From the time I was about 8, I started to develop anxiety in group interactions. I was always a high achiever, however put in any situation where the “spotlight” was on, I became overwhelmed with self-consciousness that seemed to get worse with age, rather than better.
In the 5th grade I was nominated by my teacher to represent my class in front of the entire school. It was the worst day of my life. When I got up on stage, I froze. I couldn’t remember any of my lines even though I rehearsed a thousand times. I saw peers in my class laughing at me, so it appeared. It took me weeks to even feel okay having a conversation with my friends. As time went on, it got worse. I avoided large group settings where I would be required to present. During high school, I would magically figure out ways not to present.
In college, I joined a fraternity, in part to get better in large group settings. Once again it didn’t work. I ran for president of the fraternity and agonized for days on end on my presentation. No, it wasn’t about the topics that I would discuss. It was about how I would screw up! It was how I would freeze in front of my buddies! It was how I would be seen as a fraud, a wimp, as stupid!
I was so overwhelmed with terror I couldn’t even show up for the first day of Public Speaking 1.1, even though I signed up for that course 5 or 6 times.
I tried Toastmasters and even attended sessions with a psychologist.
When I entered the work place my stage terror got even worse. I had lots of practice screwing up in my mind. I worked for a very large prestigious management consulting firm representing Fortune 500 companies billing millions of dollars in hourly fees. It was my job to represent the firm as the expert. I was a perfectionist and can proudly say the work I delivered was meticulous and well thought out. However, when I had to present to the client, and even worse, in front of my team, I fell apart — at least, in my mind.
Every time I would present I would have what I called it a “melt-down,” a Chernobyl Core Dump. After I would present I’d go into a downward spiral. I would agonize for days after any kind of social interaction where I was required to present in front of a group.
I felt stupid. I felt like a fraud. I felt like people didn’t like me. It was the most awful, degrading feeling, and I knew I had to overcome this chronic problem. My wife very much understood my issue. She would feel the river of cold sweat in bed at night beginning days before a presentation. However, my family didn’t understand. They said that I was outgoing and that in no way could I of all people have this problem.
Finally, I decided to sink or swim by getting into Sales. I told my wife I would either get over this once and for all, or die a miserable death trying. In sales for a software company, I was required to present right off the bat in front of 5-20 people. This was the breaking point. It was a total disaster. I went to see a doctor because my face was turning beet red and even the president and VP’s would comment and joke about my color changes.
At the doctor, I found out that I was one of the 10% of the population who was allergic to his own adrenal. I took beta blockers for almost two years before each presentation. I would also sometimes throw up. It was getting worse, and I often came home sinking more and more into depression and feeling that it was just a matter of time before my bosses would find out what a fraud I was and fire me.
In 1999, I spent significant time on the Internet researching my problem — Severe Stage Fright. Then came the magical, life changing moment when I found out about Lee Glickstein’s Speaking Circles.
I made good progress during the 2-1/2 hour Speaking Circle Sessions, but it wasn’t until the Speaking Circle weekend Intensive with Lee and Doreen Hamilton that I had one of those intense “melt-downs” right in front of the entire group — and in front of the video camera! I experienced the very same psychological and perhaps chemical phenomenon that had happened time and time again during the years. I felt stupid. I felt that I had let Lee down and that he saw me as a fraud.
During a follow-up session watching the videotape, I was able to really look at what was going on inside versus what was visible on the outside. I was shocked. I could see almost no symptoms of my “melt-down” on the tape!
As I spent more time with Lee and his Speaking Circle concept of “Be With,” I was able to realize that the center of my problem was that I wouldn’t allow myself to connect with others, AT ALL, and that the entire group in front of me was my enemy as opposed to my friends. I would project my own feelings of judgment and degradation onto the entire group. As I began to Be With each individual one by one without having to perform or even speak; as I began to open up the group to supporting me and being genuinely interested in my real persona unadulterated by social requirements, I suddenly found a new world.
I am a changed individual. I never practice — ever ever ever — for any presentation, any group discussion, any toast, any anything any more. I live in the moment. After just a few months in Speaking Circles, I became the Number One sales associate in my company, selling $2-5M deals one after the other in software.
In 2000, less than 9 months after meeting Lee, I stepped into one of the most difficult sales situations ever. I was put completely on the spot by the VP and 10 others of a biotech company and thrown into an almost no-win situation. I shot from the heart. I opened up and shared some of the inner most thoughts about my company and about the importance of whatever solution this company would choose. There was no practice. There was no structure. I looked deep into the eyes and hearts of that entire group, one person at a time.
When I completed my talk, I joked about my redness and how I was allergic to my own adrenalin — according to doctors. At the end of the meeting, the VP invited me into her office. She said, in her 25 years of experience, she had never seen such a compelling and solid presentation from a vendor. Needless to say, I won a very well deserved $3 Million dollar contract 4 months later.
I have since won at least 20 more such deals using the same unscripted, unpracticed, unpolished technique of connection. I am cured.
I still get the little flare up in my stomach, an increase in heart beat and blood pressure, sweaty palms, and the red face. I love it. This is my gift and it took me 30 years to figure out the power of what seemed to be a hang-up of life-consuming stage fright.
I shoot from the hip. I seek to connect with people one by one. I want to understand people, I want to share with people, and I love it when they are open to hear me. I’ve unleashed the power of the “Be With” and I enter each situation in group discussions as a new adventure — one that will be unique, meandering, and downright fun. I just want to talk and share and be with others.
© Copyright 2004, Gary Boomershine. All rights reserved.