“How do I get out of this now?!”
Mayka, my friend and coach, was waiting for an answer. It was the third time in a row she had invited me to attend a Toastmasters meeting and I had run out of excuses. She knew it.
In case you don’t know, Toastmasters is a non-profit organization that helps you improve your public speaking skills.
Mayka thought it was the perfect place to help me overcome my shyness in approaching strangers. I thought it was one of the nine circles of hell – you know what they say, most people are more afraid of public speaking than death. Why would I put myself through that?
“Fine, I’ll come,” I said with a smile. “But I’ll do no public speaking.”
“Fair enough. Just promise me you’ll strike at least one conversation with a stranger, instead of sitting near the food area waiting for someone to talk to you.”
F*ck. She knew me well. I don’t have a problem talking to strangers when they approach me. But to be the one starting the interaction? It terrifies the hell out of me.
Still, I reluctantly agreed. I knew she was right. I had to get over my fear sooner or later. Now was as good a time as any, I guess…
My heart pounded so loud, I swear you could hear it echoing around the room as I walked through the door that night. My mind started racing:
“Why did I say yes to this?”
“What if I say something stupid and make a fool of myself?”
“What if no one likes me?”
“What if everyone thinks I’m a weirdo (or a coward) because I don’t want to get up on stage?”
Maybe it wasn’t too late to make an excuse and turn away…
Learning To Feel The Fear And Doing It Anyway
I quickly scanned the room. A bunch of guys in suits were talking in small groups, while the only two women present were busy going through the evening’s schedule. It was obvious they all knew each other – will I fit in?
I did what I always do in these situations. Hang around in a corner hoping some good soul will take pity on me and start a conversation.
It worked. A few people came over and told me the first time they went to Toastmasters they were as shy and awkward as me. Now, they could easily strike up a conversation with anyone.
As we chatted along, I could fear the knots in my stomach turn into butterflies. My fear was transforming into excitement – could it be it was that all along?
But I still hadn’t approached anyone myself yet. The chance came during the networking break. Mayka came over and said, “This is your chance. I’m going to the ladies’ room and when I come back, I want to see you talking to someone YOU approached.”
The butterflies promptly turned back into knots. My heart started pounding again. My palms were sweating.
Then, I took the first step toward a nice blonde lady who seemed as uncomfortable there as I was. “Hi, I’m Giorgia,” I said, before we started chatting about the night’s event.
I had done it. I had started an interaction with a stranger and I hadn’t died. I hadn’t made a fool of myself. I hadn’t been rejected. All those scary scenarios my Inner Mean Girl threatened me with to make me run a mile hadn’t happened.
You know what happened? That lady thanked me for going over and talking to her. She had wanted to meet someone, too but was too shy to make the first move.
I has spent days panicking about this event and trying to find any excuse to get out of it. But once there, I ended up having the best time ever.
The following Monday, I went back.
It’s Not All About You
When you’re caught up in fear, all you think about is “Me, me, me”:
“What if no one likes ME?”
“What if they reject ME?”
“What will they think of ME?”
Your mind loves to make the situation all about you. But what if instead of thinking what could happen to you, you focused on how you can help other people?
When I approached that lovely lady, I thought about how she must be feeling. Awkward, wanting for someone to talk to and dreading it at the same time. It’s a feeling I know well.
When I focused on her and how to make her feel welcome and comfortable, everything shifted. I relaxed and started chatting away – all fears of making a fool of myself disappeared.
When you don’t show up, you’re not just hurting yourself. You’re hurting other people, too.
When Fear Strikes Again…
When I went home that night, I was sure I’d never have any problem striking up a conversation with a stranger ever again. I had done it once, I could do it again, right?
Two days later, I was at a networking event and the old fear cropped up again, “I’d love to go and talk to that nice woman over there, but what if I make a fool of myself?”
Only this time, I didn’t let fear stop me. I took a deep breathe and introduced myself.
Fear will always show up. Question is, what are you going to do about it?
Are you going to let fear cripple you or will you move past it and do that thing you’re dreaming of?
I’m choosing the latter now.
How To Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway
If the fear never goes away completely, how do you learn to deal with it when it shows up? Here’s a simple 3 step process that helped me move past my fear and do the things that scare me:
Step 1: Acknowledge Your Fear
Fear is there for a reason. It’s job is to keep you safe. It’s that voice that tells you it’s not a good idea to drive home after drinking too much or jumping off a tall building for kicks.
The problem is that your fear is paranoid. EVERYTHING remotely out of the ordinary triggers it.
Next time this emotion shows up, get curious and ask your fear, “What are you so scared of?”
Listen to what it has to say. Maybe it has a valid concern. Heck, if it tells not to jump off a tall building, do listen to it.
More often that not, your mind blows your fears and worries out of all proportions. She may be worried that journalist you want to approach at the networking event may ridicule or insult you.
Acknowledge it and say, “Thank you for trying to protect me, fear. But I’ve got this. I’m doing it anyway.”
Step 2: Reframe Your Fear
Did you notice that fear feels a lot like excitement?
Both emotions are caused by the same hormones. They both feel like butterflies in your stomach.
It’s just that one makes you excited about trying new things and the other has you running in the opposite direction.
Next time the sensation of fear starts to crop up in your body, choose to see it as excitement instead.
Remember that you’re feeling it because you’re about to do something a bit out of the ordinary for you.
Instead of focusing on all the things that could go wrong, think about all the things that could go right. Let that fuel you.
And if something really doesn’t go according to plan, take it as a lesson learned. If you listen to your fear, you’ll never grow.
Step 3: Create An Anchor
An anchor is a reference point that helps you recreate a particular state in yourself.
For example, when my mind starts going into panic mode before another networking event, all I have to do is think “Toastmasters”.
That word instantly reminds me of that night, and how an event that I dreaded turned out to be a fun night filled with love, laughter and new friends.
I would have missed on so much if I had let my fear win once again.
Lesson learned: the things you fear the most often turn out to be some of the best, most rewarding experiences of your life.