A story of fear and discovery

Fear is a multi-faceted emotion. Being afraid of something that threatens your safety or livelihood is just one vein of fear. Sometimes those sources of anxiety are irrational, as Daniel Gardner argues in his book The Science of Fear.

There is also the fear of failure, which I wrote about earlier this week. Here, too, fears can be unfounded and harmful to our pursuit of fulfillment.

Anxiety is often a figment of our imagination, and once we push past it, we can often look back and see it was unfounded and possibly even silly. I don’t want to trivialize anxiety, but when you are on the other side of it, it looks much different.

Fear and anxiety are founded in doubt and a lack of confidence in ourselves and our abilities. We don’t believe we are smart enough or strong enough or good enough to accomplish things out of our reach.

That doubt causes us to stay in our comfort zone, stubbornly proclaiming things are impossible just because they are hard.

I do this all the time. I make behemoths out of tiny sources of anxiety, and I curl into a fetal position to avoid trying something at which I might not be naturally gifted.

Public speaking has been one such source of apprehension for me ever since I can remember. I had a few bad experiences with it in middle school, and I chalked up those failures to a lack of ability. I wrote that skill off early, and I developed a strong aversion to public speaking.

I took a speech class in college, and that solidified in my mind that public speaking was not my forte. I couldn’t get through speeches without my mouth getting dry and my palms getting sweaty. My voice shook, and I couldn’t think straight in the few minutes leading up to my speeches.

I’ve always disliked attention, and having all eyes on me is one of my worst nightmares.

Or it was until I joined Toastmasters.

Toastmasters is an international organization, and their sole mission is to improve people’s public speaking skills. There are Toastmaster clubs all around the world, and they meet once a week. My company has their own club, and I started going last summer.

Every meeting follows the same agenda. Time is designated for prepared speeches, in which people write a speech and deliver it to the rest of the club. However, our club is relatively small, and we often don’t have prepared speeches because people’s attendance is sporadic.

This means our meeting is primarily made up of something much scarier: Table Topics.

“What are Table Topics?” you ask.

They are purely extemporaneous speeches that have to be at least a minute long. Someone is the Table Topics Master, and they dictate what the questions are for the day.

Nobody else knows what the questions are, and people volunteer to answer them. This kind of public speaking terrified me when I first joined last summer. A minute is a long time if you aren’t able to prepare anything ahead of time.

I knew the only way to get over my fear of public speaking was to be an active participant, so I tried to do at least one Table Topics every meeting.

I quickly became more comfortable with public speaking, and I’ve become surprisingly good at speaking off the cuff.

My grandfather passed away last September, and I volunteered to speak at his funeral. I’ve always been a strong writer, so I wasn’t worried about that aspect of it. I wanted to make it funny because I knew that would help me get through it.

I practiced it at least twelve times, and my mom helped me improve my inflections and cadence.

I was more nervous about my emotions than I was about my public speaking skills. I got through it without crying, and I knew I nailed the delivery. On my way back to my seat, I did a little fist pump and mouthed, “Nailed it.”

I got amazing feedback and praise for my tribute to my grandpa, and some people said I should do standup comedy.

My view of public speaking was forever changed by that experience.

It also provided me with something invaluable; I discovered I have a voice and that my voice matters. I now feel called to be an advocate for people with mental illnesses, and I am actively pursuing avenues by which I can accomplish that mission.

I gave my first prepared speech for Toastmasters a month or two later (I procrastinated because of anxiety and fear), and I nailed that one, too. It was basically a standup routine. I got a lot of laughs, which boosted my confidence as a speechwriter as well as a public speaker.

Now, I volunteer for as much as possible in Toastmasters. I’ve given three speeches total, and I’ve written a fourth.

In March, I volunteered to lead our church in communion thoughts. Our church’s attendance on a normal Sunday is around 400 people. I was a little nervous, but my anxiety level was miniscule compared to what it once was. It’s healthy to be a little nervous before speeches; it keeps you honest.

People loved my reflections for communion, and now I’m convinced I’m not only over my fear, but I am also quite gifted at public speaking.

This begs the question: Am I gifted at other things I haven’t tried because of fear?

Indubitably.

And so are you.

Discovering talents and gifts is an exciting aspect of being human.

The only way we can realize our potential is to have faith in ourselves and do our best to squelch the doubt and fear that hold us back.

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