On Anxiety (2): Speaking and Other People Speaking

November 11, 2012

I divide my anxiety about public (and private!) speaking into several aspects:

  1. My speaking prep: Before I give a prepared talk, I angst a lot. Preparing well in advance is rarely possible and even if I do manage to start in advance, typically I get part way then stop, then finish very close to the talk. Even if I get a polished version in advance, the risk of my ripping it apart at the last minute is very high. I’ve gotten better at just letting this happen. For example, for my classes, I’ll try to review the slides on Monday, fail quickly. Try again on Tuesday, fail quickly, etc. This isn’t ideal, but at least I’m not burning huge amounts of time on Monday and Tuesday. In 2011, I did manage to get through the entire semester without pulling an alnighter. This is a record.
  2. My speaking: At the point of getting up, I’m usually ok (esp. if I’ve been furiously revising…it’s actually soothing!). Depending on how long “idle” I am before the talk, I can get fairly worked up. Once I start talking I’m usually fine: I just give up and let adrenaline carry me.This is what deceives people about my calmness. Once I start talking, I’m very fluent, confident sounding, spontaneous, etc. But often I’m just in a kind of fuguesque state. I don’t lose memory, really, but I do often feel like a different person unto not know what the hell I’ll say next. It feels like a bit like automatic writing. (Note, the dissociationesqueness isn’t constant. Sometimes I’m much more in control, sometimes I’m feeling more in control (i.e., riding the wave), and sometimes I’m aware of being pushed (i.e., carried by the wave but I can roughly see where it’s going), and sometimes I’m just jetsam.
  3. Other people speaking, my stuff (e.g., students, colleagues, etc.): So, in addition to just direct fright, I start to worry that I slid in an error, or failed to catch something, or failed to prep enough (thus let the speaker down). Or I’m afraid some problem will occur that messes up the talk (I feel this when Zoe performs as well) and expose the speaker to ridicule (which then is my fault).
  4. Other people speaking, not my stuff: Why should this cause me any difficulty at all? Because it can. The mechanism tends to be a feeling of crushing (though unsubstantiated) inferiority. If someone is giving a really good talk I tend to have two streams of emotions: 1) enjoying it a lot (I like a good talk; I like learning stuff) and 2) feeling that I could never do nearly so good, so each good book is another nail in my failure coffin. Obviously, if I have given or have to give a talk during the same session, this can interact a lot with the direct stage fright.

Let me stipulate that all this is not rational. I’m a good speaker (I’ve had people come up after a talk and say to me that I was the best speaker they’ve ever seen and they would go out of their way to see me again; this doesn’t mean I’m to everyone’s taste, natch, but it does mean that I have reasonable evidence that I’m pretty good) and I (and my students/colleagues) do interesting work. I have tons of evidence for these facts. I accept the evidence.

But not all of me is sensitive to evidence. That I accept that there is no basis for a fear doesn’t mean that I don’t experience that fear. Over time, I’ve gotten better at limiting the effects of the negative experiences (e.g., I’m much better at not drawing negative conclusions from the fact of a fear experience and not letting what negative conclusions that do emerge get entrenched into my cognitive system). This is great! I’m much less prone to depression now that I generally don’t take my feeling of failure as evidence of failing or evidence of failing as evidence of total worthlessness.

However, it’s still taxing. The emotions themselves are wearying and my coping strategies add even more overhead. (Not sleeping is one of my more effective strategies. I trust the tiring and tiresome aspects of sleep deprivation are obvious.) There are other physiological effects. For example, recently I’ve been having these coughing fits ending with dry heaving that seem to be closely correlated to an anxiety spike. If I dry heave 2 or 3 times on a 20 minute walk to work and spend a chunk of the rest of the time trying to resist it, then I’m going to be feeling pretty crappy by the time I get in.

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