What Speaking at a TEDx Event Taught Me About FearNone By Homaira Kabir
A few months ago, I received an invitation to speak at a TEDx event. I was taken totally by surprise, and—as you can imagine—I was euphoric in my reaction. Fear was nowhere on the radar, and in the trancelike state I seem to have entered, I graciously, and very quickly, accepted the invitation.
The trance didn’t last. Nor did the euphoria. As reality sank in, so did fear. Gut-wrenching, heart-squirming fear that seemed to cripple me and urge me to politely excuse myself from the event PRONTO! I wasn’t really prepared for this reaction. After all, speaking is a regular feature of my professional life. As a women’s well-being coach and trainer, my calendar has no shortage of talks and workshops, in organizations and sometimes at conferences.
I’ve also done many years of research on women’s confidence as part of my graduate studies in positive psychology and coaching psychology. I’m very familiar with strategies to manage fear, which I often turn to, given my discomfort with being center stage. I’m also very good at sharing these strategies with others and holding them accountable when it comes to putting them into practice.
But alas for the frailty of the human mind! How quick it is to go into self-protection mode when facing something new, an uncertain outcome, an unknown future. My awareness, my knowledge, and my experiences fell by the wayside as I let the more self-consumed parts of me run the show. My family had bribed me from approaching the event organizers so I wouldn’t bail out. So I did what most of us do when hiding is not an option: I set about crafting the perfect talk and working on the perfect delivery. I became obsessed with my 10 minutes onstage. I visualized a standing ovation. And this became my benchmark for success.
Enter the Inner Critic
Needless to say, the inner critic that I buckled daily into the back seat of my life took full control of the steering wheel. It found a lisp in my voice—one that I hadn’t detected in my 50 years of life—and ordered me to fix it. I obeyed and set about doing the impossible, given the brevity of time, not to mention the absence of a real lisp. My inner critic berated my appearance, added more imperfections to its regular list, and convinced the desperate me that all was fixable if I followed its draconian plan. Again I obeyed, and I embarked on a plan that had me spending more time preparing my meals than preparing my speech. The inner critic conjured up catastrophic scenarios, embellished with just enough reality to erase any inkling of doubt as to their occurrence. What if I tripped and fell while coming up onstage? I had indeed tripped once when walking into a social event, but I have certainly not made it my preferred mode of entry.
What if I couldn’t control my emotions during my talk? True, I had welled up during a talk many years ago, but that was an emotional one, as I was alluding to Randy Pausch’s very touching video, “The Last Lecture.”
What if I had a coughing fit and had to be carried offstage? This worry I really can’t account for, but it did strike a nerve with me at the time.
And so, I stored away my high heels so I wouldn’t trip, took out emotional parts from the speech so I wouldn’t tear up, and added vitamin C pills to my diet as prevention against a coughing fit. But still, I felt mostly ill and anxious. I was in a constant state of tension that made me short-tempered with everyone around me. My heart would start racing when least expected, and I would often wake up in sweats halfway through the night. The inner critic is rarely a kind and gentle presence, but this time it was truly on a roll.
A Deep Hunger
That’s when I knew I needed to tend to a hunger that was forcing me to strive from a place of insecurity. I knew this hunger well. It’s one of the two essential needs we all have, as basic to our psyche as food and air are to our physical existence. The need to be loved and cared for, and the need to be seen and appreciated. For reasons that often go back to our very early years—and most of us know the source—many of us grow up with a hole (or two) in our hearts. And we go through life trying to fill it by proving our worth to others.
That’s exactly what I was doing. Making sure I didn’t risk the criticism of the audience. Being driven by what they, or the virtual audience later, would think of me. I obviously needed to work on what I thought of myself—the work of a lifetime, given how quick the world is to remind us that we’re inadequate, that we lack something of value, that we aren’t enough in some way. And when we’ve also grown up with those who were blind to our true brilliance, even in subtle ways, building back our ability to see can be a lifelong journey.
The Other Fear
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. The more I overcame my self-doubts, the more I was engulfed by another fear—as intense as the former, and no less emotionally alive. Marianne Williamson has described this fear well: “It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” For there’s a certain rush of excitement and a fluttering of awe that emerges when we overcome the fear of incompetence and failure. Many of us cannot deal with it because it’s underpinned by deep-seated feelings of unlovability and shame. We rush back into the comfort of our smallness, where it’s dark and cozy. We clasp on to our masks that help us fit into societal norms and expectations so everything continues as is. We ask ourselves, “Who am I?” and convince ourselves that we’re merely a nobody or, worse, an imposter, an emperor with no clothes. And so, we go around in circles, peeking into our light and turning away in blindness, never making the real difference we each came to make in the world.
I don’t know about you, but I well up every time I see my “light,” or anyone else’s, for that matter. I tear up when I read Rumi and Maya Angelou. I tear up when I see the sunset or two strangers hug each other. I’ve heard that my grandfather was the same—and that makes my tears feel less threatening, a little sweeter perhaps. But when I welled up during my TEDx talk— even though I had diligently removed all the emotional bits—the inner critic had its heyday!
A Grounding Presence
It ran a looping commentary of “you’re about to cry, you’re about to cry” in my ear as I spoke onstage. It screamed, “Told ya!” when I didn’t get my standing ovation, and beckoned me to flee through the fire exit and never revisit the premises again. It forbade me from ever sharing the video or speaking again until I had fixed all the broken parts of myself.
Despite it, I continued to speak onstage. I still found my way back to my seat among the audience. And I did share the video on YouTube even though it is far from perfect. It wasn’t because I magically got rid of the inner critic. Like an emotional toddler, it clung onto my legs and did whatever it could to grab my attention. The strength came from another presence—a warm and grounding presence that I have been developing over the years.
It is the compassionate self, the loving parent we all yearn for but don’t always get. It is accepting of our faults and frailties, and is loyal to the life that always wants to live within each one of us. Writers, philosophers, and psychologists across time and space have had different words for this inner life. Some call it self-worth. Others call it the soul. Parker Palmer calls it “the life within.” Maya Angelou called it the person we become “when we come of it.”
In a world that needs us to “come of it” now more than ever, we need to develop our compassionate presence. We need to give it a face, a voice, a name. We need to practice relating to ourselves with it—or him or her—every day. Multiple times a day. And over time, we’ll find our fears losing their volume and pitch and the silent life within showing up on the center stage of our lives—maybe even on a red TED carpet.
Homaira Kabir is a recognized positive psychology coach and a researcher on women’s self-esteem. Check out your authentic self-worth on her website with her short and evidence-based quiz.
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