Rose Claire writes:
Alison, you said you would like to be a presenter for an LDS event. Jeannie, you have performed professionally all your life. I can’t even bear my testimony without practically passing out. Is there really any hope that a hopeless scaredy-cat can learn to speak or perform without trembling?
Rose Claire, you have asked the right writers to address this problem. Confidence and poise are very much a part of both of their personalities, and they are desirable traits for a Latter-day Saint woman who has pledged to stand as a witness at all times and in all places. I would like to say only that bearing witness is not the same as performing. It can certainly spoil an otherwise powerful presentation if the speaker or singer is breathless and shaking and trying to deliver her message with a quavering voice and shimmying knees. But it is not uncommon to hear stirring testimonies with all of those scaredy-cat qualities, even from otherwise polished speakers. The Holy Ghost will verify and sanctify the message if it is sincere, and skill makes no difference whatsoever. I remember an attorney bearing his testimony in our ward, teasing himself that he rants at juries all day in thunderous rhetoric, but his knees turn to jello when he stands before his brothers and sisters at church to express the tender feelings of his heart.
I noticed as a young woman that some TV ministers used theatrical, dramatic speaking techniques that were fun and impressive, but our speakers in General Conference were the opposite. They were (and are) quiet and conservative, but absolutely convincing in the unmistakable candor of their souls. I think many of the speaking responsibilities that we are called upon to fulfill are not really “presenting” in the sense of “making a speech.” They are just part of our church calling and as such are covered by the blessings we receive when we are set apart. In fact, every challenge of our lives, no matter how scary, is covered by the wonderful and miraculous comfort of the gift of the Holy Ghost conferred upon us as members.
That’s not very helpful if you don’t like having sweaty palms and white knuckles every time you need to speak to more than six people. But Moses didn’t think he could do it either. He did just fine. He did everything Heavenly Father asked him to do. I think that is your desire also. I hope you will feel especially blessed and comforted the next time you are called upon to stand terrified in the spotlight, knees quaking, silently praying that something audible will come out of your mouth. Read on for more encouragement. We also invite our readers who have experience in this area to offer pointers to Rose Claire and the rest of us who turn to cowards when we are called upon to talk or sing in public.
Although I’ve been a performer for most of my life, it may surprise you to know that I wrestle with severe stage fright every time I am called upon to sing. Truth be known, it is a white-knuckle, throw-up, panic button agony. I find myself wishing for a trap door through which I could vanish forever. I keep thinking, “This is just like labor pains and delivery of a baby ?in two minutes I’ll step out on the stage and there’s no escape!!!” On the other hand, you ask me to teach a lesson, bear testimony or speak in public: hey, no problem. Go figure.
I’ve been trying to figure it out for many years. With some help, I’ve come to several conclusions. Maybe some of these hard-won discoveries will mean something to you, as well.
Things will not always get easier the more you do them. Now, I do have to say that after the first two songs, if I’m doing a full concert, the nerves are under control and I start enjoying myself. Still, the angst experienced before the fact is enough to take 10 years off my life.
If you can endure the first moments of sheer terror, it really does get better. Most of us with severe stage fright surrender after only a few of these horrendous moments and never open our mouths again. It is totally illogical to willingly subject our shaking bodies to yet another bout of punishment. Yet, this is exactly what the Lord requires of us ?all of us.
Ether 12:27 has been a source of frustration and finally, great comfort to me. I brought my weakness to the Lord, believing that it would indeed, be made a strength. The weakness did not disappear, even though I tried earnestly to magnify my talent and use it to build His kingdom. It was so frustrating. How could I possibly continue to do that thing which He required and which I feared most?
Through much soul-searching and prayer, I have been given a clearer understanding of this paradox. Along with the gift of song, He has gifted me with a weakness to help remain humble. It is a “blessing” to keep me on my knees and remind me from whom the gift has come each time I use it. There will come a day I know, (and my feeling is that it may not be in this life) when I will be able to stand and sing without fear.
Until then, let me share some practices that are, at very least, keeping me from running away to China before each performance.
- Constant conversation with Father in Heaven. “Please help me to be a conduit for thy Spirit.” “Help me to forget myself and think about the message I am trying to convey.” “Help me to love those to whom I sing/speak.” “Let the audience feel my love for them.” These thoughts help to turn the focus outward and away from personal fear.
- Visualization. Even the Lord created all things spiritually before the real event. Picture the stage, pulpit, classroom and our walk to performance. Feel the heartbeat, the fear and shaking and acknowledge them. It is natural to be afraid, but with every word/note, feel the fear diminishing and conviction for the message increasing. As this happens, our message becomes a testimony, edifying and bringing joy to both listener and performer.
- Lose “perfectionism.” Perfectionists struggle the most with stage fright. They set the unrealistic goal of being 100% every time they step in front of an audience. We are human. Words, melodies and parts of lessons or testimonies may be forgotten. Those of us who perform regularly have to get ‘OK’ with this fact or quit performing altogether. Those who give lessons or occasional testimonies can take solace in the fact that no one knows when you forget or skip a word.
- Take courage in experience. By reminding ourselves, if we are seasoned performers, that we have done this for years and lived through it, fear can be replaced with courage. If we are first-time performers, courage can be found in the fact that nearly everyone in the room has done what we are about to do. We can, too!
- Be gracious. If the performance/lesson goes well, accept thanks or praise and pass it on to the Lord in the form of prayer. If the performance was not our very best, accept thanks or praise and pass it on to the Lord in the form of prayer. The next one will be better.
Substitution. Instead of listening to and believing negative messages: “I am afraid,” “I will fail,” or “I am not as good as Sister ____,” substitute things that the Savior would say and want you to believe about yourself. “I am with you” or “You will succeed” are two that have become my personal affirmations.
Please share your successes, challenges and suggestions. I’m sure they will be a source of comfort and courage to all who, like me, suffer from severe stage fright.
While discussing our next topic I was surprised, as I always am by such comments, when Kathy said, “Alison, I think you are our confident one, and possibly have a tough time relating to any strain of stage fright but if you can find an area that resonates with you, or if you have, possibly, watched another person grow into a role that formerly horrified her or him, that would work.”
If Kathy could have seen my face! If she could have read my mind! I am not sure she would have understood the mixture of humor and pain she would see. It is laughable that someone could think me confident or perhaps laughable that the facade is working so well! And it is painful to think of all the flaws that seem to make true confidence (if such a thing really exists) so difficult.
It is true that I have been performing for years. First piano, then violin, then voice, then theater and musicals and ballroom dance. I even paid for a bit of my college expenses with “scholarship pageant” monies. It is also true that I have grown to love performing and public speaking (although I still always get nervous and jittery with the adrenalin rush). But it is also true that people can do all these things without really being self-assured. And, in fact, it is often the people who feel compelled to hear external applause that are most lacking in real inner peace.
So rather than address the reader’s question with some canned answer like “practice in front of the mirror” or “join Toastmasters,” I would like to tell you about something I am far too familiar with: the consequences of not understanding that our real worth comes only from God.
? Nearly three years ago a woman named Tara moved into my ward in Boca Raton. After enrichment night (or was it still homemaking?) another sister in the ward, Sue, was giving Tara a social map of the ward. “You should get to know Alison. You seem to have a lot in common. You’ll like her.”
“Oh, no,” Tara replied. “She’s way too sophisticated for me.”
Fortunately for me, Sue is a self-described speak-before-thinking kind of person on occasion. And before the thinking set in, she had already spoken and told me, right in front of Tara, exactly what Tara had said in private. Although Tara was thoroughly embarrassed, I was fortunate enough to have her perspective revealed to me. That gave me the opportunity (and the guts) to approach her without fear. Had I not known what Tara was thinking, I would have assumed that her hesitance toward me was because of some great personal distaste for me and this assumption would have made approaching her in friendship seem too risky.
As it was, the ice was broken and within about three days we became fast friends. What a blessing I would have missed, simply because of an overblown fear of rejection!
? In a student ward I attended while in college, I was assigned to visit teach a new sister in the ward. She was tall, blonde, thin, and beautiful ?and I didn’t dare call her up to introduce myself. “What if she thinks I’m stupid? What if she thinks I’m ugly? What if she thinks I’m a total dork?”
The next Sunday during our Relief Society lesson something (I don’t even recall what it was) brought to my understanding the gaping void in my perspective. Relief Society is primarily an organization of service and visiting teaching is an explicit service stewardship. My duty was to extend myself to the sister to whom I was assigned, to find her needs and do what was in my power to fill them, to be a friend and support to her. Whether she thinks I’m stupid, ugly, or dorky are irrelevant. But I was not likely to be able to serve this sister when all I could think about was myself!
? For a year I served in a Young Women presidency with a woman named Patti. We were cordial, but not close, and I had the distinct impression that she didn’t much care for me. As usual, this impression kept me at a distance. Patti was smart, well-spoken, dependable, thin, and always (along with her husband and two young sons) looked absolutely sharp and immaculate. In other words, she was a little intimidating to me.
When I became pregnant with my third daughter, I also became extremely ill. The morning sickness dragged on and on and it became overwhelming and depressing trying to care for my two other young daughters. Still, I didn’t want to “be a burden,” so I tried not to let people know how bad off I really was.
One afternoon, lying on the couch with a bowl next to my head, I heard a knock on the door. “Oh, no!” I thought. I was wearing sweats, hadn’t showered, applied makeup, or taken any kind of styling instrument to my mass of hair. My preschool daughter looked like a neglected child. My house was a mess in fact the bathroom was so filthy that earlier that day, running into the bathroom to throw up, I actually threw up a second time over the condition of the bathroom! (Honest!) This was not really a fine time for visitors!
I reluctantly dragged myself off the couch and walked toward the door. Out of the window, who should I see but Patti! Great! She’s never, ever come to my house and now she wants to come over? Why? So she can gloat about the great disparity in our lives? So she can tell all her perfectly groomed friends what a slouch I am? So she can patronize me? She is on top of the world and I’m a total loser.
I opened the door a crack, beginning to apologize for my condition. Before I could say much, she smiled and said, “Hi! I know pregnancy can be really hard, so I thought I’d bring you guys some dinner.” I don’t recall even giving a response, but I’m sure my jaw hit the floor. After she left I cried. The joy at being able to relieve my husband of some of the burden he had been carrying (while doing the work of two parents) was incredible.
When my husband came home I actually walked, upright (!), into the kitchen and victoriously pronounced, “Dinner’s ready!” [Imagine a look of shock on my husband's face.] Then I said, “Guess who brought it?” After about ten minutes of the fun guessing game, I finally told him Patti brought dinner. He said, “Why?” and all I could say was, “I don’t know.”
For days I thought about that. Why would someone who doesn’t like me, bring a lovely dinner over? If she really doesn’t hate me, then why have I spent the entire past year assuming that she does?
Because of this one act of generous service, I felt confident enough to approach her in friendship. After wasting a whole year while this dear sister lived in my ward, I finally got to know her, and until she and her family moved, we were inseparable. In spite of the fact that she seemed to have everything in her life in perfect order, she was still one of the nicest people and truest friends I ever met. (Which, in hindsight, actually verifies the fact that her life is in perfect order!)
Why has this lesson been so hard for me to learn? Why can’t I just get over myself? Why am I so afraid of being disliked or misjudged that I miss out on so much good?
Perhaps I can blame it on my youth. I was a plump, red-haired, bespectacled girl who liked math and was painfully shy and insecure but still had a penchant to be obnoxiously loud and talkative. (Yes, it’s possible to be both.) I was teased relentlessly at school and, sadly, in church as well beginning just a few weeks into kindergarten and ending at the end of seventh grade eight very long years.
Although I can say that my fear of peer rejection had its roots (as well as its trunk, branches, and leaves!) in these years of being forced to associate with a person (and his cohorts) who thought it amusing to humiliate me publicly, I cannot in all honesty say that I believe that it justifies my carrying it into adulthood. Because I know better. I know human nature better. I know myself better. And I know God better.
I have learned (the long, slow, hard way) that spending an inordinate amount of time mulling (and agitating) over what others think of me is not just self-conscious, it is also self-centered. It is the height of arrogance, I am beginning to believe, to focus so much on what everyone in the world thinks and says about me as if they really think or say anything at all and to imagine that if they did that the topic of me would really be all that important!
It is sad to look back on my life and realize the many opportunities I must have missed, the friendships I passed by, the blessings I could have given and received, had I been more concerned about others than I was about myself. It took me years to understand that my “shyness” and “lack of self-esteem” were really symptoms of profound egotism.
In this age of heightened awareness of self, Ester Rasband wrote a profound book titled, Confronting the Myth of Self-Esteem: Twelve Keys to Finding Peace. In it she proposes something that is scripturally sound, but culturally startling: we find esteem for ourselves, not by seeking for it but by seeking to highly esteem others.
For years I had tried to overcome the pain of the teasing and ridicule of classmates by winning awards and crowns and scholarships. Somehow I thought these things could prove that they were wrong, that I really was worthwhile and if they finally agreed that I was worthwhile, then I could think so, too. But I never realized that the scriptural guide to inner peace has very little to say about self-esteem but pages upon pages of direction in self-mastery, self-sacrifice, and ridding ourselves of selfishness. So where does God put the emphasis?
When I told you that I was both humored and pained at Kathy’s belief that I am confident, I must add that it also made me happy. While I still have many moments when I am afraid to act on an impression for fear of looking stupid (like last week when I was out jogging and thought I should ask a distraught stranger who was emptying a car filled with funeral flowers if she was alright–but didn’t), having a surer knowledge of what is important has made me stronger. And as the years go by, the pretense of confidence seems to be slowly overtaken by real assuredness.
I am a daughter of my Heavenly Father who loves me. He doesn’t care if I am stupid, ugly, or dorky. He doesn’t love me less if losing the weight after my fifth baby is harder than the first. He doesn’t mind if I have stubby hands and awful nails that can’t stay manicured. He doesn’t care if I give a lesson or bear a testimony and someone finds it unsophisticated. He just wants me to try my best no matter how lame that effort may be and get up and try again when I mess up royally. And if someone else wants to think I’m stupid or ugly or dorky or self-righteous or overbearing or unskilled (or whatever!) in the process, then so be it.
When my children feel insecure or afraid at the thought of approaching someone or something new, I have taken to asking them, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” and then, “What is the best thing that can happen?” Usually the worst thing that can happen is total rejection. The person can think you’re a stupid, ugly, dorky loser and tell you to get lost. Or maybe they could punch you in the nose. But the best thing that could happen is you could make a life-long friend, serve someone in need, be an answer to a prayer, or be the person through whom God blesses the lives of others. And most of the time the possible trouble of the former is far outweighed by the possible benefits of the latter.
We aren’t here on earth to sit cowering in our corners (or our cubicles). We are here to get back home. And one of the easiest ways to stay on the straight and narrow path (thereby shortening our journey) is to lift others along as God lifts us. There is something magnetic about serving and doing good…and it seems to pull us continually back toward the iron rod.