We come into this world as fully expressive bundles of divine energy, but as relational beings we need our divinity mirrored back in order for us to fulfill our unique expression on earth.
After our physiological and safety needs are met, our need for belonging through such mirroring is paramount. (See Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”)
Those with eyesight get this mirroring through the intimate gaze of one or more adults. The availability of such mirroring in early years determines how strongly we sense that we belong in our body, in our family, and in the world, and how fearlessly and responsibly we express ourselves as we grow.
When my dad was not too distracted to look at me at all, he shot daggers of blame and shame into my eyes. My mom’s eyes, usually available to me, reflected pity for my plight and sadness for her own, along with a pull on me to merge with her.
Most of us were born into a world in which the illusion of separation was the norm, so we were seen as the Other rather than the divine manifestation of the One that is the reality of who we are. What we needed in large doses were receptive eyes, soft gazes signifying: “I am here for you. I see you, I hear you. There is nothing to do, nothing to perform. You don’t have to smile or delight me to keep me here. Just being with you and breathing together is my great pleasure.”
To the extent such unconditional welcome was not available to us in what I have come to call Relational Presence, the eyes of others became an unsafe place in which to rest, and we grew up with some degree of self-consciousness, anxiety, avoidance and/or aggressiveness around meeting eyes.
Until I was 45 years old I was painfully self-conscious, with no idea how to let myself “be seen” or how to gently and steadily hold another in my eyes. You might say that “windows of my soul” were boarded up, complicating attempts to express myself clearly and have authentic relationships.
Psychotherapy and spiritual exploration had given me the intellectual understanding that I was not alone, and the capacity to cope and achieve some degree of success in the world. I became good at acting as if I was doing just fine while alienated within.
The place where I couldn’t “hold it together” at all was in front of any group, where I was frozen in terror no end.
Looking back I now understand why that was necessarily so, and also why that particular terror was the gift that transformed my life.
Why public speaking anxiety is inevitable
Any unease you may have in being truly seen by another human being is multiplied dramatically in front of a group, which becomes an instant firing squad. Our normal coping mechanisms become useless when a sea of eyes evokes in us feelings of separation from the herd. We experience primal for fear for our survival, and naturally project contempt, boredom, or impatience.
Why public speaking anxiety is a gift
Contraction in front of groups, from mild self-consciousness to terror, is but a symptom of the illusion of separation most of us grew up with and live with. The Speaking Circle format recreates a scenario that predictably evokes that contraction, absent the pressures of time or effort or performance, or even the need to speak. This allows participants to breathe, “stop the world” and re-access, at their own pace, the natural relational gaze with one person at a time that had been compromised early on in order to survive.
This Relational Presence practice rewires our neural pathways, liberating the eyes and dissolving self-consciousness in just a few sessions for many. Once we rediscover the capacity to inhabit our own skin while being seen by a group for who we really are, we naturally express ourselves with more ease, power and flow. And not just with groups, but more and more in all our communications and relationships.
This is why Relational Presence, though primarily a spiritual practice toward dissolving the illusion of separation, has great professional development benefits.
The Facilitation Factor
The Speaking Circle format does require masterful facilitation to maintain the delicate balance between safety and full expression required for liftoff. Continuing to refine my mastery, and training others in this exquisite art, is a lifelong labor of love.
Facilitating Speaking Circles and training Facilitators is my most profound pleasure and usefulness on this plane of existence, and it was all made possible (and necessary) by my public speaking anxiety. What a gift!