Somewhere along the line I picked up a belief that what comes out of my mouth is not valuable or worth listening to. Or that I can’t speak my truth with clarity. I’ve become pretty dedicated to that belief. Historically, as soon as the “spotlight” is on me in a conversation with more than one trusted person, panic sets in and I forget what I’m saying. I can conjure up an example of a difficult conversation when I misspoke or said the wrong thing. And I conveniently ignore the deep and engaging conversations I’ve had with others—the ones where ideas flow back and forth easily and we understand each other fully. This is why writing is so fun for me—I can let my words come out, then can slow down and go back and edit and refine them, mold them into a more cohesive and clear package.
When I begin to challenge that belief about myself—that I am unable to communicate clearly in the moment—I can see that all of the examples that I pull up to “prove that belief correct” occur during times of stress. When I feel anxious about what I’m about to say, or I’m in a heated moment with someone, I become unclear.
Studies have shown that the number one fear people have is public speaking. So I know I’m not alone. Some people are really good at commanding a room, telling funny stories, being in the spotlight. The rest of us have convinced ourselves that we are not. When we carry this belief into a situation where people are probably really interested in what you have to say, instead of receiving the encouraging feedback, we feel like we are entering a battlefield, and ready ourselves to run for our lives.
Guess what it all comes down to? You guessed it—the feeling of safety. When we are scared and our fight-or-flight mechanism begins to kick in, the blood from our higher brain functions start to shunt down to help enhance our heart and our muscles so we can fight off the threat or run away. The emotional, less rational part of our brain takes over. This means our words might be muddled or our minds will go into panicked circles or they may just go blank. It’s much more essential to NOT DIE than to discuss the merits of a calm nervous system to a bunch of strangers. Except that the chances of dying by saying words in front of a group are pretty minimal.
The fear that we conjure up when people are looking at us, waiting for us to speak is of a threat that likely doesn’t exist. Sure, you may be about to walk into the dream-job interview, or you may be asking a group of people for money for your pet project or charity. You may have a stake in the game. We all want to do a good job. But generally, people who show up actually want to hear what you’re saying. Otherwise they would have stayed home.
This is where a healthy social nervous system can come into play. Stephen Porges has brought his polyvagal theory into the forefront of modern neuroscience. In a nutshell, his work has shown that besides the more well-known parasympathetic (relaxation) response—the one the communicates safety to our system, we have another branch of that nerve. If we are in “fight-or-flight’ too often or for too long (as can occur with trauma), this more primitive system will put us into a different vagal state—one that slows down the heart rate and lowers the blood pressure in an emergency—similar to the opossum playing dead to escape a threat. This is the system that kicks in when someone faints out of fear. Obviously it’s not ideal to default to this part of the vagal system when you’re about to speak in public.
The vagal pathway that can actually calm us down in an uncomfortable situation is the one we can access through breathing deeply, massage and meditation. Porges expands the definition of this pathway and calls it the “social vagus”. It gets this title because when we are babies, this system is stimulated through loving touch, a soothing voice and appropriate gentle eye contact. Our baby brains are able to take these signals in as a sign that everything is okay and that we are safe.
Remembering this may just make it easier the next time you are about to speak. If you go out there and look around and decide that everyone is bored or annoyed or you happen to catch the eye of someone who’s frowning, it may cause that danger signal to go off. Confusion may start to set in. But now you know, this fight-or-flight state isn’t going to get you where you are going. So take a few breaths, smile and find a friendly face in the crowd for a moment. Or conjure up one in your mind. Slow yourself down and come back into sensations in your body and let your tension melt a bit. Widen and soften your visual field. All of these tricks signal safety to the brain/body.
And if you screw up, try making a joke—laughter stimulates the vagus nerve too. And if the crowd laughs along, you have the added bonus of a roomful of friendly faces to connect with to help you calm down.
And if you have no inclination or reason to be speaking publicly, take your skills into the everyday difficult conversations you need to have in your life—when you need to tell your spouse about that thing that has been bothering you for months and you’ve been scared to talk about, or talking to your coworker about something that isn’t going well at work. Know that you will have more success if you can remain calm when you bring it up. Use your superpower skills of breathing and smiling and softening your face as a starting point, and return to those skills throughout the talk.
If you see that the other person may be agitated, take another breath. Know that they are moving into fight-or-flight and try not to take their words of fear personally. You have an opportunity in that moment to potentially calm them down and keep both of you in a more centered state—through listening, using a calm, soothing voice, loving touch or eye contact. And if you’ve crossed the threshold and are already upset too, know that it’s okay to walk away and try again later when you’re feeling calmer.
When you start to see that people usually are acting out because they feel threatened, it can flip your perspective on the situation and open doorways toward authentic healing. And maybe knowing that when you aren’t thinking clearly or have acted poorly that it’s basic biology in play, you can be a little more forgiving toward yourself.
So be brave—take a few breaths and remind yourself that you are safe. Then open your voice up, remember how well your brain is working, and share your message with the world.