Why we lie to ourselves when we speak in public or how to manage fear of public speaking.
Who has not been there, your heart is thumping, your palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, there is vomit on the sweater already mom’s spaghetti. These feelings are so famous they made it into a song but why do we feel like that and why is anxiety a part of public speaking?
The answer could be found deep in your animal nature, better said in your limbic system where your emotions are at home. The limbic system is the unthinking part of your brain that handles all unconscious emotions and actions and is governed by memory and learned behavior patterns. It also handles your opportunity risk strategy more commonly known as fight or flight mode.
Let me give you a public speaking anxiety example. Susie an ex-public speaking client of mine came and saw me for her public speaking anxiety. As we explored her past experiences with public speaking she shared with me that, when she was 12 she was called up to the front of the class to give a presentation on the book they had read.
Susie had read the whole book but started to get very anxious as she walked to the front of the classroom. Standing alone, all eyes on her the silence became deafening and the teacher began pressing her to start sharing her book report and Susie uhm’d and ahr’d her way through the presentation, her anxiety turning into panic inside her as she began to get dizzy. The kids began to giggle and turn to each other and whisper which made Susie even more anxious.
After a few minutes into the presentation she could not bring herself to speak another word and in tears she ran back to her seat and sat down, feeling embarrassed and humiliated. That was the last time Susie ever spoke in public until her new job required her to publicly speak.
Now, let’s take a look at what happened on that faithful day inside Susie’s mind. The limbic system stores every experience you ever had and forms behavior patterns that help you to avoid difficult situation in the future because that is its job since millions of years.
We emotionally react before we consciously are able to form a thought about what just happened. Think of the last time you reacted in traffic to some incident. First you acted then you cursed… right?
That is your limbic system in action it responds to emotional stimuli and brings an emotion about in the body that causes us act unconsciously.
Now, how does public speaking feel to you? My guess is that public speaking feels a little scary, maybe intimidating like you feel exposed and vulnerable. A million years ago these emotions would have signaled a scenario where your life is under threat. And that is what the body thinks when you go to do public speaking today.
In Susie’s case the fear of public speaking was compounded by her learned experience of embarrassment and humiliation in public speaking and that added to her dread and anxiety.
Now think about it… what happened for you when you decided that public speaking is not for you? What story did you tell yourself? How did you build leverage on the primal protection mechanism to get you out of public speaking?
This is where the root for anxiety in public speaking sits. Yes Public speaking feels very wrong from a primal standpoint but what is the story that you added to it? And how is helping you to avoid public speaking?
See, several milliseconds after Susie made the emotional decision to sit down or to withdraw her brain processed the feeling and send the information to the frontal cortex. Now the frontal cortex is the logical part of your brain, the thinking, talking and calculating part. But sadly your frontal cortex has very little decision making or leadership power if any, especially if you are unaware of the way you create meaning.
The frontal cortex is more like your spokesperson. The last department to know what you have decided but the first one to have to explain it and make sense and that is a shit job at best of times since all the information is relative to your mental filters, something we address in depth when we coach neuro-linguistic programming in our courses.
Susie’s mental filters interpreted the felt exposure and kids whispering and giggling as a confirmation of her feeling of failure, and that is the story Susie told herself for 24 years until she came and saw me.
What we found, what we always find, is that reality as it is right now is simply reality as it is right now. Not what you thought it was or what you think it is going to be but just present moment awareness of body signals, thought quality and external environment.
And that, in public speaking is the primal brain telling you that you are in danger. Which feeling wise that is correct, public speaking feels exposed and threatening but it also can be exciting and thrilling and and adventurous at times.
Moral of the story is, be careful what you subjectively tell yourself in certain highly emotional charged situations. Your frontal cortex is not interested in getting the story right, it is interested in justifying your emotion and actions. I’m sure you have enough examples in your own life when you just told yourself things without really thinking about it, and you believed yourself.
The limbic system is only interested in keeping you alive and will drive the body into action by any means necessary if your survival seems threatened. If you aren’t mindful about what’s alive in you and the reality you create in your mind it might just cost you more than just a job, it might cost you your sanity.
So here’s a tip until you come to our courses, remain presently aware when you speak in public and don’t let your primal fail-safe become your undoing but be body aware and mindful in your thoughts. Breathe…