Befriend Your Fear
My clients often feel anxiety in speaking situations. It is a concern that is second only to feeling overwhelmed by everything they think they need to say.
Rather than giving my clients a recipe for completely removing their anxiety, I advise them to “make friends” with it. This approach is usually more effective. Treating fear like something to kill can make it stronger.
Here is a mini framework for befriending your fear of speaking:
Framework for Befriending your Fear
- Find a quiet place and 10 or so minutes.
- Close your eyes.
- Take a few deep breaths. Relax.
- In your mind, visualize the speaking situation.
- Locate the feeling of fear inside you. Try to sense its presence.
- Take on a kind and loving attitude toward it as if the fear is you when you were a child.
- Say to your fear, with kindness and love, something along the lines of this:
“I know you are here to protect me. Thank you for being here for me. Please know that we are going to be OK. When I speak, you and I will give our listeners the gift of our presence, attention, and time.”
- Take another deep breath.
- If you want, continue talking to your fear kindly.
Three profound shifts are happening here:
- You stop fighting your fear and instead embrace it.
- You reframe the speaking situation from needing something (your listeners’ approval, respect, and positive reactions) to giving something (your time, attention, love, etc.).
- You are entering the speaking situation more present and focused by “priming your brain” beforehand.
Befriending your fear. Reframing the situation. Priming your brain. These are three simple but powerful things you can do before any speaking situation. Especially before important situations, make time to go through the sequence above to befriend your fear.
You may “operationalize” this approach by reducing the length of all your meetings to 50 or even just 20 minutes, so you begin to have ten-minute buffers between meetings. This avoids living your work life inside an unhealthy back-to-back-meetings treadmill.
I first encountered the idea of befriending my fear when I was six years old. It must have been before 1972 because my parents still lived in an apartment in a small town (Kamen) in West Germany. I used to be scared at night then because I would see the faces of monsters in the dark. I would see them whether I closed my eyes or not. They were incredibly vivid. I remember how at some point, a shift happened in me. I resolved to look at the monsters as my friends. It did not just lessen the fear; it took it away completely. I do not know what gave me the idea back then. I think my young brain just stumbled upon it. I clearly remember it happened.
A while ago, almost half a century later, a psychologist friend counseled me on dealing with bouts of anxieties I was experiencing during the beginning year of the COVID pandemic. She shared with me the idea of talking to my fear lovingly as if it was a child. I found this approach useful and connected it with the experience of befriending my childhood monsters. “So, you already know about all this,” my friend exclaimed. She was right, but she had also given me the gift of a new way of practicing it.
- “Befriending” our fears turns them from enemies into friends.
- Reframing speaking situations from “needy” to “giving” stimulates confidence.
- Priming your brain is essential to achieve these positive changes.
- Create a habit of giving yourself space and time to prime your brain for speaking situations.
- Write down the words you use to speak gently with your fear. Keep them where you can see them regularly, for example, on a sticky post-it note.
- If possible, reduce the default length of 60-minute meetings to 50 minutes to give you a buffer time to prime your brain before entering the next speaking situation.