There's something most people don't know about me. I struggle with stage fright. Now, that might not sound like a big deal because it's one of the most common fears that people have, but I'm a professional speaker. That means on a regular basis, I get up in front of a crowd of 100 to 5,000 people to speak.
If you've never struggled with stage fright, let me assure you that the symptoms are real. For me, it usually manifests in my chest and stomach. I can feel the anxiety and pressure building up, and sometimes I start to feel like I'm going to be sick. In fact, the fear of getting out there and speaking on stage impacted me to such extreme levels that I actually took a week-long stage-fright course in an effort to learn how to cope with it.
People often ask me how I'm so relaxed and calm speaking in front of others. This gives a great perspective on one of the problems with mental health challenges. Someone can look a certain way on the outside, but it doesn't really mean that’s what's happening on the inside. My face and outward appearance may look calm while I'm falling apart on the inside.
What I Did to Overcome My Stage Fright
I'm going to let you in on the secret that I used to overcome my stage fright. I decided to embrace it instead of fight it. Now when I feel stage fright creeping up, I allow it. I've even gotten to the point where I want to have that feeling before a presentation because I've learned that the best performers learn to use their stage fright to their advantage. There have even been times when I purposely think of things that will worsen my anxiety before going on stage so I can perform with maximum energy.
This has been a learning process and something that I'm still working on. Even as I write this article, I'm in the process of implementing some new exercises around performance anxiety. You see, anxiety has always been a part of my life since as early as I can remember. It's made it difficult to do things, even normal day type things. My mind starts racing, I panic and freeze up. Through learning to overcome my fear of public speaking, I've learned to think about my anxiety in a different way in other areas of my life too.
The Power of Embracing Our Fear
For years, I tried to resist my anxiety, which only made the problem worse. But learning to embrace my fear of public speaking helped me realize it's okay to feel uncomfortable. And this lesson has had a domino effect on my life. It has helped me to embrace and overcome other fears and take on new challenges, whereas in the past I would have allowed my anxiety to stop me.
Let me share an example with you. I take a dance class. That's a little tough for me to admit. See, I'm a drummer and I've got rhythm, but you don't want to see me dance. However, I've learned to embrace my fears in order to overcome them. I travel a lot for my work as a keynote speaker and corporate drumming instructor, but when I'm home in New York City, I take a hip-hop class. It's a beginner level class, but it's also full of really good professional dancers who are just brushing up on their technique. And then there's me in the back of the room trying to keep up.
To top that off, we have to perform in front of each other. I'll be straight with you–I suck. But doing this class forces me out of my comfort zone, and that's been really beneficial for me. When I'm done with the class, I feel like I've accomplished something. I stood up to my fear and didn't let it rule me.
How to Embrace Fear in Your Life
If you struggle with fear and anxiety, I encourage you to practice embracing it. It's important to learn to put how you see the world, including your fears, into the right context, and sometimes this requires a paradigm shift. All the difficult emotions that we have are great teachers. I recently attended a retreat on difficult emotions by John Terrell. One of the things he taught me is that anxiety starts with fear. So when we don't deal with our fear, it builds up into anxiety.
But we all have fears. That's just part of life, and it's necessary for survival. You need fear to help you make wise decisions. Without it, you could find yourself walking down a street at night in an unsafe part of town. In my opinion, fear is a real thing that we need for survival. When we don't have awareness and we don't process our fears, they grow into anxiety. But if we do process it and become more aware, courage can grow from it. It can actually become vision. So it's really important to keep that in mind when you feel that fear coming on. Best of luck in your journey!