Twenty eyes squinted in my direction. Blue, green, brown and hazel – those orbs looked none too pleased. A minute earlier, I had been giving a riveting presentation to doctors and nurses in a hospital. Now I was on my back, with virtual strangers at my side. I was immobilized by a buzzing in my head, and worried faces around me. Tense voices murmured indecipherably. A few inquired about my health.
I had just given a seminar in my first real job. I’d had no inkling of being nervous. In fact, I somewhat enjoyed public speaking. I had rehearsed several times. Following the experts’ advice, I had not memorized my presentation, but was prepared to glance at my note cards as the need arose. I was ready.
Before I hit the deck, I’d had the sneaking sensation of an elevator in my gut. The bottom fell out, I fell down, all in one fell swoop. There I was on the floor, newly-minted psychology degree barely six months old. I couldn’t run, there was nowhere to hide. I tried to decide if I should keep looking at the ceiling, or answer the now annoying questions about my well-being.
Falling is the stuff of nightmares. Falling…off a cliff…out of an airplane…down a mountain….off a bike. The act of falling is synonymous with loss of control. It’s something that only babies are allowed to do when they’re learning to walk. Have you ever tripped while walking down a city street? Your first instinct is to look around and make sure no one saw you, right? Falling is embarrassing. Falling in public is humiliating.
How was I ever going to show my face at work again? Never would I would be able to stand up and profess to know anything again. If I had to pretend to be an expert, I vowed to do so only from a seated position.
In looking back, I realized that, just before I went down, the world had become a tunnel. Looking through that tunnel, I recognized some of the faces as they started to blur. Muffled voices sounded like they were in a tin-lined room. These were signs of fainting that I didn’t know about. Had I recognized the symptoms, I would have grabbed a chair and sat down, avoiding the dramatic crash that resulted.
The fear of public speaking haunted me throughout my career and life for the next 25 years. Finally, as I approached a milestone birthday, I vowed to overcome it. No one has ever died of public speaking, although for most people it is a fear greater than that of death. But, I knew that if I was going to succeed in my own eyes, I needed to tackle it.
I joined Toastmasters, an organization whose purpose is to help people overcome their fear of public speaking. My intention in joining was solely to remain upright when I addressed a group. I wanted to beat this thing called performance anxiety, show it who was boss, so I could get on with my life.
I went one better. I learned to love public speaking. By making the “room my own” I learned to wow the crowd with vocal variety and appropriate hand gestures. And, yes, I maintained a vertical position.
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing,” said Helen Keller. I realized that, by listening to the scaredy cats in my head telling me what I couldn’t do, I was depriving myself of daring adventures.
That fainting episode 25+ years ago was a defining moment for me. I stared down an enemy that took half a lifetime to face. But, when I finally challenged that foe head-on, her might melted right before my eyes.