One of my clients threw a little tantrum the other day. She felt nervous about speaking, and wanted those nerves gone. Immediately.
I think some of us can relate to that, right?
As speakers, it can be frustrating to feel the familiar sensations of fear time and time again, perhaps long after we tell ourselves we should be over it. The racing heart, the shaky legs, the sweaty palms. We want them gone. Banished. So we can get on with the important business of communicating our message. So we can feel free. Growing up, I didn’t know how to process emotions. Here is what I did, Germany style: I bottled them up, or count to ten and waited for the ‘nerve storm’ to subside. I didn’t know then what I do now – that emotions are messages, thoughts delivered from the brain into the body. And that you simply can’t turn that pathway off.
We are hardwired to feel!
When we lived in the wild, with a crazy cannibal tribe over the hill and sabre-toothed creatures looking for dinner, we relied on our emotions. Something as small as an unfamiliar scent could trigger a surge of fear to propel us into action – into fight or flight – and an injection of adrenalin to help us sprint from possible death. Problem is, although we’ve evolved in lots of ways, this primal response is still very much present. When we take the stage to speak it can feel, quite literally, like life or death.
So what’s a speaker to do?
As the old saying goes, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’.
If you truly want to have massive impact on stage, you cannot outwit, reject or deny your feelings. They demand one simple thing: to be accepted, to be felt.
When it comes to fear, emotional intelligence expert and author Raphael Cushnir counsels us to ‘Feel first, think later’:
‘All emotions are valid and need to be felt, in order to receive their message and allow them to depart. The only way to shift from a negative emotional state to a more expansive one is to feel your way through it. No type of willpower or self-talk will ever take the place of simple, straightforward feeling.’
The lifetime of an emotion, if actually felt, is said to be about 90 seconds. Conversely, if bottled up or pushed down, it will linger, grow stronger. And become, ultimately, paralysing.
‘Remember,’ Cushnir says, ‘Feelings that arise in your body stay in your body unless and until you’re willing to feel them.’
This acceptance is not mental or theoretical, it’s a practical skill, executed – just as emotions are – through the body. The butterflies, the sweat, the pounding head, twisted guts and beating heart – these fear-related discomforts must be accepted, welcomed, felt. Then, like a sparkler, they quickly burn themselves out.
Simple, but not easy.
And only then, when we’ve ‘felt first’, can we begin the business of thinking.
Let’s do some of that now.
Think – how do you feel when you go on stage? Nervous? Scared? Anxious? Downright terrified?
Then go a step further:
Does this fear feel familiar? When have you felt it before?
Imagine the body like a filing cabinet. Every time you take to the stage and feel like the bottom dropped out of your belly, the busy body secretary we call the analytical mind immediately wants to fix it. She starts opening drawers and dragging out files until she finds the origin of that feeling: ‘Oh yes, when your dad made you stand up and sing happy birthday to your grandfather, age five. Filed under ‘A’ for AWFUL and ‘S’ for ‘SHAME’.
Suddenly there you are again, age five, terrified, warbling and wobbling through happy birthday. Except you’re not – you’re a grown up, a grown up with a powerful message to deliver to an audience that actually wants to hear you. Perhaps that even paid to hear you. In letting yourself first experience the fear then examine it, you can not only allow it to pass but actually begin to recalibrate your emotional response to seemingly fear-inducing events in the future. Eventually, the fear will lessen and appear only when appropriate.
But what happens when you don’t undertake these important tasks of feeling and thinking your way through fear? When you deny it – or any other emotion, in fact?
Emotions are inside us, they live and die within our physical bodies, so running away isn’t an option. But numbing them out is. Food, drink, drugs, TV, Facebook, shopping, addictions and disorders of all kinds are caused by resistance to feeling, to our emotions, to what is. We aren’t addicted to cigarettes. We are addicted to the distraction they provide, essentially the distraction from discomfort. And this is where we’re really kicking ourselves in the shins.
Fear is more than the stale leftovers of 10,000 years of evolution. Fear, in fact, is perhaps the most accurate compass we have in pointing us towards what we desire; what we are, in fact, here for.
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield states that, ‘Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. The more scared we are of a work or a calling, the more we can be sure that we have to do it.’
In other words, that thing that makes you nervous, that makes you flutter, stutter and stall? That’s what you should be doing. If you didn’t want to do it, deeply want to do it, you wouldn’t give a damn. Your body would save its energy resources for something more pressing.
It’s like love. The person who unleashes a bag of butterflies in your belly – they’re the one for you.
Do you see? Fear isn’t a wall. It’s a doorway, one you must walk through to reach the riches on the other side. For there are riches on the other side. Fulfillment, authenticity, whole-ness, insight. You name it, it’s there.
To suppress fear is to reject those gifts, reject the lessons and callings intended only for you, reject growth.
In other words, not feeling your emotions is actually holding you back from greatness.
Feel the fear and get up on that stage! It’s what you were born to do.