I have always struggled with anxiety about public speaking, and my career path requires me to do a lot of public speaking. With practice and preparation, I’m usually a pretty good public speaker despite my anxiety, so I’ve been told. However, there was once a time when my worst public speaking fear came true. I completely BOMBED a speech I was giving about the topic of anxiety (ironically!). When I say “BOMBED,” I truly mean “BOMBED.” I mean, I completely froze, as if I was suddenly struck by paralysis of the brain and body, and I did not recover well. I could go into all of the reasons and factors that led to this… e.g., It was a particularly stressful season of my life, I was in the pinnacle of graduate school, working 70 hours per week and getting little sleep and self-care, and I decided to “wing it” this time instead of preparing like usual…, but this still does not change what happened that day. Afterward, I went into a shame storm that lasted weeks if not months. I can still remember how that moment would replay over and over in my mind like a broken video cassette tape from the 90’s. It still makes me cringe to think about it.
These are the moments that we truly and deeply fear, though they may be tied to different underlying triggers or issues (e.g., rejection, abandonment, death, trauma). Mine is tied to my life-long desire to please people- Yes. I am a recovering people pleaser, but that is a story for another day…
The fear of failing ourselves and others in these arenas is incredibly strong and powerful…, and it fuels anxiety. We commonly manage it by using the “Avoidance is the Best Policy” approach… If I avoid it, then I’ll never fail at it! It makes sense, right? The problem is that the potential for failure is pervasive in everything we do. There’s always a chance you could fail. There’s always a chance that your worst fear could come true. Even if you tried to spend your life in a cardboard box to avoid failure, you could still find something to fear and fail at. Maybe you’re afraid you’re too big to fit into that box. Maybe you’re afraid you can’t be complacent enough in that box… Avoiding failure is setting yourself up to fail!
This is because, by avoiding failure, we fail ourselves for not trying. It is better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all…
Do you know what is great about the “failed” speech experience I had? I literally could not ever give a worse speech than that! My worst public speaking fear came true, AND I know that I can handle it and come back from it. I know this because I did handle it, even though it was painful, and I did come back from it. It took me some time to muster up the courage to speak again, but I eventually did, and I have given many successful speeches since then.
I’m not encouraging you to intentionally fail at things, but I am encouraging you not to allow the fear of failure to become a barrier for living a life that you value. I promise that failure is not the worst outcome. Plus, trying to avoid failure makes anxiety stronger.
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention, that when we face the potential to fail, we grow and learn what we are truly made of. We do not grow in our comfort zones.
If you are feeling anxious, it is not a sign that you are weak and inadequate. It is a sign that you are challenging yourself to grow and become the person you were meant to be.
Have courage and kind wishes!
Tannah E. Chase, Ph.D.
The Anxiety Counseling Clinic, P.L.L.C.