This week I sat and watched a number of people being evaluated on their presentation skills. And occasionally, my heart broke for a few people who not comfortable with public speaking, become stiff and paralyzed with fear as they spoke. You could tell there was an aspect of life or death threat in the experience – or at least a perception of life or death in the experience.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what exactly makes us afraid as individuals and why this is so highly unique for all of us. I’ve been thinking about this because lately I’ve noticed a sense of this life or death type panic within myself related to experiences that simply don’t warrant such a reaction – and yet they do. For me, it isn’t public speaking that causes dread. On the contrary, I’m one of those odd balls that thrives on public speaking and pines for a microphone and platform. But I’ve noticed as my schedule gets amped up being in graduate school while working, every now and then I experience this sense of threat – what if I don’t get everything done and if I don’t get things done perfectly? Will I die?
Now what is this? I am not a perfectionist. I am okay with things not always being the best. So why this intense fear? It’s quite bizarre actually and makes me think there is some residual thing from childhood rearing its head. I think it has to do with the fact that one of my classes (Greek) takes me totally outside my knowledge comfort zone. Like math, it’s something that you can’t really bullshit about and it’s not a natural skill for me. And so it brings in a level of insecurity that I don’t typically experience. And that insecurity = a feeling of life or death. There is also a ton of information and I feel like if I don’t learn EVERYTHING (every vocabulary word; every verb ending, etc), I’m going to go to the guillotine.
So you’re probably thinking I was raised in a pressure cooker household where my parents demanded academic excellence and hovered over my every test. Wrong. While it’s true I come from a family of academics, in my house learning stemmed from a genuine love of knowledge. No one pushed me into anything. I loved to learn and my parents were actually pretty hands off. And with the exception of math, learning came pretty organically. Nonetheless, somewhere my little mind construed that doing well brought love and attention – or at least mastery and control – whereas not knowing something like in math (or Greek), flirted with the unknown, being out of control, helpless and — in danger.
Trying to get to the root of this distortion is pointless. All that matters now is that I learn how to calm my nervous system so that I can get through Greek (and other classes while working) without the degree of stress I’m putting myself through. Yes, a little stress is good. It keeps us moving. It got me a tutor and an A- in Greek last quarter. But I must also learn to reassure myself that I am safe. It’s fine not to know everything. Nothing catastrophic is going to happen if I don’t. In fact, we learn best through our mistakes and when we’re relaxed. Plus, the chances of anyone learning an entire language in such a condensed amount of time is impossible. It’s just too much information. The important thing is that through the process, a chunk of the material actually sinks in. Learning does happen and is happening.
Because we all have these vulnerabilities in life – related to performance – to approval – to love – we must always be tender not only with those we instruct but also with ourselves. Watching colleagues stammer and look like deers caught in the headlights and helping a friend with some writing this week made me realize we all have our own weird histories related to showing up and being received. May we never stop having the courage to keep stepping out and taking it up a notch because fear also equals energy. Growth. And life.