The Dance of Fear by Harriet Lerner

The main thing I got from this book is that fear and anxiety aren't just individual problems; they totally affect the way we relate with each other. Anxiety is contagious and gets passed around between us whenever we interact with anxious people. Families, companies, organisations, churches, countries and social groups of all kinds can become infected with anxiety that affects everyone in the group. When a social system becomes fear-based or shame-based, everyone in it suffers.

Since anxiety causes suffering, we naturally want to escape. One way of escaping is to dump our anxiety on someone else. Being a sensitive person, I've always been susceptible to having other people's anxiety dumped on me, but it's only now that I'm learning to recognise when this is happening.

This book helped me identify such a situation recently when I volunteered to lead a public speaking training course run by my Toastmaster's club. I had run it successfully several times before and we always got great feedback from the participants on how valuable it was. But this time I wanted to make it even better by talking more about how anxiety works physiologically, and throwing in some exercises to help deal with fear right up front.

Two of the big things that people are afraid of when learning public speaking are forgetting what they wanted to say, and looking foolish. My own experience was that when I first joined Toastmasters, I was trying so hard to be perfect that I wasn't connected with the audience. My perfectionism and fear of what other people think took over. I so worried about getting it wrong that when I got up to speak, my anxiety took me right out of the moment. My focus was on me, rather than my audience. It wasn't until a club meeting one night where I actually did get it wrong and forgot what I wanted to say, that I was able to get past this and be more authentic, more present, and a much better speaker.

Actors face the same problem whenever they feel self-conscious, and it makes for terribly fake acting. So I decided to use some activities from my acting class which involve taking a risk, looking foolish and then being rewarded for it. I knew that I would be taking a bit of a risk by including this activity in the agenda, but I felt it would make the course even more valuable for the participants.

While preparing the agenda I discovered that my assistant would be the woman who taught me public speaking on this very same course three years ago when I did it. I was aware that she might not be entirely comfortable with what I wanted to do; she's been involved in Toastmasters for many years, and even runs a business teaching communication skills. She has helped and encouraged me a lot, is a model Toastmaster and knows a lot more about public speaking than I do. But I fear her judgements.

Toastmaster's philosophy is that if you teach people public speaking skills and get them to practise in a safe, supportive environment, their anxiety dissipates gradually over time and their self-confidence builds naturally. While this is true to some extent, I see a lot of experienced speakers in the organisation who either still look very scared when they speak, or appear very aloof; despite all the skills they have. And I find them hard to listen to. I look at things the other way: deal with the anxiety first, be authentic from the start instead of trying to cover up our inadequacies with a bunch of techniques, and then learn skills to enhance the delivery of our message. But start off by being real and, shudder, even vulnerable.

In the week preparing for the course, I considered whether to take the risk of using something experimental in a Toastmasters course. But I realised that I was really just trying to avoid either feeling insecure in front of my assistant, or the way I would feel if I got criticism instead of encouragement. That would certainly push my buttons and expose the insecurities I inherited from my quick-to-criticise mother. I wanted to create a safe place for people to learn by experimenting without being punished for it, and not consider anything a “failure” when it's really all just a learning experience. If I was to walk my talk, I could hardly baulk at taking a risk with the course content while preaching to my students how they needed to be prepared to take risks if they wanted to learn to be powerful, authentic public speakers.

So I took the risk, had my students deliberately forget what they wanted to say, then jump around like a monkey (or a Chihuahua... their choice!), and be rewarded for all their foolishness and willingness to have a go. I recommended the best books I knew about the importance of connecting with people emotionally (Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman) and being in-the-moment (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle), as these are key attributes of powerful public speakers.

After the first of the two days, my assistant told me “I was mortified with what you taught them. All that talk about fear was very negative. If you teach them the skills, that all deals with itself. Having them acting like monkeys was ridiculous. And those weren't Toastmasters books you recommended. We don't use that material.”. She was extremely negative and critical. I felt very discouraged. I thought the first day of the course had gone down pretty well, and the participants certainly all seemed to get a lot out of it; although I wouldn't know for sure until the course evaluations were done. But that wouldn't be until the end of the second day, two weekends later. Until then, I'd just have to trust that I'd done the right thing; and ended up losing quite a bit of sleep worrying about it.

And it got worse: While preparing the agenda for the second day of the course, I got emails saying that my assistant had reported what had happened to the club committee, and they were very concerned. They wanted to make sure that I stuck to a fixed agenda, and used the standard course evaluation form to gather participant's feedback. Ugh. This didn't feel good for me at all.

But the agenda mandated by the committee wouldn't work, because it was based on a different number of people, and I still needed to include the teaching material that we hadn't yet covered. So I nervously rang my assistant and said “Look, I sense a lot of anxiety coming my way from you over this.”

“Yes”, she replied, “I do feel very anxious about it. I really felt uncomfortable when you had them jumping around all over the place, and not following what we normally do. I didn't like it at all.”

I realised that I had triggered my assistant's anxiety, and it was now coming my way. Perhaps her use of the skills has allowed her to hide her anxiety instead of really dealing with it, and me saying that it's better to deal with it up front was too confronting. I couldn't imagine her jumping around like a monkey; she'd be too worried about what other people thought. It's just not something she'd do. Maybe there was a little fear of change in there too. With the issue of her anxiety out in the open, I could relax a bit and prepare the agenda for the second day of the course without taking so much anxiety on board myself. We both ended up feeling a lot better after this conversation.

When the course evaluations were done, the feedback was extremely positive. One of the participants even said that she specifically appreciated the extra things that I had included in the first day of the course, which she could see most other presenters would not have been able to do. She was grateful for the very exercises that had made my assistant so uncomfortable, and caused me to question myself.

My intuition had been accurate, and the risk I took paid off. It made for a rather uncomfortable couple of weeks, and caused me to question whether Toastmasters is really the right environment for what I want to do. Our fears aren't always easily dismissed; our fear that other people won't like what we do may be well-founded. But the risk of making someone else uncomfortable isn't a good reason to cop-out of doing something. For a while there I was really doubting myself; I was prepared to deal with the anxiety of the course participants, but I wasn't expecting to have to deal with anxiety from my assistant. Ultimately I learned to trust myself better and go with my intuition. I would not have had this lesson had I not taken the risk, and dealt with the resulting fallout.

Anyway, back to the book which helped me piece this puzzle of anxiety all together. I think women will probably find it more helpful than men; some of the examples are a bit female-oriented. Still, I got a lot out of it. I haven't come across any really good books on fear and anxiety written by men; they all seem to be by women. Perhaps us guys are too scared of dropping the male bravado to write a book on fear.

If fear plays too big a role in your life, I still recommend you deal with it up front rather than hoping that it'll just go away in due course. This book is an easy read, and a step in the right direction.

About Graham

I combine trauma awareness, emotional healing and comedy to heal painful events from your past, so you can live a future life you love.
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2 Responses to The Dance of Fear by Harriet Lerner

  1. Sharon Cullington says:

    I like your gutsy move Graham, its been proven that your physiology changes your psycology, therefore if you can throw your body around you would then be able to freely throw your words around. Tony Robbins is very clear on this.. Its sometimes hard to teach old dogs new tricks but new dogs love tricks. When teaching others, its important to be innovative adn put YOU into it otherwise a video would do.

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