I had enrolled in an evening course (at a nearby college) to obtain my certificate as a Personal Support Worker (PSW); a newly enacted requirement that was essential to maintain my job in long-term-care.
On day one, while discussing the course overview, our instructor casually announced that one of the demands would be a 20-minute in-class presentation. I was panic-stricken: I can’t do this. I will embarrass myself. Maybe I'll find a way to opt out of it.
I know most people—if not all—feel some degree of anxiousness when it comes to public speaking. It’s a typical reaction to stress, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But it was much more than the universal feelings of anxiousness for me. Although my social anxiety disorder didn't have face years ago, it was what intensified my fear of public speaking.
Social anxiety is performance based and differs for everyone. For example, some may suffer from social awkwardness. I am a very sociable person. However, up until a few years ago, if I were in a situation where I had to read aloud or speak in front of a group, it'd send my body into a reactional state, resulting in sweaty palms, a racing heart, and shakiness. The thing was, I knew there was no imminent danger, and that my fear was unreasonable, but what I believed and what my body felt were two different things.
I had gone to class on the evening of my presentation prepared, and when my name was called to speak, I gripped my sweaty palms around my project and reluctantly walked up to the podium. I began with a personal background introduction and a brief statement on my chosen topic of discussion. But what kicked my anxiety into overdrive was when I took a few seconds to gaze out at my classmates: I saw eyes fixed on me. I saw smiles on faces that I mistook to be judgemental smirks, and, then, the worst-case scenario happened. I bolted from the classroom.
It was an experience that not only left me embarrassed, but it also plunged me back into the shadows, deepening my fear of public speaking, and I'd spend years avoiding it, or anything else that'd triggered intense anxiety, for that matter.
But this “avoiding” mindset was crippling. It held me back from reaching my full potential, which is why I have been doing a lot of soul-searching in the last decade. And—amongst other things—I've learned that the onset of my social anxiety disorder manifested itself in elementary school.
As a child, I was shy. I lacked confidence. It was painfully hard when I was called upon to read in front of the class. I'd stumble over my words, and it provoked some of my classmates to ridicule me. But I had no idea how much it'd impact my life as an adult.
And my college experience, many, many years later, would prove this to be true. That night wasn't so much about the fear of speaking in public; it was more about a sense of déjà vu; an overwhelming feeling, a flashback, to the ridiculed little school girl, which, ironically, became the core resolution to understanding my intense fear of public speaking, in the first place.
For years my social anxiety felt like a fight that I could never win. For years it fed the voices (the lies) inside my head, which lurked in the shadows, waiting to defeat me. I am happy to say that it no longer has a stronghold over my life today. Mind you; I don’t, by any means, jump at the chance to speak in public. But through more self-awareness and diligence, as well as a belief that with God all things are possible, I'm learning about my fears, and how to triumph over them. And it has helped me move out of the shadows and offer encouragement to those who are struggling with anxiety.
P.S. I did eventually go back to class and complete my presentation that evening. And the instructor awarded me a B for my efforts. Phew!