How I conquered my fear of public speaking
When I took a course in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) in 2005, we did an exercise called the phobia cure during the last day of the course. The exercise boils down to finding an old traumatic memory and to resolve the trauma through various techniques. At this time, my absolute greatest fear was talking in front of people. I shunned it like the plague and took long detours to avoid it as much as I could. My fear of speaking was a significant limitation at work as well as socially.
At work, as a company leader, and also for two years as deputy CEO of a company with 50 employees and hundreds of millions in sales, there were many occasions when I was expected to speak in front of a group, either to suppliers, or customers, or internally to employees.
My absolute conviction was always that it would be a painful experience. Subconsciously, I made sure of this by postponing and waiting until the last moment to prepare, namely in the evening or the night before, to have sloppy notes and so on. It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy where the experience was just as I had predicted, filled with stress and anxiety.
The preparations alternated between fight, flight and freeze, where I fought hard to produce something good, or escaped by postponing it, or simply gave up and hoped I would solve it by improvising and “shooting from the hip.” The latter can certainly work if you know your subject and are calm and relaxed, which I was not. In many situations, in both small and large groups, I remember feeling very jealous whenever someone asked a question or made a statement and said amazed to myself: “how dare they?”
The phobia cure
At the NLP course, there were 50 participants, and when it was time for the phobia cure, I half-panicked and tried to come up with various reasons why there was no need to challenge my fear of speaking in front of people. But in the end, I took courage, and together with my classmate as a guide, I had an amazing experience.
During the exercise, we traveled back in time, and after many ifs and buts, I found the situation from which my fear had originated. It was in eighth grade and I had to review a book in front of my class. My view on school at that time had been quite distorted. I thought school was about getting there and showing what I knew rather than coming to learn new things, so I usually put a lot of pressure on myself. I also imagined that the teacher had very high expectations that I would deliver something good. On top of that, I was tired and unprepared and had sloppy notes because I had started way too late and been up half the night. The experience had been extremely stressful and traumatic in the end.
The classroom bathed in white light
When I got in touch with my fear, it was very hard at first. My breathing became very forceful, and my chest was raised and my stomach filled as I drew in each breath. At the same time, my breathing was rhythmic, and my diaphragm worked like mad. When I think back on this in retrospect, it was almost as if my breathing helped give me the courage to remain in my fear and explore it.
What happens to our breathing when we become afraid of something that does not require physical activity, like running away or defending ourselves, is that we draw in a heavy breath and hold it high up in the chest. This is evidence that we are running away from our fear, which often is located in the abdomen, by moving our breathing high up in the chest.
I hung in there and remained in my fear while breathing very vigorously. And all of a sudden, it was like I had cracked the code. It was like a tap had opened up, or rather a fire hose, and from my chest, white light rushed from a circle that was certainly 15-20 centimeters in diameter and filled the entire classroom so that it was bathed in light. I remembered thinking to myself, “I sincerely hope that my guide has patience and allows me to sit here for a long, long time,” because I did not want my experience to end.
By breathing into my lower abdomen, it helped me to connect with my fear, as well as face it and eventually heal it.
Huge amounts of energy was spent to keep my fears at bay
Afterwards, we had lunch. I felt high and at least 10 kg lighter, almost as if I were floating a bit above the ground. When we returned from lunch, the instructor asked if anyone had had any interesting experiences. To my surprise, I discovered that my hand was raised, and I heard myself say, “I got rid of my fear of speaking in front of people.”
“Ah, how funny,” the instructor said. “Why don’t you come here and tell us about it?” As usual, I became stiff, and my heart started pounding like a bar hammer, and fear was about to take over. The difference this time was that my heart calmed down as soon as I heard my voice say with an even tone that I could surely do that. I went up on the stage, and the feeling of receiving all that love from the other course participants as I shared my great fear and my experience during the exercise was amazing. I almost did not want to step down from the stage.?
As I walked to my seat and sat down again, I was dreaming about how I would come back to the very same room and give a lecture to 100 people together with someone else and lecture by myself to 50 people. The mere thought, however, made me almost dizzy and nauseous, and it seemed completely unattainable, but three years later I gave a lecture with the swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Lars Frölander. There were 101 participants. And two years later, I held my first Conscious Breathing Instructor Course in the same room. There were exactly 50 participants.
This experience says a lot about how much energy is needed to keep our fears at bay. The more fears we carry, the less energy is left to live our lives. Imagine how much energy we can release when we dare to challenge our fears and get rid of the energy leakage. For my own part, it has almost become my profession to speak in front of people as I often am out lecturing. This has convinced me that what scares us the most has the potential to become our greatest asset if we take the bull by the horns and learn how to meet and rise above our fear.