Ask people what they fear the most and you’ll get a variety of answers ranging from sharks to death. The fear they seem to forget but almost unanimously agree upon is public speaking. Whether it be a business meeting, a family gathering or a wedding speech, most people would say they would rather die. It’s something which may never enter your thoughts unless you are called upon to do it.
John was in just this situation. He was promoted to a managerial position in his company, a step up that he wanted and felt he had worked hard to achieve. Celebrations ensued and a party was arranged to make merry with his friends. That’s where the nightmare began.
At the party his friends were delighted when they heard the news and responded by yelling “SPEECH SPEECH”. John suddenly knew he was in real trouble. The job specification which he had agreed to involved something he had thought about but passed off with the thought “When I need to do it, I’ll just do it.” In this case the ‘it’ was presentations to customers and staff of his company.
He had attended many presentations given by his predecessor; so he knew what to do and how to do it. He had even written the presentations for the previous manager but now he was the manager and he had to do the presentations. When his friends yelled “speech speech”, John felt that old familiar fear when he was asked to speak publicly. He was fine when speaking to just one person, even two, and sometimes even three (if he had a few drinks beforehand) but never in a group setting. What was he going to do? This job was what he had worked for over many years. The salary increase, travel (with his wife – paid by the company), company car and many other benefits were his reward and he wasn’t going to give them up without a fight.
That’s where I came in. John had already tried a number of therapies to overcome his fear but with no success. He was referred to me as a last resort. John was sceptical to say the least. He wasn’t sure of hypnotherapy and said so at our first meeting – “Look Leon, nothing against you, but I just don’t know about hypnosis, although at this stage I’m willing to try anything.” We talked for a while and I explained to John that hypnosis and meditation were the same state – we just apply it differently. He accepted that he would be in his own control at all times, that in fact many clients felt that there was no real change from their normal state except they were very relaxed in the hypnotic state.
It was time to start the hypnotherapy. John chose to not look for any situation or event that may have caused the fear – he just wanted it gone. It took him a few sessions to really accept the state even though he was practising techniques at home. He said “your other clients are right; it feels like nothing is happening”. Then he started feeling the effects. The thought of speaking in public no longer scared him to the point that he couldn’t breathe, think or talk. In short, he knew he was responding to therapy.
Another session and he was ready to use his new-found confidence. A friend’s wedding was coming up and he had been asked to give a speech a few months ago which he refused. He now was going to do the speech. When he wrote the speech, he felt nervous but not scared and as the evening approached his anxiety increased. The speech was accepted well by the audience but John was disappointed. “I thought I would be fine but I was still scared. Not full on scared as I used to be, but – it’s like listening to music from another room – it’s muted, not clear. You know it’s on but it doesn’t distract you.”
He acknowledged that it was an improvement but couldn’t meet his own high expectations. I pointed out that just asking to do the speech was a first for him and doing it was an even bigger accomplishment. He agreed, but said it wasn’t enough. He had managed to get out of all his company presentations up until now but his first company presentation was coming up and it had to be “brilliant” – his whole career rested on it.
We continued with therapy coupling various techniques with hypnotherapy to increase their effectiveness. John felt more confident than ever before. Yet, we had a problem. John needed to test himself again but had nowhere to do so before his company presentation. So he made up his mind to ‘just do it’.
At our next consultation John arrived briefcase in hand, shoulders slumped, head bowed and eyes down. I was concerned. John said in a quiet voice that he had some bad news – I braced myself.
“I’m not coming back any more”, he said. “There’s no point”.
I asked him how the presentation had gone and he replied “BRILLIANTLY”. Leon, I don’t need you any more, it was brilliant. I couldn’t believe it. It was almost as though I was standing outside myself watching myself and I was brilliant. I could think, breathe and talk all at the same time.”
So what’s the bad news John?
“You won’t be seeing me anymore.”
I followed his comment with a few ‘choice’ words to indicate my displeasure at his method of telling me, although in reality there was a part of me that knew he was joking. He had worked hard to get his promotion and he had worked hard with me to overcome his fear. He deserved all the success he was now achieving and I told him so.
A second case was Janet. She didn’t have a promotion or a new job that pushed her to want to overcome her fear of “talking in front of others”. She was fine talking to a person or friend or even two friends but, when it became more than two people, even close friends, she just “clammed up”. Her only real escape from the problem was reading. Even at parties she would often find a quiet place and just sit and read (she always had a book with her) rather than having to mix with the group. She knew the impression it gave but she just couldn’t mix in the group.
She didn’t know why she just hated it. “I have things to say, opinions to express and I just can’t say a thing – it’s like I’m frozen solid”.
Janet decided she wanted to know what caused this fear. “It had to start somewhere and I am sick and tired of putting up with this. For God’s sake I’m 33 years old, an intelligent articulate woman but you’d never know it. Whatever caused this has to be fixed.”
We used the feelings Janet experienced when she was gripped by fear. The fear, panic, hotness, anxiety and embarrassment were recreated and traced to their beginnings. Back she went to her first experience at five years old, having just started school and being told she was such a good reader (in fact her reading skills were more of a seven year old).
In the nervousness of a five year old reading for the first time in front of a class she froze. The teacher was very supportive but the other children (two especially) kept teasing her long after the incident whenever she was with them playing with mutual friends.
It was like magic. She now knew where it started. Previously she had always felt like a five year old when the fear occurred and had no ability to understand what was happening or how to fix it. Now she had the ability to support herself – the magic of self-awareness. She used the part of herself that would support a child in distress, much the same as if you found your child crying, you would cuddle and nurture them to help them cope with the situation.
She realised that she was no longer that child, that she was “an intelligent articulate woman” (a good self esteem helped) and allowed herself to support her inner child. The mature adult, capable of dealing with life, automatically came in and she released the trauma of her classroom / playground event.
You may think this is nice but no earth-shattering event. That is true, but in a follow-up telephone call Janet told me she has for the first time accepted an invitation to go out with friends and accepted three invitations to go to parties and mixed easily in all the situations.
Oh, by the way, her bag is now lighter – she doesn’t need her book any more.
Leon Cowen is Executive Director of the Academy of Applied Hypnosis, Lindfield, NSW
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