You can feel it coming. Your hands and face start to tingle. Your vision grows a bit fuzzy. Your attention pivots inward as if you were standing outside of your own body and watching yourself, waiting for the blunder you assume is coming. You just know you’ll say or do something embarrassing, and of course, more often than not this surety becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ve made yourself so anxious with your hyper-vigilance that you actually do blank out in mid-sentence or catch your foot on something and stumble.
Then the shame floods you, your face burns red, and the anxiety only intensifies. What a mistake I am! You feel this statement radiating throughout your body, and it feels terrible. Maybe you even say the words to yourself, believing everyone around is saying them too: Mistake. Worthless. Lost cause.
It’s a brutal cycle. The grief that anxiety causes on its own is more than enough to put a damper on life, but when our fears of rejection spiral out of control in public like this, the outcome is pure misery. It seems as if our anxiety and the awkwardness it creates are evidence enough to confirm what we’ve always secretly believed: there’s something wrong with me; I’m different; I don’t know what to do with my life; I really am a mistake and my public blunders prove it.
The good thing is that no one has to live this way. There are practical steps everyone can take to reduce their public anxiety and stress and discover the truth that, while we all make mistakes, no one is a mistake.
One: Self-identify as someone who struggles with anxiety. What?!? Yes, I mean it. We, anxious people, devote an incredible amount of our energy to monitoring and hiding our anxiety when around others. We don’t want to appear weak, soft, fragile, etc. Rather, we want others to see us as totally put-together and cool under pressure. In other words, we try to control others’ perceptions of us through putting up a façade. Not only does this mean we’re consciously manipulating others and choosing to hide from our friends and coworkers, but we do this based on the assumption that others will judge us or reject us if they knew the truth.
It also means that we choose shame and aloneness rather than openness to the love and support of those around us. So yeah, be up front with those around you as you struggle with an anxious moment. You’ll be amazed at the gentle encouragement you receive. You’ll also be amazed at how much easier it is to navigate the workplace and the social world when you stop trying to hide anxiety and just start living with it instead.
Two: Embarrass yourself on purpose. Yes, you read that right. Whatever social or workplace blunder you most dread, make it happen on purpose and study the results. Scared of blanking out and losing your way during a business presentation? Many of us are. But what non-anxious people know is that a slip up means nothing.
They simply take a breath, consult their notes, and get right back on track. Anxious people, on the other hand, think one stumble spells disaster, so when they actually do stumble that sends a signal to their bodies to panic. Once panic sets in, well, forget about it. So, why don’t we sidestep that whole self-destructive pattern by choosing to mess up? In the middle of a presentation, stop, pretend to be perplexed, and maybe say,
“Whoops. I just lost my train of thought.” Then consult your notes and say something like, “Ah yes, that’s right.” And get right back to it. Did your audience point fingers and laugh at you? Did they shout at you to sit down? Did they call you worthless, a waste of time? Of course not, because for them, a momentary loss of focus means only that you are human like the rest of us. Mess up on purpose enough times and in enough contexts and you’ll find just how safe it is to make mistakes. It really is.
Three: Take care of yourself. Instead of running away from your fears and pain with junk food and watching TV late into the night when you should be getting a good night’s sleep, treat yourself as if you matter. You deserve to fill your body with healthy meals and snacks. You deserve restorative sleep. Taking care of yourself not only will help repair your frazzled nervous system, but it also makes a statement to yourself that you are important.
And if you use smoking to help calm your nerves while out in public, I won’t tell you to quit, since that kind of distraction might not be something you need right now. But I will say this: you might want to consider switching to vapes. Not only is vaping a healthier alternative to cigarettes, but it’s more socially acceptable in public places, as there’s no second-hand smoke to worry about.
Anxiety, as painful and daunting as it is, can truly be conquered. But you’ll have to take some risks. You need to let others know what you’re going through and let their kindness sink in. You need to prove your fears wrong by screwing up on purpose and witnessing just how little the universe cares. And you’ve got to take care of yourself because, after all, you deserve it.