I still remember the day when I did my first presentation in school. It’s one of the best and worst memories I have from my early school days. I was scared! Terrified!! I was out there and I looked around, looked into the faces of my classmates and from my hands down to my knees I was shaking. I didn’t even know why because those people were all my friends. I really had nothing to be afraid of. And yet, it was just too much for me to handle – all of a sudden, I had all these eyes directed at me, eagerly awaiting what I was going to say. What I felt like, though, was that they were waiting for me to make a mistake. A really embarrassing monstrosity of a blunder. They weren’t, of course. But I couldn’t get that thought out of my head.
With a few sweat-soaked notes in my hand, I started to recite what I had rehearsed several times at home and it went okay for a first presentation. But nevertheless, this fear I had of presenting became a constant companion throughout several years of my school career.
And then one day, I was standing in front of class once again. I wasn’t prepared very well and was shifting from on foot to the next, clenching my fists, while I was waiting for my friend to hand the floor over to me. There it was again – that ocean of blank faces that scared the hell out of me. But this time something was different. For some strange reason, the longer I looked into the crowd the less I was scared.
What had changed was that suddenly I realized that, for a few minutes, I had the attention of all of these people. I could let the fear choke me or I could do something great with it. I could stand out there and give them a hell of a time while teaching them something they had to know anyway, or I could bore them to death with it. I almost felt exhilaration because I realized it was something that’s in my control; not necessarily how they reacted but how I acted. All that mattered was how I approached it.
I threw my notes on the table and started talking to them – just like I would usually talk to my friends. I instantly saw some people come out of their slumber. And by the end of the presentation they were fully engaged and having fun. And so was I. I barely remember what happened during the whole time, because I was just so in the flow. What I had done was, I stopped focusing on my own emotions and instead focused my attention on the moment and the people I was talking to.
Nowadays, when I stand in front of a filled lecture hall, I still do my presentations the same way. And you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard, “It doesn’t even matter what you talk about, you’re just great to listen to.”
Yeah, true. Half the time I have to talk about things at university that aren’t necessarily the most riveting. But it doesn’t matter what I talk about (although I do try to make it somehow worthwhile). What matters more is the how.
While I present, I am “present”. Word plays aside… I really am in the moment – mindfully and completely. And because of that I have come to enjoy presentations, which then transmits itself over to the audience.
Fear followed by flow and fun. It’s a recurring pattern, if I just let it happen.
The initial discomfort is never gone completely. I would lie, if I said that I feel great BEFORE presentations. But I know that once I’m out there, I’ll be okay. Even if I make mistakes, lose my train of thought or have sweat drops forming on my forehead because those projector things are hotter than the sun itself… It’s all fine.
Once I’m past the fear, I’m ready to roll with whatever happens.
But it took me years where I thought I would always suck at presentations. I thought that’s just who I am – not made for this. YEARS. Years of being scared out of my wits, before that one day when I realized that an imagined fear (which isn’t based on actual threat) – no matter how big or small – should never be something that paralyzes and destroys us and instead, something we just have to embrace as part of the game.
Those were definitely not wasted years, though. Throughout all that time I trained. I worked on “feeling the fear and doing it anyway”. Initially, because I was forced to do it and later because I got to understand how truly powerful this is.
I enjoy blogging for a similar reason. It’s a tremendous learning experience. Every time I post something I have no idea how people are going to react to it – if at all (which is a clear statement in itself). Every time I hit publish, I’m putting a part of myself out there to be judged by others. This is uncomfortable at first, but it pushes me to move forward, to learn and to grow. I am willing to feel the discomfort because with it comes something greater.
The good thing is that overcoming fear and insecurity can really be trained like a muscle. Progressive overload. The more we do it and the greater the internal resistance, the better we get at it. We start to get comfortable with feeling discomfort. And that’s what I’m trying to work on every day.
What’s interesting is that everything about our personality that we believe to be “defining” can be learned, unlearned and relearned – just like I had the belief that I was bad at presenting. It’s the miracle of neuroplasticity. We can train ourselves to feel negative emotions and transform them into something positive. It can be hard at first, but at some point it will happen naturally and effortlessly.
This has nothing to do with repeating positive thinking mantras and affirmations, though – which for some people can be nothing more than a stressful effort to stamp out all negativity. The more we have to force ourselves to be positive, be happy, be optimistic while simultaneously trying to push all negative emotions away from us, the harder we make it on ourselves.
We can’t learn not to experience discomfort. There will always be situations when we are afraid or insecure or sad, and rightly so. But we can learn to get really good at taking these emotions as they come without letting them hold us back. Again and again and again. Those are the neural pathways we want to create and strengthen.
It also means, we can let go of thinking in terms of black and white. Nothing is ever inherently good or bad. It becomes so by what we do with it and how we see it. Buddhist teachings actually talk about how to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content. And that’s what happened when I shifted my attention away from myself and over to the others while presenting; I felt the uneasiness and discomfort but I didn’t focus my attention on it. It arose and passed.
Or in the wise words of a Disney character:
You’re at peace because you know it’s okay to be afraid. – Mulan
We have to overcome the negative feelings not by fighting, ignoring or refusing to feel them, but by turning non-judgmental towards them because that’s when we stop being controlled by them.
Fearlessness may be a gift, but perhaps most precious is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as ‘grace under pressure’. – Aung San Suu Kyi
One little fear, one scary moment at a time, we can shed the layers of limitations that we placed on ourselves because we thought we didn’t have what it takes… when in reality…
We do have what it takes. We got this! We really do. And right around the corner of fear, there will be flow and fun waiting for us.
P.S. I will hit publish any second now. Posting this will be my neuroplasticity training for the day. What will be yours?