can work on removing from your presentation. Several places, such as universities and offices, have auditoriums that you can use as rehearsal locations. By practicing presenting in front of an empty conference room you accustom yourself to the feelings that arises by standing on a stage. Get friends to observe your presentation and give them permission to give you honest and constructive feedback.
It also helps to remind yourself that most audiences are very forgiving. They don’t care if you for a minute should mess it up and forget what you were going to say, if you have to look at your script, if you become slightly nervous, and they don’t expect you to be entertaining and humorous. If you’re able to accept every blunder with ease and keep your focus on what it is that you want to express, then you’ll see great improvement in your fear of public speaking.
Online consultations available.
Use the contact form below for any inquiries. Please state briefly the nature of your problem, when and how you are available, and how you prefer to conduct payment (Credit Card or PayPal).
Consultations are available for either 45 minutes or 90 minutes, and are conducted by video either through Skype or appear.in. Alternatively I also offer sessions through chat/e-mail.
The price per 45 minute consultation is 160 Euro. The price for a 90 minute consultation is 300 Euro.