You may have heard this thing about getting outside of your comfort zone. You can’t grow as a person if you don’t dare to step outside of your comfort zone, they say. Fair. However, in this post, I’ll explore why that isn’t always the best strategy. But first, let’s start with a story.
A memory from grade 5 or 6
It was a hot summer day. Our class was doing presentations on some math topics we were supposed to have prepared over the holidays.
The girl who presented before me had detailed notes written all over the whiteboard to explain away her concepts, and a satisfied smile on her face at knowing she had done a good job. I thought she seemed over-prepared.
And then the teacher called me. I was definitely not prepared. Earlier, I had told myself these presentations weren’t that big of a deal, and that I would just wing it. I felt comfortable talking to my classmates, how hard could it be speaking to them all at once?
To be honest, I didn’t think we would have the presentations in the first place. No one took the holiday homework seriously in grade 5 or 6, did they? I really thought we were just doing this for fun.
Well, I took my textbook and went up in front of the class. And when I looked up at the scene in front of me, it all went downhill. My heart started beating fast. Suddenly, the room seemed to have darkened from my angle, and the only light that was coming from the back windows was so bright I could barely make out the faces of my classmates.
That wasn’t the only problem. I remember my teacher sitting in the middle of the room staring directly at me with a displeased frown on her forehead. From my perspective, she looked quite scary, just waiting for me to start. It’s like she could read me clearly and knew that I had absolutely nothing to present. I couldn’t think straight anymore.
With shaky hands, I wrote on the whiteboard: “Integers”. I didn’t even know what integers were! With an even shakier voice, I read off the definition from the textbook. And then I froze. Everyone was still staring hard at me with expectation. I didn’t know what else to say.
After a few more seemingly long moments of uncomfortable silence, a result of this impromptu staring contest between me and my class, I was permitted to go back to my seat. My knees were wobbly, I had cold sweats, and my head was spinning, and I couldn’t figure out what had just happened.
Back then, I didn’t know what I was experiencing was called anxiety, and that I shouldn’t have blamed myself for it. Sometimes, anxiety can sneak up on you even when you think you are well-prepared.
I didn’t like “failing” at something, so I kept pushing myself because I wanted to get rid of my fear of speaking in front of larger audiences. Over the next few years, whenever I got the chance to do a presentation, I would take it. But I would still experience anxiety from time to time.
There were still a number of moments where I would be standing in front of people, feel a bit paralyzed because I would feel everyone staring directly at me, and I would wish at the moment for the ground below me to open up, swallow me whole, and then teleport me somewhere far away from that place. Somewhere the weight of the expectation of a perfect enough delivery wasn’t about to crush me. Where I could actually breathe.
And although I did get better at not letting fear stop me from at least going up to the stage and trying, and even had days where I’d be very calm on stage and felt like I did a pretty good job, overall the feelings of anxiety never did get eliminated completely.
So, this anxiety thing can be terrible, can pop up unexpectedly, and the reasons for its appearance can elude you, which can be a bit unnerving.
But there are a few useful lessons I that learned from these experiences:
1. Expect, and accept your emotions. For some people being on a stage feels like home. For others, it does not. However, just because we experience anxiety or any other negative emotions about something, doesn’t mean we should just give up on that thing completely and let our fears get the better of us, especially if that thing holds any meaning to us.
It’s possible that the message we want to deliver is so important that we deliver it despite our feelings during the process. In that case, we should consider accepting our emotions as they are in the moment, acknowledge and find a way to try and manage them, and decide to speak up anyway, even if our voice shakes.
2. Don’t frame your comfort zone as your enemy. Instead, be purposeful. I know. This might sound a bit counter-intuitive. I have to admit that a lot of progress I’ve made over the years in different goals, has been made because I also kept pushing myself outside my comfort zone.
However, sometimes attacking a goal with a purpose is much more important than pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone just to spite the fact that you are in a comfort zone!
In my case, I could’ve stopped to ask myself why I was pushing myself so much to become better at public speaking. Was it because it would serve a clear purpose in my life, because I loved and enjoyed it, or just to spite my comfort zone? This brings me to the next point:
3. Have a clear why. When you know why you’re doing something, you can have a better insight on how to troubleshoot the issues that pop up on the way. If I were to go back in time, I would choose to practice speaking to a) practice doing something despite the fear of it, and b) because I actually had some ideas to share.
And now that the “why” is clear, I can see that there are other ways to practice these skills instead of just public speaking. Next time, if I were to try out public speaking, it would be clear to me when I had something to share, and when I didn’t.
(I now also know that writing, in general, can help you understand your own ideas, and organize them, which is very helpful to do ahead of time if you want to speak about them with someone to share them.)
Different people can have different “why’s” while trying out the same thing. Maybe someone is practicing public speaking because they just enjoy the rush of it, or keeping an audience engaged and drawing out certain reactions from them.
Or maybe they want to get into acting, or politics, later on so they want to gain practice and grow specific skills. Knowing your “why” can help you channel your efforts towards your goals more efficiently.
That’s all for now 🙂
Thanks for sharing your experience my friend. Although I’ve been a motivational speaker for some time now, I still have a bit of anxiety just before getting on stage. It always feels like the first time, lol but it passes quickly.
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Thank you for your lovely comment 5thgenerationgirl! Good to know I’m not the only one who experiences this haha!
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Lovely post. I myself have learned a lot about myself through public speaking, and it’s really a great tool for self-discovery. I enjoyed reading your lessons as well. Thanks for sharing!
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Thank you for reading and your kind comment Stuart!