Irish Independent, May 2nd 2017
Having overcome a fear of public speaking, Ewa Pietrzak went on to become a success coach, helping people achieve what they want in life. She shares her top 10 tips when facing up to anxieties
Fear is a form of repression that holds us back in life, but when overcome it can bring enormous personal growth. Sometimes we experience an actual danger, like being in a field and a bull running towards us, but most fears are on a mental plane and stem from our experiences of ‘failure’ in the past.
A two-pronged approach is required to tackle fear, working on both physical and mental levels. Trying to overcome a fear with physical action alone, like learning to swim or do public speaking, is not be very effective because the root of our fear is in our mind. In order to tackle a fear we must understand it first.
Mind work such as meditation and self-acceptance visualisation will help you understand and accept the root of your fear. Physical action is necessary in order to practise whatever it is you are overcoming.
Overcoming my fear of public speaking is one of the greatest and most liberating achievements of my life. Having struggled since school days, I shivered, sweated and stuttered when reading a paragraph in front of a few people. Today, I speak in front of groups of more than 100 people, talk on radio and appear on TV, no problem.
Tackling a fear can be a life-changing opportunity, because when you’ve jumped one of life’s major hurdles it gets you in the mood for more challenges. In my case, by overcoming my lifelong fear, I got the courage to leave my secure but unfulfilling accounting job and set up my own business doing what I love and enjoy.
Set yourself a goal to overcome a fear. If you put your mind to it and dedicate time daily, you can free yourself of the shackles of a lingering fear that has been holding you back for years.
IDENTIFY THE FEAR
Some fears, like bungee jumping and skydiving are ones that don’t really bother us on a daily basis, but fear of public speaking, changing jobs, starting a business or swimming can be problematic. For example, a friend of mine is currently trying to overcome her fear of water, because she wants to take her daughter to the swimming pool. When she learns to swim, not only will she be making a great leap personally but she will also ensure that her fear isn’t passed along to the next generation.
IDENTIFY WORST-CASE SCENARIO
Get a piece of paper and write down your fear and a list of worst-case scenarios. For example, if this is swimming it could be that you are afraid of drowning, people laughing at you for not being able to swim. By making the list we are acknowledging and analysing the fear and looking at what we are actually afraid of.
WILL I SURVIVE?
Go through your list of worst-case scenarios and ask yourself, will I survive if I get into the swimming pool? How serious are these worst-case scenarios I’m afraid of? You will notice that most of the scenarios are not so bad at all. Ask yourself if there is anything you can do to prevent the worst-case scenario from happening? You can explore options like getting a swimming instructor who will be alongside you all the time, staying in the shallow end of the pool or using floatation aids.
NOBODY WANTS YOU TO FAIL
Everyone wants you to win. If you get a swimming instructor for example, they will have no desire to drown you or humiliate you, but they will take on the challenge of teaching you to swim, and help you to overcome your fear.
In the case of public speaking, put yourself in the shoes of your audience and ask how would you feel if someone standing in front of you is a nervous presenter. Would you wish them well or judge them negatively? Would you like to help them and make it easier for them? You’ll be surprised what you discover when you really think about this. There are a lot of good people in the world who want to help you.
OVERCOME ‘FIGHT OR FLIGHT’
‘Fight or flight’ response is where blood goes out of the brain and pumps into the fingertips and feet, making us run or fight something or somebody. In the case of public speaking this makes our brain freeze so we forget words, clam up, stammer and shake.
Use a relaxation technique such as meditation or breathing exercises to get in tune with your body and mind on a daily basis.
A simple technique is to sit quietly on your favourite chair or a sofa, light a candle and focus your eyes on the candle flame. Do this for five minutes every day and when you find your attention drifting, bring it back to the candle. I use my phone timer for this calming exercise. The root of ‘fight or flight’ is mental not physical, so by calming the mind, you develop a relationship with yourself that helps you to accept and manage your fear.
Every morning and evening spend five minutes visualising yourself doing whatever it is you are overcoming. To practise visualisation, simply close your eyes and let yourself imagine. If it’s public speaking, for example, see yourself making a great speech, pay attention to what you are wearing and observe how calmly and smoothly you speak and how attentively people listen and enjoy your discourse. Before we tackle fear, our mind only remembers the bad experiences that led to the fear in the first place. By visualising ourselves in control and confidently public speaking, we are creating new memories and training the mind to create new neuro-pathways and structures that will finally deliver what we are visualising.
Low self-esteem and self-judgment are among the underlying reasons for being fearful. They may be a result of a strict upbringing or criticism from a parent, teacher, sibling or peers when growing up. If you got a lot of praise growing up, you will have healthy appreciation of who you are and the ability to laugh at mistakes and minor mishaps, rather than beating yourself up. You can’t turn the clock back and change your past experiences, but you can improve your self-esteem. A simple technique to build your self-esteem is to stand in front of a mirror every day and give yourself 10 compliments. Start by saying: “I love” and compliment your body parts, personality traits, accomplishments and anything you can think of: “I love my sense of humour”; “I love my voice”; “I love my hands”. Doing this in front of a mirror works best, but if that is off-putting for you, have a chat with yourself and generate some self-love on a daily basis, which will automatically increase your self-esteem.
Self-acceptance is key to overcoming fears, so start to love everything about yourself, especially the things you currently don’t love about yourself. Self-acceptance means loving ourselves, warts and all. Be it a big nose, frizzy hair, wide hips or fat ankles, these are all parts that make you unique. Some of them can be altered, but it is important to generate gratitude for what you have, because you will need your nose, hips etc for the rest of your lifetime. Using the mirror technique above, acknowledge and appreciate your physical traits which make you a unique individual. Mind work is key to overcoming fears, so commit 30 minutes every day to building your self-esteem and self-acceptance using the techniques outlined.
GET OUT OF COMFORT ZONE
Physically push yourself outside of your comfort zone at least once a week. In my case, when working on my fear of public speaking, I went to Toastmasters as a guest and put my
hand up to answer questions. When you are working through your fear mentally you need to also add a physical action, like a swimming class or public speaking lesson. Once you’re ready, sign up for any classes or courses that will allow you face up to the fear you are overcoming.
CELEBRATE ALL YOUR WINS
Celebrate every time you put yourself forward and step beyond your comfort zone. Pat yourself on the back and tell yourself lots of lovely things about yourself to celebrate your progress. Your progress rate will depend on how much time and effort you invest in overcoming your fear, but acknowledge yourself every time for taking a step towards it and ensure consistency by doing the daily activities outlined above.
“Fear and growth go hand in hand. When you courageously face the thing you fear, you automatically experience the growth you have been seeking” – Sandy Gallagher.