Public Speaking Fear Roadblocks and How to Get Past Them
Do you put up public speaking fear roadblocks? Do they stop you from achieving your goals…or one goal in particular? Are you just over it? In today’s post I’ll discuss some common types of fear, and three ways to get past your own fear roadblock and improve your public speaking.
Comfort Zones. Fear shrinks the boundaries of our comfort zone, as we try to control our environment and keep ourself safe.
Comfort zones are designed to be temporary, and their boundaries flexible….when we grow as people, as we’re designed to do, we naturally extend these boundaries. Fear, however, shrinks the boundaries and makes them rigid…and unfortunately we have a highly developed signal when we move out of our comfort zone, telling us “Stop! Danger!” Danger to our physical self, or our ego, our social self – our reputation.
So much public speaking fear comes down to anxiety about our reputation, doesn’t it? When this fear hit happens – even if it’s small – we either avoid the fear trigger, or we potentially sabotage ourselves so that sure enough, we stuff up what we’re trying to improve.
Categorising your fears
Identifying your speaking fear, putting it into a category…working out if your current fear is being triggered by something from your past – particularly your childhood – this can be really helpful, although it’s certainly not essential to move ahead. The reason why it can be helpful is that if you realise you’re being triggered by your past, you’re more likely to be able to separate it from the current situation.
To give you an example: if you’re afraid of confrontation as you put yourself in the speaking “spotlight”, it can be useful to connect to this with past events or your childhood where confrontation was either around a lot in your world, or wasn’t allowed, and everyone suppressed their anger and strong emotions. Experiencing a lot of confrontation when you were young, or having a family who avoided it, means that you’re going to have a stronger reaction to that trigger nowadays, you’re not going to feel safe. So you avoid it. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Just knowing this can be helpful and allow you to separate from your past. Yes, confrontation caused you big problems in the past…but it’s in the past, and you can look with clearer eyes at the situations you’re facing now, and act with new insight and power. That’s the plan, anyway!
And considering that you’re reading this blog post because you want to improve your skills, understanding your fear and putting it into a ‘category’ can also give you new understanding and energy to move forwards. You can begin to see it as a challenge to be taken on and dealt with, not a threat to be avoided.
Some of the different fears
You’ll be aware of some of the different general fears that we all have; anything from fear of:
not getting your own way
not being special
a sense of loss of control
Right down to the deeper fears such as abandonment, rejection confrontation, intimacy: all the big ones!
Three core categories
We could boil all these fears down into three core categories:
1. Acceptance – If I look incompetent or make mistakes, people – or a particular person – won’t like/respect me any more
2. Achievement – incompetence and mistakes mean weakness. I must be successful at everything I try or I’ll look pathetic and useless
3. Control – If I make mistakes or seem incompetent, I’ve lost control and that basically means I’ve failed
Here’s a scale for you: Otto Rank, a psychologist from early last century, believed that humans have an ongoing tension between two poles:
1. The urge to grow and fulfil our potential
2. The urge to retreat from the fear and vulnerability we feel when we do expand and step up
safety/retreat | ____________________| growth/potential
Otto Rank thought that people move back and forward between these two poles for their whole lives.… and we can choose in the moment, if we’re fundamentally psychologically healthy, to put ourselves deliberately on the growth and potential side. If you’re afraid, but want or need to move anyway, these three steps coming up are your key to achieving what you want.
1. Soothe your system
Physically and emotionally you may need to regroup and make yourself feel more safe – to take yourself to the left side of the scale temporarily. Breath…stretch and move your body…. go outside into nature if that works for you…find a safe mental or real-life environment or place where you feel secure, cared for – and focus on that. You’ll know what makes you feel safe, protected, contained…you may prefer to be alone, or with someone who cares about you.
2. Redirect your thoughts
Your goal now is to move up the scale! To move your state away from safety and retreat, and towards challenge and opportunity. And this means pushing yourself deliberately to redirect your fearful, negative thoughts towards a focus on something positive. To encourage yourself, like you would a small child or a pet who’s doing something right. This sounds simple but of course it’s not always easy. It won’t happen automatically, that’s for sure – so you need to be deliberate about monitoring your self-talk.
Before you head for positive territory, it can be helpful first to listen briefly to your fearful thoughts and what they’re telling you. This is useful because we can’t change what we’re not aware of. If you’re willing to, make a list of the fearful thoughts that you’re telling yourself about achieving this goal.
Now, you’re ready to shift away from the ‘safety and retreat’ end of the scale, and move higher on the growth and challenge side.
Breathe and picture a positive vision. Ask yourself “what’s possible?”. This can be vague or super-clear…it depends on your processing style. It doesn’t have to be huge, and it doesn’t have to come attached with a comprehensively detailed, mega plan! If the thought of creating a big vision is overwhelming (for a lot of people with fear roadblocks, it is!) – you don’t need it at this point.
If you have one, great, run with it…but if it makes you feel safer to think about something manageable, try this: How would next week look if things are going well for you with your presentations? Or even closer: What does tomorrow look like when things are working better?
If you do prefer to start with a smaller vision, Don’t worry that you’re not aiming high enough. You’ll naturally keep moving towards what you want if you start. That’s how people achieve big things, and your vision will naturally grow as you do. This is really important: if you get easily overwhelmed and think “that’s so out of my reach I can’t even get started!” then the goal’s too big. Find something you can believe in achieving, even if it’s only a flicker of belief, and then…it’s time for step three.
3. Take Action
Fear only disappears when you do what you’re afraid of. Think about an area of life, or a skill you feel competent at. Usually if you look back, there was a time when you weren’t confident at all about that skill – and so you learned the steps, or practised, or asked for help. And you improved. Everything from learning how to ride a bike, use the photocopier at work, drive a car, play a musical instrument …to a sport you’ve mastered. Everything you’ve taken action on – even if you went backwards or made mistakes at times: if you persisted, you changed how you felt, and built your confidence as a result.
Many things have become automatic – you don’t even have to think about them now. The power of taking action is huge.
Every step you take – even the smallest one – carries you forward and changes you. Take a step – you change. In fact I nearly always recommend small steps. There’s a great example of this in Robert Maurer’s book “One Small step can Change your Life”. Maurer is Director of Behavioural Sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, and in his book he tells the story of a single mother who was depressed, overweight and exhausted…but needed to begin exercising for her health. He asked her to march on the spot for one minute each night while she watched TV. Just one minute! It worked.
The woman could achieve this partly because such a small action bypasses the fear response, and gets you unstuck. She then came back to the School of medicine to ask for more, had a minute-by-minute program created for her, and ended up in full aerobics workouts with no mental resistance. Yes, this was the 1980’s if you can remember back that far!
That’s the power of small external action taking.
You’ll need a structure, and a system to monitor your action steps too. And by the way, reward yourself on the process, not the outcome. You can’t control the outcome of your action step, but you can control the reality of doing the step.
To wrap up – we’ve looked at public speaking fear roadblocks and how to get past them, through soothing your system, redirecting your thoughts, and taking action. Best wishes with your public speaking!