Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.
I’m afraid of heights and especially hate roller coasters. So, of course, what did my godson Finn want for his birthday? He wanted me to take him to Magic Mountain! Last week I made good on my promise.
I told Finn he could pick the rides we went on. When I got strapped into a ride I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I was determined to keep my fear in check, but when the ride rocketed, I just screamed my head off.
After each ride I felt like vomiting, yet I also felt satisfied. I hadn’t let fear win out. More than roller-coasters, I hate being afraid. I don’t want to be controlled by fear.
This summer I taught a course at UCLA Extension on “breaking through” the fear of public speaking. Of all the communication skills I teach, public speaking is my favorite.
I think it’s because I was painfully shy in high school.
I headed off to college determined to vanquish my shyness. Intuitively, I knew my shyness went deeper than not wanting to speak. It was about my fear of people. I didn’t think people would like me, that they’d find me boring and judge me.
I joined the college’s radio station and landed my own interview show. Quickly, I learned how to talk to people. It was simple – all I had to do was show them that I was interested in what they had to say! And in turn, they showed an interest in me.
My skill and my confidence soared.
While I’ve not discovered a “secret” formula for overcoming fear, what I have learned is that fear is fueled by clinging to a lie – a lie that seems so true that to deny it seems to be a lie in itself.
I see this in many of my communication coaching clients.
Kathryn, who is from Hungary, was one of the students in this summer’s Extension class. She sat cross-armed, scowling through the first half of the course. Eventually, her arms opened and she smiled.
For her first presentation, she told an odd story that had the class laughing. Yes, she was obviously nervous, but that energy didn’t derail her tale. The class gave her honest, encouraging feedback. Her accent didn’t distract them; her nerves didn’t distract them. She surprised them and they wanted more from her.
When I asked if she believed the feedback, she said she didn’t because she knew the presentation wasn’t very good and that she’s not a good speaker. She smiled saying this!
She clutched this lie because she was too comfortable believing it.
How can a person stop believing a crippling lie?
Here’s some of what I wrote in an email to Kathryn.
We only grow by building on our strengths.
In order to build on those strengths, we have to know what they are AND we have to know why we have those strengths.
If we don’t understand what we’re good at, then we can’t grow.
Oftentimes people resist taking a hard look at their strengths because it’s more comfortable believing that we suck at something. Being helpless can be consoling in an odd sort of way.
I think, Kathryn, you’re so used to beating up on yourself that it just seems ‘natural.’ I think you have a hard time accepting compliments because you don’t see much point in dwelling on what you do well.
Well, no one ever becomes great at something by focusing solely and intently on mistakes. It doesn’t work that way.
You gave a presentation, without being glued to notes, in a way that connected with an international audience. You made people laugh. That’s a significant accomplishment.
If you choose to downplay the importance of what you did, then you’re sabotaging yourself.
You need to understand what you do well, what you don’t, and why. I think you only want to understand what doesn’t work and you want to ignore what does work.
You have to believe you’re worthy of people’s attention. If you don’t believe you have anything worthwhile to say then that will come across and people will tune you out.
It’s really up to you: are you going to own your strengths and work on your weaknesses OR are you going to continue to dismiss any progress you’ve made and focus solely on your belief that you will always be a lousy speaker?
Only you, Kathryn, can choose your attitude!”
Kathryn is not an isolated case of someone refusing to acknowledge progress towards a goal. Odd as it sounds, it takes courage to recognize growth.
True confidence means owning one’s strengths and acknowledging one’s weaknesses – and using both to reach a goal.
What about you – what comfortable lie are you clinging to?!
Do you want to break through the lies that are preventing you from being influential and heard?
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