Lately, I’ve been doing something that scares me. And I don’t mean "scare" like the stress from taking on a new responsibility at work; I mean pupil-dilating, limb-trembling, tunnel-vision fear. My personal kryptonite is public speaking, and regardless of preparation, I quake and barely remember what happened when I walk off the stage.
For this blog post, I was hoping to inspire everyone with my story of joining Toastmasters & tackling fear head on. There are so many work-ready platitudes out there about fear — "do one thing that scares you every day" or "face your fears" — I was sure there would be research showing that fear is somehow healthy, that it fires up our brains, that the adrenaline forces us to achieve.
The more I searched, though, the more it seemed that fear is...well, not the greatest. In athletics, fear may cause hesitation — which can be the difference between success and failure. In offices, fear can lead to stress, silencing and poor job performance. It may cause you to not even reach for that next opportunity. According to multiple personal blog posts, fear caused stagnation, inaction, wasted years, and wasted opportunities. Fear clearly does not help us achieve. Turns out fear is actually very damaging. So much so that there are countless self help articles about how to not be afraid. Filled with such gems as “what’s the worst that can happen?” and just “think logically” — thinking logically while fearful feels about as do-able to me as a solo ascent up Mt. Everest.
Then I found a promising idea — facing fear as a practice. Accept that you will be afraid, that you can’t logic yourself out of fear. Then empower yourself to pursue the thing that scares you anyway, and do it regularly. In psychology, this is known as exposure therapy. Regular exposure to a feared experience (or object) without any actual harm occurring has been shown to reduce fear of that experience. This is known as "fear extinction." So, it makes sense that practicing public speaking in a controlled environment, like Toastmasters, would make me less afraid of public speaking.
Improving at public speaking is great. But since I realized how destructive fear can be, I’m asking bigger questions — can choosing fear as a practice also make us better at being afraid? Maybe the reason to put yourself in scary situations is not just to improve at a skill (public speaking) or conquer a specific fear (spiders, heights), but because experience at facing fear makes us less likely to succumb to fearful reactions in a crisis. If we all face the thing we are afraid of, then when another, unrelated, scary situation comes up, we may be better positioned to remain calm, reach resolution, and lead others.
I, myself, still can’t say that I have "conquered" my fear. I was scared s*&^less during my first speech. But maybe practicing fear is just as important as practicing public speaking.
So go for it. Go do the thing that scares you*. The cool-headedness you’ll gain is resilience, and we, as a community, need more of it.
*Within reason - let’s stay physically safe, people.