Whenever we’re trying to do something new, something for the first time, we feel an excitement, but also fear. What if we mess up? What if make a fool of ourselves in front of others? And if we do put ourselves out there, some of these fears may come true.
In her wise and helpful book, “The Dance of Fear,” Harriet Lerner shares how her anxieties and fears about speaking in public came true one day.
As I strode out before the audience and placed a copy of my speech on the podium, I failed to notice that this particular lectern lacked the conventional ledge for holding papers. The pages of my speech cascaded to the floor. This incident might have been relegated to the category of minor embarrassment had it not been for the fact that I had not bothered to number the pages. Unlike my Seattle speech, this was a brand-new presentation and I wasn’t familiar with its flow and structure. “Just a minute,” I said brightly, then spent the next five shuffling papers and trying to control my panic. At last I was ready to begin.
Ten minutes into the speech, I broke the expensive laser pointer that I had borrowed from my hosts. Keeping my sense of humor about it became difficult when, a few minutes later, the left shoulder pad of my silk jacket somehow lost its moorings and came to rest up against my neck. “Breathe,” I sternly ordered myself, but by now I was beyond the reach of oxygen therapy. I finished my talk in a stew of embarrassment and wondered if I should drastically lower my fee for future (if any) speaking engagements. But my trials were not over. During the question-and-answer period, I was forced to respond, “I don’t know,” several times. “Some expert,” I berated myself.
What do you think happened after the talk? Harriet of course was mortified and wanted to remove herself from the situation as soon as she could. But…
…I saw to my surprise that a small crowd of women had gathered around the lectern. They were smiling at me. “Thank you,” said one, reaching out her hand to shake mine. “It was wonderful to see you being so real.” A younger woman, a psychology graduate student, chimed in. “I’ve always been afraid to speak in public,” she confessed. “Now I feel, if you can do it, I can do it!” Others spoke of the palpable connection they felt with me during my talk, a sense of being in the presence of someone they already knew and understood. Being approached by members of an audience following a speech wasn’t a new experience for me. What was new, however, was the level of vitality and connectedness I felt flowing toward me that evening. I looked around at the open, loving faces surrounding me and felt my embarrassment melting away.
We’re comfortable sharing our competence, but shy away from sharing our vulnerabilities. Maybe we’ve been raised to believe that anything less than perfect is not good enough. Maybe that’s a bar we’ve set for ourselves. Whatever the source, it’s important to remember that the fear of being anything less than perfect limits us. On the other hand, putting ourselves out there, practicing our craft in public makes us human, makes us others connect with us, see us as real.
I wish I had a story like Harriet’s that I could share, but I don’t. And I realize now that this means that I’ve been saying “No” because I wasn’t perfectly prepared to do something, when I should have been saying “Yes” and figuring it out along the way.
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