Your heart races. Every muscle in your body is set on “vibrate.” Your mouth is as dry as Arizona in August, and you really, really, really have to go the bathroom.
It doesn’t matter that you just went to the bathroom five minutes ago. When you’re afraid, your bowels have a short memory. My friend and I used to call it the “pre-show poop jitters.”
That’s how I feel every time I get up in front of a crowd.
I’ve preached sermons at church. I’ve competed in speech-and-debate tournaments. I’ve performed on stage as an actor. I’ve done stand-up comedy.
Pre-show poop jitters. Every. Single. Time.
I even get them when I’m sitting in the audience, watching a play that I’ve written, which is crazy because my work, up to that point, is basically over. There’s nothing left for me to do. But I have the same physical reactions that I would have if I was getting up on stage myself. Right down to the chattering teeth.
If only there was some magic button I could press that would make the fear go away. Because that’s what this is all about, right? It’s not the crowd that’s frightening. It’s not even their judgment of me that’s frightening.
It’s the fear itself.
It’s the way the fear takes hold of me, seizing my body like some sort of demon. It’s the way it invades my nerves and muscles, causing all sorts of physical reactions that make me feel completely out of control.
If I could approach public speaking with the same equanimity and peace of mind with which I approach tying a shoelace, I’d be golden. Nothing would stop me. But in those moments before I step out on to the stage, it feels as if my fear is doing everything it can to bring me down.
I just want it to go away.
Your Fear Wants You To Succeed
A couple years ago, I was hanging out with my friend Maurice Kenji Clarke, a product designer for Google.
I was telling Maurice that I wanted to reach a point in my life where I was so sure, so confident in who I was, so in touch with the indestructible core of my being, that I’d be able to make decisions and take actions without feeling any fear or doubt.
He pushed back against this idea, saying something that has stuck with me to this day:
He said, “I think fear is important. Fear reminds us that our actions have consequences.”
Fear makes us uncomfortable. And when we feel uncomfortable, we usually take whatever actions are necessary to end that discomfort.
Unfortunately, that can mean not communicating with people in an open and honest way because we’re afraid of being vulnerable. It can mean giving up on a dream because we’re afraid of the obstacles in our path. It can mean denying our values and our integrity because we’re afraid of the consequences of taking an unpopular stance.
It means being condemned to a life of silence and unfulfillment.
It’s tempting to think that our fear is the problem, but in light of Maurice’s comment, I don’t think it is.
Yes, fear engages our “flight or fight” instinct, and all too often, we choose the “flight” part of that equation when we don’t really need to. Unless we’re being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, an axe-wielding maniac, or tornado, there’s no reason to run from the things we’re afraid of.
What we need to do is engage the other part of the “flight or fight” dynamic.
We need to stand and fight.
Now let me be clear: when I say “fight”, I’m not talking about attacking anyone, being overly aggressive, or acting like a jerk to people under the guise of wanting to appear “confident.”
What I am saying is that there are two appropriate responses to fear.
Your fear is a warning system. Whenever you’re about to do something risky, with high stakes involved, your fear pops up to let you know: “Hey, what you’re about to do is risky and there are high stakes involved. Are you sure you wish to proceed?”
At that point, it’s up to you to decide whether you wish to proceed or go into “flight” mode. The decision is entirely yours. Your fear’s job is not to tell you that you won’t succeed; your fear’s job is to let you know what will happen if you don’t succeed.
If you do decide to go forward, your fear can become a powerful ally because within all that fear is an enormous amount of energy. Behind the nervousness and the quivering muscles is a power that you can tap in to and use.
You just have to be willing to step into your fear and embrace it.
Meditation Can Help You Manage Your Fear
I began practicing meditation over 10 years ago. One thing I’ve learned is that I’m not very good at it.
That’s the great thing about meditation. You don’t have to be good at it in order to practice it. That’s why it’s called a practice.
Meditation is the art of training your mind to remain calm and equanimous in the face of turbulent thoughts and emotions.
The scary emotions are going to come. The scary thoughts are going to pop into your mind. Your job isn’t to block them or talk your way out of them. Your job is to accept them. Surrender to them. Let them in fully and completely.
I know this sounds counter-intuitive. Why would you let in the very thing that is threatening to prevent you from doing a great job? Won’t your bad thoughts and emotions overwhelm you?
I’ve been talking about fear as if it’s a separate thing, but it’s really just a part of you. Whenever you ignore a part of yourself that is demanding to be heard, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
You want to make fear your ally, and the best way to do that is to start listening to it.
The principle technique of meditation is to focus the mind on an object – any object. Some people use candles. Others prefer a statue of a religious figure. Many just focus on their breathing.
By focusing on an object and keeping my attention on it, I train my mind not to be overwhelmed by external and internal circumstances. Thoughts and emotions will come up, and I may get distracted from time to time. But when I catch myself being distracted, I always bring my attention back to my chosen object of focus.
I do all this without judgment, and this is a key point: as we meditate, we accept everything we’re experiencing, exactly as it is, without judging it as “good” or “bad”.
Accepting things exactly as they are doesn’t mean you just sit back and let horrible things happen to you. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change unfavorable circumstances.
However, in order to change your reality, you first have to accept the reality that’s currently in front of you.
How My Buddhist Friend Overcame Her Fear
My friend Shinchok is a Buddhist nun, but before she took her vows, she used to be an adventure guide. Her job was to take groups of people on kayaking excursions to various islands off the coast of Maine.
One day, she and her group were on an island, camping out. They saw ominous, dark clouds approaching. They heard on the radio that a storm was coming, and it was going to be a bad one. The weather folks were predicting gale-force winds of up to 50 mph.
Needless to say, Shinchok was scared out of her mind. She was afraid, not only for herself but also for the safety of her group. She knew she really only had two options: buckle down and try to wait the storm out or break camp and kayak back to the mainland.
She predicted that the storm would reach them in about an hour and a half.
The fear was making it difficult for Shinchok to think clearly. Luckily, she was conscious enough to realize the affect her fear was having on her, so she stopped struggling with her fear and simply surrendered to it. She let go.
She accepted the situation as it was.
As Shinchok surrendered, the fog of indecision began to lift from her mind. She suddenly could see clearly, and she knew exactly what she needed to do.
She ordered everybody to break camp and get their asses in the kayaks. They paddled back to the mainland, and they made it just in time.
Once they had reached safety, Shinchok said she felt a sense of gratitude and appreciation. She told me, “When you go out kayaking, you might think you know what’s going to happen out there, but you really don’t. Everything is unknown. Once you get back to the mainland, it feels good to be on something solid, stable, and familiar.”
Up to that point, Shinchok had already been practicing meditation on a regular basis. As she faced both the literal storm and the storm in her own mind, her training kicked in and provided her with the stability and groundedness she needed in order to manage her fear and act in spite of it.
“The storm is the world,” she said to me. “Meditation is the mainland. If we can tune into our own mainland, we can find that strong center in the midst of the storm. You can start sinking into who you really are, instead of who you think you are.”
You’re the Boss!
Think of it like this: you’re a business owner. One day, your employees storm your office; they’re all in a panic over an error that was made on the job.
If you’re a good leader, you’re not going to let the emotional state of your employees affect your ability to make decisions. You’re going to be the cool, calm one, and you’re going to listen to what they have to say, absorbing the information they give you without absorbing their fear.
On the other hand, you’re not going to totally dismiss your employees' concerns. You’re not going to demand that they all leave your office, and you’re not going to disconnect their phones and email so that they can’t communicate with you anymore.
Think of fear as exactly the same way.
If you practice meditation long enough, you start to see that your emotions and thoughts are something quite separate from the real you. That reduces the amount of power they have over you, and with enough time, you can begin to make your thoughts and emotions work for you, not the other way around.
Be a Warrior
One of my favorite books is Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.
Pressfield argues that the life of the artist and the entrepreneur is essentially the same as the life of a warrior. But instead of facing external enemies, the enemy of the artist is Resistance - that internal force that lives inside of us and stops us from doing the work we need to do.
There are many symptoms or warning signs that Resistance has us in its grip: procrastination, laziness, drug and alcohol addiction, and bad relationships, just to name a few. Lurking behind all of these symptoms is our fear of failure.
Someone once asked the Spartan king Leonidas to identify the supreme warrior virtue from which all others flowed. He replied: “Contempt for death.”
For us as artists, read “failure.” Contempt for failure is our cardinal virtue (Pressfield, 2002, p. 60).
Does that sound like more than what you bargained for? After all, you’re not trying to be a warrior. You just want to get up in front of people without soiling your underpants.
The problem is that even though you know intellectually that public speaking isn’t a matter of life and death, your body doesn’t know the difference.
You may not be fighting in a battle or running from an approaching storm, but as far as your body is concerned, you might as well be. If that weren’t the case, you could easily talk yourself out of your fear. But you can’t.
You’re stuck with it.
My theory is that people are terrified of public speaking because we’re hard-wired to seek the approval of the tribe. It’s part of our ancestral programming. If we say or do something that pisses the tribe off, it could lead to a loss in status within the tribal hierarchy.
If we really piss everyone off, we could even be banished. In the so-called “pre-civilized” world, banishment equaled death.
People are more afraid of public speaking than of being buried alive, so thinking of our fear from the perspective of a warrior isn’t too big of a leap.
Here’s the long and short of it:
1. Unless you’re willing to physically, emotionally, and mentally numb yourself, your fear is not going to go away. There’s no magic button that’s going to turn it off. Even the temporary fixes that people use to manage their fear, such as drugs and alcohol, are just that: temporary fixes. The fear will keep coming back, and you’ll forever be afraid of your own self.
Because that’s what your fear is: it’s you.
2. Everyone is afraid of getting up in front of a crowd. Everyone. Including the people who are considered to be the greatest performers and speakers of our time.
The actor Henry Fonda would throw up before every stage performance, up until he was 75 years old. Adele admitted to projectile vomiting on another person, right before a show. Comedian Richard Pryor once had such a bad bout of stage fright, Nina Simone had to hold him in her arms and comfort him like a baby. Back when Gandhi was a lawyer, he got terrible stage fright during his first case and ran out of the courtroom. Barbara Streisand didn’t perform live for almost 30 years because she was afraid she would forget the lyrics to her songs.
The list goes on. And that’s good news.
It’s good news because it means that no one is exempt from that kind of fear. It means that an accomplished, natural public speaker isn’t someone who doesn’t feel fear. It’s someone who presses on in spite of the fear.
So you can stop torturing yourself with thoughts like, “If only I were as confident as X or as charismatic as Y! Then I could do it.”
Nope! Sorry! X and Y still have to deal with their fear, just like you do.
Accepting our fear and the possibility of failure is the best way to attain true self-confidence. Meditation can help us do that.
However, meditation is not the kind of tool that you can just pull out of your pocket whenever you feel like it. It’s less like a screwdriver and more like a sword.
For your sword to work properly, it needs to sharpened, and you need to practice with it.
Your mind is the sword. Meditation is both the sharpening stone and the practice session. You have to put in the work everyday. This is the daily exercise of a warrior: training your mind not to be distracted by thoughts and emotions so that you’re not overwhelmed by real-life situations.
Great! So How Do You Get Started?
You don’t have to be a yogi or a Zen master and spend ungodly amounts of time meditating in order to benefit from a daily practice.
If you can find time to meditate at leastten minutes a day, you’re going to see results.
For a beginner-friendly primer on mindfulness meditation, Karen Kissel Wegela, a professor at Naropa University, has written an excellent article on the subject.
In my opinion, nothing beats working with a real-life meditation instructor. The right teacher can help you develop the proper meditation technique, and he or she can answer specific questions you may have. A teacher can also help guide you through emotional issues that may arise during your meditation practice.
Finally, the Master’s Program Guide has designed an excellent infographic about fear and public speaking. They tackle some of the underlying causes of that fear as well as offer tips on preparing for a speaking engagement.
It’s often said that courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in spite of fear. Meditation can help you cultivate that kind of courage. For the price of ten minutes a day, that’s not a bad deal.
Pressfield, S. (2002). The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. First Warner Book Edition. New York: Warner Books.
D.G. Watson is a playwright, comedian, and freelance writer based in Las Vegas.