I’m here today to tell you that miracles do happen. The specific miracle of which I speak is that I, poster-child for social ineptitude and esteem-crippling self-consciousness, have been able to speak to rooms crammed with over a hundred people, without throwing up.
This miracle did not happen over night. My ability to survive the horror is due to a lot of mental tricks I’ve learned over the years that convince my body I am not about to die. For you see, I’ve been cursed with a physiological response that is out of my control. My body appears to equate speaking in public with being stripped naked, slathered with barbeque sauce and tossed into a cave of ravenous wolves.
For most of my life, when faced with reading something I’d written out loud to more than one person, my heart would start to pound, I mean, really pound, like I was about to have a heart attack. Then the dreaded quavering of the voice kicked in, because I’d forget to breathe. Then, if any speaking off the text was involved, my brain froze and I couldn’t remember the title of my book if my life depended on it. So this is the challenge I’ve faced. Common sense would dictate that I Just Don’t Do It. Simple, right?
Not when you’re in a business where getting up and reading in front of a crowd is part of Marketing 101, where you’ve got to talk to agents and editors face to face like a grown up, where being on panels and leading workshops is a key way to promote your work and sometimes even make a living. I’m not in that category yet, but I could be, and so from that horrid day when I first met with New York editors at a conference to this year as I prepare to tell my recovery story to a room full of strangers, yet again, I’ve knuckled down and faced my fear. So I thought I’d pass along the things that have helped me do this.
The first trick seems to be the key to just about everything. Check out any new age self help blog and you’ll see this simple advice: Breathe. It’s so ridiculously simple and yet we do forget, don’t we? Try to remember, if you suffocate and die, your larger goals will forever elude you.
The next trick is harder, and that is to Get Over Myself. I’m the center of no one’s universe but my own. While my stumbling over words on the podium might live forever in my memory in hideously florid detail, the audience will forget it in two seconds, if they happened to notice in the first place. This trick can be summed up as Don’t Take Yourself So Damn Seriously. People don’t expect perfection, and can relate to you better if you’re not perfect. Flubs and stumbles are to be expected and most folks will root for you if you seem nervous. Extroverts think it’s cute. So, if you can’t channel your inner Ricardo Montablan and be all smooth and sophisticated, go for the pity angle. The last time I talked in front of a large group, I actually told them about my brain freeze issue when I started so they wouldn’t panic if it happened. It did. A few moments of silence is okay. Really. It’s okay to think, and if you can manage to appear thoughtful and not terror-stricken during those moments, all the better.
The third trick might not work for everyone. It requires belief in a higher power. This need not be a god, but maybe a totem, a spiritual guide, The Force, Tao, The Beneficent Flow of the Universe, or whatever. Basically you’ve got this all-powerful best buddy who’s looking out for you, right? So, when preparing to speak or meet with Important Peoples, hand over the entire experience to your higher power of choice. Call upon this sympathetic being and invite them to take the opportunity to channel their wisdom through you. This is called Passing The Buck, because whatever disaster strikes up there, you can now blame it entirely on your higher power, who is big and benevolent and can handle it much better than you can.
Okay, so it’s all mind games. Mind games and breathing. Here’s a checklist if you find yourself agonizing or panicking or packing your bags for Patagonia.
* Focus on how happy you’ll be when it’s over
* Believe that people are rooting for you
* Know that you will be happier and stronger for having faced your fear and that it does get easier.
* Understand that you will not die up there (unless a meteor crashes through the roof and kills you, which you might actually be wishing for, but let’s keep it real, shall we?)
* Let your Higher Power know that whatever happens is all their fault.
* Seize the day. You’re doing this to yourself because you want something, right? You want the world to know you’ve written a book? Concentrate on that.
* Laugh at yourself. Not in a derisive way, but in an Isn’t This a Grand Adventure way. Life is whacky. Embrace the whack.
* Read articles about drooling goobers like myself who have overcome and know that there’s no way you’re more messed up than the rest of us. We are strong. We are powerful. We are the nerds! Get snooty about being an introvert.
As you might have guessed, I was inspired to write this because I have a speaking engagement looming on the near horizon. The creeping dread has started to poke at the corners of my mind, but now I am able to counteract it with the undeniable miracle of my survival, and dare I say, growth, through many of these Horrors. Here’s hoping we can all face our challenges, if not exactly with confidence, than at least with humor and zest for this adventure called life.