A lady recently got in touch with me asking for advice as she was becoming increasingly anxious due to an up and coming course she would have to attend through work – one where she would have to meet and speak in front of a room full of strangers. She commented on how much the advice helped her and so I thought I would share it here with her permission.
Her initial email is below.
So, as I mentioned to you earlier, Paul, I feel really worried and flat today. I am worried about some up and coming courses I have to go on for work — ones where I have to interact with others and do a presentation and some role play.
I just hate being trapped in a room with strangers for a day. I even worry about where I sit at these things in case I get asked to go first. It’s in these situations that my anxiety really heightens and I find myself worrying for days before the actual event.
I knew when I signed up to all this stuff that I’d get this panic/worry, but I can’t keep making excuses not to go anymore. I can’t just hide and not progress, as these courses are vital if I want to move on in my career. I just hate the thought of making a fool of myself or getting tongue-tied. Why am I such a wimp?
I used to wriggle out of these things when in a previous office job and would mainly phone in sick for big meetings. I absolutely cannot do that anymore and don’t want to, but somehow the worry still comes and is hard to shake off as I know I won’t perform at my best on the day due to my nerves. My boss and I are both attending it, so I feel I really need to be on top form and that puts even more pressure on me.
The trouble is afterwards I know that I will analyse it all and go over everything I could have done better, and beat myself up about it. Part of this is because I lose concentration due to worrying, and so I don’t listen properly. Maybe that’s a way to focus – listen, take notes and ignore the critical voices about myself?
I’ve been out of these situations for quite a while now and feel very anxious at the thought of attending again. I guess the more I do it, the more comfortable I will be with it, but that thought is not helping me at the minute.
Thanks for listening and I would appreciate any advice you could give me.
This was my reply
Firstly, trust me, pretty much everyone has the same concerns as you when meeting or talking in front of a room full of new people. Some of the most outwardly confident people can have the same doubts and nerves; it is just that pretty much no one voices these concerns. Yes, some people are genuinely confident and comfortable in these situations, but these are few and far between, and most are similar to yourself and don’t particularly look forward to it.
I am friends with a woman who regularly speaks in front of people, and has done so for years, and she says that she still finds it daunting sitting at the front talking. A lot of her doubts are about people being interested in what she says, hoping she gets her message across in the way she wants etc.
She told me that she never lets any doubts or nerves stop her and that she just sees this as a normal response. But no one would ever judge her if her talk wasn’t perfect as people understand how difficult it can be.
So by the same token, no one is judging you either; they have their own things going on in life. They wouldn’t care or probably even notice if you or anyone else stumbled over a few words.
This is not to be disrespectful, but anyone they hear speaking or who they meet in a group situation is of no importance to them. They will have forgotten all about them as soon as they walk out of the room. The truth is, they care as little about you as you do about them; you won’t give them a second thought when you get home and neither will they.
The only reason you feel like people are judging you negatively is because you are judging yourself in this way! So your real fear is not about meeting or talking in front of others, it is about being exposed and judged for who you THINK you are. Because you are negatively judging yourself, you feel that others will be doing the same too.
What you need to realise is that people don’t see you in the way you see yourself and so you are not being judged in the way that you perceive yourself to be. So this is not just about becoming more comfortable with your anxiety and others; it is also about becoming more comfortable with yourself and, in doing so, your anxiety around others will automatically weaken.
Most people feel some anxiety talking in front of others
But for now, of course, we want to do the best we can and so that’s what you do, the best you can and not try to hit any kind of perfection. Just give yourself permission to make mistakes and allow yourself to feel a little anxious if need be, as it is the actual worrying about making a fool of yourself that is making you more anxious.
If we start to worry about being anxious rather than just allowing ourselves to be so, then the body senses that we are worrying, and so we tend to get even more anxious. Anxiety is nothing more than an energy shift in the body; it is nothing you can’t handle. When we accept that we may feel a little anxious and allow ourselves to do so, it tends to weaken pretty quickly as we are not putting another layer of worry about it on top.
You could even say to your boss “I am a little out of my comfort zone here, but I will try my best”. I am sure that she would be very understanding and maybe even tell you about her own concerns.
I have joined a few meet up groups in the past and most people who come for the first time are pretty nervous and unsure, but the regular people are really understanding and welcoming as they were all once in the same boat. I have never once seen anyone judge anyone negatively for feeling a little nervous.
Fear is a sign you are moving out of your own comfort zones
My first experience with pushing my own comfort zones came at a pub quiz. I was wracked with anxiety at the time, so it was especially brave of me. Anyway, if you won the quiz, then someone on your team was nominated to read it the week after.
I had previously never put my hand up, but then one day, I had just had enough of living within the restrictive walls I had created. Something just snapped inside me and I just wanted to be bigger than my anxiety and regain my life, and so I offered to read it the week after.
Leading up to the night, I was pretty anxious and nearly pulled out, but I was determined to change my life at this point and so carried on with my plan. When the time came, I was so anxious that I could hardly hold the microphone, but I was not backing out now. As I read the first question, I could hardly get my words out as my mouth was so dry and my heart was pounding so fast, but I just allowed it all to happen and carried on regardless.
Eventually, the feelings began to really subside and by question 14, I was fine. All my anxiety was pretty much gone and I went on to read it all. Afterwards, I thought the people I was with would comment on how stuttery I was at the start, but no one said a thing; they just mentioned what a great quiz it was.
I can’t tell you how important that experience was. It taught me that we don’t come across anywhere near as bad as we think we do when anxious; that no one is taking any real notice of us and even when we are feeling anxious, we can still achieve anything.
This gave me so much more confidence when doing things in the future and yes, I could still feel anxious when doing anything new, but it really did not stop or bother me. I just always saw it as growth. In time, I found things pretty easy and something that would have been daunting before was no longer a problem.
Our anxiety weakens as we grow
How we first feel when stepping out of our comfort zones has no bearing on how comfortable we eventually feel. People falsely think that if they feel uncomfortable in a situation, then it will always be that way. It isn’t, it gets so much easier the more we do it. But it is more about getting comfortable with how you feel initially than anything else, realising that a few nerves are fine, harmless and normal.
I also remember many years ago, during my days of suffering, being on a retreat full of strangers, and they decided to go around the room asking us to tell everyone about ourselves and what brought us there. Well, this was my ultimate nightmare, but, again, I wanted to improve and grow and so I just accepted my anxiety and decided to do the best I could.
When it came to my turn, I stumbled and rambled on a bit and thought I had made a real fool of myself, but no one cared or said anything and everyone was perfectly fine with me afterwards. In fact, looking back, they were most likely just worrying about their turn and a few others probably stumbled too, but I also did not notice or care.
But even if anyone did judge me, who cares? What difference would a stranger’s opinion matter? And if they did judge me, it would say much more about them than me. But, honestly, it’s just not important to them how some stranger performs; it has no bearing or importance on their life.
Every time I felt anxious/nervous going forward, then I knew I was stepping out of my comfort zones and growing as a person. I saw this as a good thing, not a bad thing, and this is how you should see it – a chance to grow and expand your life. Every time you fear anything or feel anxious in a new situation, it is not a sign to retreat. It is a sign to go towards it so as to grow as a person and regain your freedom.
We fear our feelings and not the situation we are in
So, you don’t hate sitting in certain places or role-playing or anything else you mention. What you truly hate is the feelings these situations create. It is never the situation you fear or hate; it is the way it makes you feel.
So, in reality, you are avoiding nothing more than a feeling, and this is why the way out is to start being OK with the feeling. Yes, knowledge can help bring a new perspective but, at some point, in order to grow and get over a lot of your fears, you are going to have to feel what you have been avoiding. It is nothing more than a feeling that is stopping you living the life you want.
When I first overcame anxiety and started to live my life again, I fretted about joining a new art class and a walking group. But when I got there, no one even batted an eyelid and everyone was so welcoming.
Now if I join any new group, it doesn’t bother me. I have grown so used to them. If I had not gone initially and let nerves hold me back, then I would never have enjoyed the things I have or met the people I did. I decided very early on that I would never let what is no more than an uncomfortable energy shift stop me from living the life I wanted.
So all this wriggling out of things didn’t help you grow. It just conditioned your mind into believing these were things to avoid, so you now need to teach your mind that these things hold no threat, which they don’t. You’re just in a room of people, a room where most people, like you, will be hoping they aren’t picked or they don’t have to go first.
The reason anything hardly bothers me at all now is that my mind no longer perceives it to be a problem. By doing these things, I have taught it that these things are of no threat, which they aren’t and never were.
Don’t worry about your performance
You say this…
“Then I will analyse after all the stuff I could have done better and beat myself up about it. Part of it is because I lose concentration worrying and I don’t listen properly. Maybe that’s a way to focus…listen, take notes and ignore the voices about myself?!”
Firstly there is no need to analyse anything. You did the best you could with how you felt in the moment; be proud of yourself for that. The analysing seems to come again from a fear of being judged. We are all critical of ourselves and think we could have done better, not realising that we have never done as bad as we think we have and that, in truth, we did as well as we could.
If you already have preconceived ideas that you will mess up, then you will most likely be watching your performance instead of just being present in the moment and doing it.
One of the biggest things I learnt when overcoming my social anxiety is that when in conversation, I was always watching my performance. I was always concerned about how I was doing, how I was coming across and what the other person thought of me etc. Because of this, pretty much every conversation was a disaster as I was never present. I had 20% of my awareness on the conversation, and 80% was on me and how I was doing.
This realisation came when I was talking to my mum one day while she was busy emailing someone. Because of this, she was barely listening to me and was just muttering the odd word in response. It then hit me really hard that her attention could only be in one place at a time and that was the same for me in conversations.
I was never truly listening to the other person and this was the reason I never felt part of it. I was just concerned about me and how I was doing and this is why I felt so detached from the conversation and why it felt so shallow.
I now knew that I had to learn to stop caring about how I was doing or coming across and just have a conversation. I can’t tell you the difference it made when I took on this new approach.
Conversations started to flow far better as I now felt more present and I could actually hear and take in what they were saying. I even allowed myself to mess up and stutter a bit without seeing it as wrong. I was no longer going to judge myself or worry about how I was doing, as it was exactly this that took my attention away in the first place.
People are not judging you like you think they are
So this can be the same for you when talking with new people. Don’t worry about it; just do it. It is the same if you do a presentation of any kind. If you are worried about how you are doing or what people are thinking of you, then this makes it a lot worse as you aren’t present. You are just totally preoccupied with yourself and this then shows in your performance, as you lose so much focus.
So anything you have to do, just do it with no preconceived ideas or pressures on how it should go. Don’t be concerned about your performance and give yourself some slack. It’s perfectly fine if you make a mistake or two.
No one cares or notices anyway. By the time these people get to their car, they will have forgotten about you and anyone else in the room. They will most likely just want to get away from the boring meeting and get home!
So to recap;
- People aren’t judging you as you think; you are just judging yourself. If you did any kind of presentation, no one would care if you stumbled on a few words. They would understand or most likely not even notice. Would you judge or be critical of anyone who did not make a perfect presentation?
- Most people in the room feel the way you do. Most people don’t enjoy speaking in front of others and aren’t very comfortable in a room full of strangers; it’s normal.
- There is no threat or danger sat in a room full of people. It is not the situation, but the feelings you dislike and what you are trying to avoid. But it is this avoidance that is stopping you living the life you want. Just remember, anxiety is harmless. It’s just a shift in inner energy of no real significance, something you can more than handle.
- Every time you do something new that makes you feel a little uncomfortable, see it as a sign of growth – a sign you are stepping out of your comfort zones. It is not a sign to retreat, or that anything is wrong, it is a sign of you growing as a person. It is something you should embrace and be proud of.
- Allow yourself not to be perfect and to make mistakes; it is normal. No one is socially perfect meeting new people or nails the perfect presentation. Most will just admire you for getting up there and doing it. No one is looking for any kind perfection. We’re all human and we are all different, just doing the best we can. However, you do is fine; be proud of yourself for doing the best you can.
- Learn to have a better relationship with yourself. Let go of all the masks and fake personas and look to find the real you again. In doing so, you will automatically be more comfortable around others.