Click here to buy the book

An edited and revised book on public speaking for introverts based on the articles from this site

Shyness – Rational and Irrational Fears

When it comes to fears, the fears we hold deep inside us, we need to distinguish between two types.

We have the rational fears – the fears of real, possible consequences – the fears of genuine danger.  A person with a fear of heights would never jump off a high cliff:  in this case, his fear is real, such a jump would be hugely dangerous.  A person with a fear of spiders has less of a rational fear… while there are dangerous spiders in the world, for the most part they are few and far between, and once you have identified a spider as being – rationally – harmless, any remaining fear is irrational.

Irrational fears are no less real.  They affect us physically, make us jump or quake, sweat or shiver.  I’m not saying that irrational fears are bad fears – fears that it should be in any way embarrassing to have.  Everybody has irrational fears.  They are normal, and perfectly acceptable.  However in approaching irrational fears we need to take a different tactic from approaching the rational.

Shyness is a complaint which crosses the boundary between the irrational and rational.  The bullied schoolchild might be perfectly rational in is fear of talking to a classmate – not just fear, but experience might suggest it never ends well. A bullied office employee might feel the same about their manager.  However, what may have once been rational arguments have, over time, turned into irrational patterns of behaviour.  That many people fear public speaking more than they fear death is clearly irrational.  Uncontrollable shaking before speaking – the sort of shaking which might, perhaps be rational before a parachute jump – is clearly not a rational – or particularly helpful response.

To begin with, lets deal with the rational fears of public speaking.  In short they all amount to one big issue: the idea that in front of someone (or a group of people) who are able to play an influential part in your future life, you might perform in such a way as to make those people want to influence your future negatively.  You may also worry about worrying about this – which is essentially what embarrassment is.  And you may worry about receiving criticism – in short you may worry that your speaking may lead them to act in such a way as to trigger your fear of rejection.  (Both embarrassment and fear of rejection are also a combination of the rational and irrational – you can approach those, and indeed other fears by following the processes I will be providing in this and future articles)

There are a few ways you can manage yourself – or your situation – to rid yourself of all these rational fears.

1.  You can choose to speak in a safe environment.  Not all public speaking needs to be in a dangerous situation.  It is possible to take small steps in a far friendlier setting – public speaking courses, public speaking self help groups and  organisations like Toastmasters International all offer this sort of chance.

2.  You can realise that to produce an impressive presentation, you don’t need to be great, you only need to look good by comparison.   If you prepare well, and use the techniques I am offering, you will be a better speaker than the majority of your competition.  Reasonably simple techniques – techniques like moving around the stage and not saying ‘err’, which we will discuss later – will make you look exceptionally good at speaking.

3.  You can test your environment to see how dangerous it actually is.  Ask a few people who have been in the situation what usually happens.  To be honest, the most common complaint of someone who gives a presentation is not that it had a negative impact, but that it had no impact at all.  By asking around (and by all means do this by email, if you don’t feel you can manage it face to face), you may realise the danger of the situation is far less than you imagined.

4. Ask yourself ‘What is the worst that can happen?  The absolute worst?  How bad could ti possibly be?’  Than ask yourself, how hard would it be to actually cause that sort of result.  Them become more realistic.  What is a realistic worst outcome?  Is that likely?  What would you do in that situation?  How bad would that situation really be?  How long would it take to get over it and back to normal?  Then ask yourself ‘What is the best, most amazing outcome of giving this presentation?’  Is it worth taking the opportunity?

None of this matters if you still have irrational fears.  Irrational fears can’t be reasoned with.

The way to handle irrational fears that I have found effective are:

Control your energy.  If you are tired, stressed, angry, or over socialised, you won’t be in a good situation to face your fear head on.  So make sure you are able to be in a good place before facing the challenge. Meditate.  Listen to motivational tapes.  Do whatever you need.

Practice, practice, practice.  Join a speaking group.  Become a member of Toastmasters.  Every time you can speak in a place you know is safe, no matter how much it scares you, you will be teaching yourself that you can face an audience.  Repeated exposure to your fear – and repeatedly overcoming it in a supportive atmosphere will do wonders for when you need to face it in the real world.

Prepare.  Learn your presentation word for word.  While I generally don’t recommend repeating your presentation off pat, if you’re worried, make sure you know it.  Bring notes with you – bring the whole presentation written out if you really need too.  Being prepared provides a sense of confidence, a sense of control.  As you get experience in public speaking, you will learn that you are far more in control than you might expect.  But for now, the control preparation gives you will act as a reliable safety blanket as you take to the stage.

Mindfulness.  What was once a far eastern practice, is now a well established psychological practice.  Mindfulness involves getting to know your fear.  Feel where your fear is in your body – think about what that feeling of fear is in your mind.  Pay attention to it, keep observing it, thinking how interesting it is your body feels this way.  Don’t stop watching it.  Don’t do anything else.  Don’t try to get rid of it, don’t try to control it.  Just notice that it is there, and keep watching it.  Anything you observe for tool long becomes boring – you’ll be shocked at how much this helps you take control of your fear – so long as you don’t get frustrated at the fear for remaining.  Love your fear – it is only your mind trying to protect you.  Thank it. And if it goes – when it goes, just let it go.