Magic Mountain, Public Speaking, and Other Scary Things


I’m afraid of heights and especially hate roller coasters. So, of course, what did my godson Finn want for his birthday? He wanted me to take him to Magic Mountain! Last week I made good on my promise.

I told Finn he could pick the rides we went on. When I got strapped into a ride I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I was determined to keep my fear in check, but when the ride rocketed, I just screamed my head off.

After each ride I felt like vomiting, yet I also felt satisfied. I hadn’t let fear win. More than roller coasters, I just hate being afraid. I don’t want to be controlled by fear.

This summer I taught a course at UCLA Extension on “breaking through” the fear of public speaking. Of all the communication skills I teach, public speaking is my favorite. I think it’s because I was painfully shy in high school.

I headed off to college determined to vanquish my shyness. Intuitively, I knew my shyness went deeper than not wanting to speak. It was about my fear of people. I didn’t think people would like me, that they’d find me boring and judge me.

I joined the college’s radio station and landed my own interview show. Quickly, I learned how to talk to people. It was simple – all I had to do was show them that I was interested in what they had to say! And in turn, they showed an interest in me. My skill and my confidence soared.

While I’ve not discovered a “secret” formula for overcoming fear, what I have learned is that fear is fueled by clinging to a lie – a lie that seems so true that to deny it seems to be a lie in itself.

I see this in many of the people I coach. Kathryn, who is from Hungary, was one of the students in this summer’s Extension class. She sat cross-armed, scowling through the first half of the course. Eventually, her arms opened and she smiled.

For her first presentation, she told an odd story that had the class laughing. Yes, she was obviously nervous, but her nerves didn’t derail her tale. The class gave her honest, encouraging feedback. Her accent didn’t distract them; her fear didn’t distract them. She surprised them and they wanted more from her.

When I asked if she believed the feedback, she said she didn’t because she knew the presentation wasn’t very good and that she’s not a good speaker. She smiled saying this!

Kathryn clutched this lie because she was so comfortable believing it.

In next week’s column I’ll look at how we can stop believing in crippling lies.

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