My lifelong experience with stage fright.
It’s showtime. Said excitedly, nobody ever, who is anxiety-ridden.
At 3:40 pm, sharp, I peak from behind my A4 paper;
My shield from the piercing gazes. Tricking myself into thinking audience members are naked.
It only makes things worse.
I start thinking of myself naked. Maybe they can use x-ray vision on me too.
30 seconds passed. I am still hiding behind my white A4 paper.
Sadly, this story was not made for me.
Back to the crime scene: the start of my phobia
Possibly, this is my most vulnerable post. The one that makes me want to flee into hiding.
It all started with a fear of being the center of attention. This ugly habit stopped me from picking a major I love. I digress.
Looking to the past is never a good idea. However, this is where it all started for me. My cowardly behavior.
It was 2003. I just moved to a new school, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Distinctly, I remember thinking everybody was so good-looking, modelesque, while I was so “me”.
For the first time, I realized I looked different from the other kids.
Many were much blonder and skinnier than me. Their hair was magically curled and styled to perfection.
While I had hair knots stuck in my too thick hair.
Also, their eyebrows were naturally desirable. Whereas, mine were bushy and unbecoming.
Perhaps, for the first time, I had a taste of being a pariah.
Here I am, in 4th grade, a new student who looks, particularly different from the other kids.
In a new school, much bigger than my International school in Iraq.
For the first time, my classes numbered more than 20 students, which was a little daunting. Seeing people who you do not know. A sea of strangers.
This is not a bashing post. Rather, a way to set the scene for the start of my phobia.
A scared 9-year-old, fourth-grader 🥺
At Ecolint school in Geneva, Switzerland. A short, brunette, with bangs that are too long, is practicing her lines for a school play.
My mom, made me repeat the lines in so many ways, using funny voices.
Forcing me to change my tone from one sentence to another. I did a good job, too good of a job.
As a primary schooler, they chose me to be put in a middle school play.
A classic case of putting a fish in a bigger sea than she is used to. Just add to it, the use of French, a foreign language, to read lines.
Fast forward: The dreaded middle school play.
In this vein, it was a play. I don’t remember what costume I was wearing or the context. I just remember there were so many faces.
Hundreds of faces. Well, I am not sure. But it felt like there were thousands of people there.
Ok, this is different. I am not used to seeing so many people watching my plays.
The first 3 rows are more people than the entire audience in Iraq.
It does not help that I walked out at the wrong time, said my line, with so many witnesses.
Add to it the fact, that I sing-songed a line, in French, which is not a language I spoke at the time. And so it began…
My main symptom of stage fright: Shaky hands
Ever since, as soon as presentations start, my hands start shaking, especially if I am holding a paper.
With the shaky hands- at some point, I stopped using paper. Opting to memorize my words to avoid the awkward water-moving tsunami my hands create.
My voice cracks and shakes, transforming into a sound I do not recognize. Cracking at every word.
The more people look at me, the more I want to disappear.
Trying to hide behind my sidebangs, I styled, specifically for hiding from people.
In university, I remember one guy, shoutout to you, who even put his hands on his eyes and face, reassuring me that he was not watching.
Avoidance: my tactic for ignoring stage fright
Furthermore, did I mention I hate things that make me cringe?
Yes, I am that person that always skips embarrassing parts in movies.
I hate seeing people stumble on their words or go through annoying times. That is a standard I hold for myself even more.
So, like most scared little girls, I opted to run. Choosing to get 0’s in place of giving a speech.
Failing was ok, as long as I did not have to go through stage fright.
It felt like I was getting a heart attack each time. My heart starts racing, my hands shaking too.
So, what changed 👇🏼?
An oral communications course forced me to present every class
Suddenly, one day, something clicked. Previously, I tried everything to rid myself of the stain of stage fright.
Mostly, going out of my way to avoid it.
I got acupuncture, massages, before presentations. To no avail.
There was one thing that made me snap out of it and change. It was an English 203, oral communication course.
For the first time, I could not run and fail a single portion of the class.
Since the whole course focused on presenting. In each class, we were forced to give a speech.
Slowly, but surely I got better. Something about doing the same thing over and over again makes it feel more natural.
Every class I started getting less scared.
By the end of the semester, there was an impromptu part, where you give a speech without rehearsing.
Weirdly, that is the speech I did best in. Maybe, because it is the one that resembles a conversation most.
Then, right there something clicked.
I need to present just like how I speak. It is a conversation just with more people.
It certainly helped, that the professor was very helpful and encouraging.
I remember her pushing me aside, and saying, “ I don’t get it”.
You speak English better than the people in this room. You know how to pronounce everything well. Why are you embarrassed?
Something about what she said, resonated with me.
Why I stopped being scared. Yes, I turned to pills 💊 (Propranolol)
That course was the start of overcoming stage fright.
A very big step. However, not my full-on turning point.
Yes, I did better. However, my voice was still shaky.
My confidence was still practically non-existent.
Until I heard about propranolol, a beta-blocker.
Funnily, it was a short-answer question on my final exam for psychology. As a reference, propranolol works by lowering your heart rate.
At the time, this pill was used to help someone deal with the physical symptoms of a fear of snakes and performance anxiety.
Performance anxiety was what burdened me. My exact problem was the physical symptoms, not the actual speaking.
Hence, when I starting using propranolol, my hands stopped shaking and my presenting experience became bearable and dare I say, even fun.
Seeing someone laugh changed my perspective
Moreover, ego is a great motivator. As is the fear of embarrassment.
Specifically, I remember a pretty blonde girl, who was walking up towards the stage. A cliquey group of mean girls were giving her the stink eye.
Laughing. As if they were waiting for her to fail. In response, the blonde was fidgeting with her shirt and skirt.
Dangling her necklace from left to right, so hard. Her face got flushed, and she started fluttering.
Looking at her felt like I was looking in the mirror of my past, minus the pretty blonde part.
I couldn’t help but stare.
Specifically, I was thinking she has more charisma, and personality than the others, why is she the one who is fidgeting?
Everybody was looking at her anyway because her outfit was cute. Her positive aura was pushing people towards her. Also, spurring jealousy from some.
When looking at the group of mean girls, I thought for the first time, wow, they are not better than her or me. So, why be scared of speaking?
That day, I did my presentation without taking the pill. Just to prove to myself I was better than them.
Not a very healthy or sound concept. Not something I am proud of. However, it worked for me.
For the record: one of the “mean girls” was mispronouncing and stuttering her words, awkwardly throughout.
However, the difference was that she was confident. She had a smug look on her face.
In that instance, I can also acknowledge, it is not easy being as confident as the so-called mean girl.
Perhaps, I needed more of her attitude. There is something so alluring about someone who is confidently wrong.
How to get over stage fright (personal tips)
- Every time there is a presentation, volunteer to go first. Get it over with. The more you wait, the more opportunities you have to make excuses. The more you wait the scarier it seems.
- Recognize what scares you- your trigger. For me, it was my shaky hands. Using propranolol helped with my physical symptoms. If to you, for example, it is your stutter. Deal with the actual problem. Go to a speech therapist.
- Practice standing up. Don’t practice your speech while sitting. At home, try to make your presentation feel as real as possible. Even practice saying ‘Hello’, so it seems more natural. Every 30 seconds turn right and left, to pretend to look people in the eye.
- Don’t memorize. Ok, above I said, practice saying, “Hello”. But that doesn’t mean you have to say everything the same way. People ask questions, hereby changing your speech. The point is to just learn your information. However, don’t be stuck on reading it a certain way.
- Record yourself. Powerpoint has a neat feature that lets you record yourself presenting. That way you are more comfortable and familiar with feeling watched.
Conclusion: Yay, I don’t want to pinch myself when giving a speech anymore
Last but not least, I was not writing tongue in cheek when I said I used to pinch myself.
Previously while standing in a presentation, I would pinch myself, to feel physical pain.
In the hopes of ignoring my emotional turmoil. Not anymore.
*Clapping for myself*.
I never thought I could give a seminar in university for undergraduates. Present research. Or defend my thesis.
But I did it. And weirdly did it well-ish.
In hindsight, this is all thanks to exposure or flooding. That summer course forced me to be exposed to giving speeches 5 days a week.
Exposure is a technique, where experimenters or therapists expose you to the thing you are scared of, like cats or presentations, repeatedly.
Way too much. Over and over again. That way, repeated exposure makes you less threatened.
Although it felt like torture it worked. If I have any advice for you, it is to ignore that scared voice in your head.
Acknowledge that fear is part of presenting. That won’t go away. But running will NOT help.
It is not that big of a deal until we make it. The more we avoid the more we give it space in our minds.
Ignoring stage fright is never the answer.
Do you have an embarrassing stage fright story too? 🥺