I vividly remember the first time I ever addressed an audience. It was my first semester in university. Up until then, I’ve only listened to teachers giving their speeches during morning assemblies. The opportunity never came up, and I did not experience any form of public speaking up until I was close to being 20 years old.
I have always been an active participant in sports and social activities. There were little, if at all, difficulties with being around people. I had the impression that I could present to an audience quite similarly to how I interacted with others in day to day life. “Just keep in mind what I have to share and talk about it in front of them”, I told myself.
I have never been so wrong.
As soon as I went up to the classroom, my body began to tremble. I was stuttering a lot. Somehow, the ideas that I wanted to share with the other students did not appear in my mind. There were long uncomfortable moments of silence. I stumbled around mentally, looking for the points that I thought I had prepared. It was a mess.
I learned later on that what I experienced was anxiety. Instead of believing that it is a point of weakness, I took it as a challenge. I began rehearsing more before each presentation and prepared cue cards for points that I’d like to keep in mind. I even went to the extent of challenging social anxiety by approaching strangers at the mall, university, bars and clubs. At first, I would start with asking for the time. I then went up a notch by introducing myself, and asking for the other person’s name. And then, I worked up to initiating conversations instead. I have to be honest: I felt like I was going to faint the first time I approached a stranger!
I do not identify with the term “conquer your fears”. I’ve had my fair share of experience speaking in public since that paralyzing speech in university. What I’ve learned is that the fear never really goes away. Every time I am addressing an audience, I feel the same anxiety that overwhelmed me when I was 20 years old. When I go on stage, I feel my limbs trembling. Each time, there will be a gush of blood to my head. I start feeling flushed and my thoughts get scrambled. This doesn’t change no matter how many times I give a talk to an audience.
What has changed though, is the belief in my abilities to manage the situation. There is no talent in this. It is purely based on experience from repeating the same behavior over and over (and over) again. I have also learned that no matter how bad the talk is, that in the grand scheme of things, it is no big deal! I’m still alive, so it can’t be that bad?
I am writing this because of the anxiety I felt at a recent TEDx talk that I presented regarding a mental health platform in Malaysia. Even if I may look calm and composed, my mind was actually all over the place! You have probably seen someone doing something that you’d always like to do. However, you may at times believe that doing it is beyond your abilities. Remember this: this person once felt exactly the same way as you. The only difference is that he or she started doing it and (currently) has more experience!
There is wisdom from the tagline of a well-known sports apparel company. When facing your fears, one simple advice to follow is: “just do it”.
When this is, that is
This arising, that arises
When this is not, that is not
This ceasing, that ceases.
-Law of dependent origination (source: Buddhism)
When I was younger, I found it difficult to overcome the profound feeling of emptiness upon experiencing the loss of a romantic relationship. If I were to self-diagnose* (and to also subscribe to the idea of mental disorders as having an organic origin), I had went through two episodes of major depression, each lasting for a period of about 6 months. During those times, there was a feeling of gloom that felt indefinite over the most sunny of days, in which I felt completely helpless over the situation, whilst having not a single ounce of hope for a favorable future. It didn’t feel like there was any other life beyond the misery that I was feeling during those dark moments.
Things were mostly fine when I was growing up. I was a person who possessed a satisfactory intellect, and was also fairly active. I did not have difficulties in relating to others, and was adequately liked among my peers. As life habits changed for the better and as I matured as a person, it became clear to me that despite having no significant cause for concern in my day-to-day life, the struggle that I was really having with depression was mostly contributed by the high amount of external validation and acceptance that I required in order to maintain my functioning as a person. What better way to derive validation than to receive it in the context of a romantic relationship? However, once the relationship is gone, the crutch that I have in order to continue moving forward no longer exists, and as a result I cease functioning.
Much has changed since then, and I am quite satisfied with how much I’m utilizing my own inner resources to feel fulfilled as a person, and being better able to manage relationships more competently. That is not to say I do not feel negative emotions nor do I not engage in behaviors that in hindsight were not beneficial to me. However, life as a whole is more satisfying, even with the presence of life challenges.
So what actually changed?
In my pursuit of understanding human nature, I have come across differing educated opinions on what makes good mental health (“educated” because there is solid research evidence in application of such opinions) which are often times in contrast with one another. There was considerable debate on whether unconditional acceptance regardless of ‘problematic’ behaviors or a specific system of reward and punishment of behavior would lead a person to improved mental health. In both research and practice, both methods provided considerable improvement for clients experiencing emotional and behavioral difficulties. The list goes on with regards to contrasting methods of therapy, each “one-upping” the other in promoting it’s efficacy in treatment. It is unusual for proponents of a method to agree with a proponent of another.
In my own experience, what was most helpful for me were not specific methods towards good mental health, but an overall desire to improve (hence leading to improvement) of both internal and external processes. Yes, developing an understanding of how my childhood experience shaped me did help. So did developing more awareness and experiencing of the emotions that I’m experiencing. Cultivating positive behaviors helped me as well. So did investing in relationships. There was no one method that provided me with a solution. A change in behavior made changes in my emotions, thoughts, and relationships, while a change in thoughts was followed by changes in emotions, behavior, and relationships, ad infinitum. In short, any effort made towards change will lead to overall change, however minute that may be.
At the present moment, the habits that I have found to be most helpful for myself are meditation, physical workouts, writing (in a journal and now on a new blog), solitude, developing new skills, and nurturing relationships. It took me a while to find what were the behaviors that I would like to retain and benefit most from. I’ve come to embrace the belief that doing something about it, even with unknown results, is always worth a shot (most times, in the dark). There is no opportunity for any sort of improvement if there are no attempts to change. If you find yourself suffering from the pain of thinking that a change you want to make “will not amount to anything”, think of Nike’s slogan, and instead embrace the uncertainty with “why not?”.
Life is just too brief to stay unhappy.
*please seek professional mental health services with regards to diagnostics.