When I was 11 years old, I was forced to face the bully that had been dogging me for years.
Beads of sweat dotted my hairline. My palms were damp, and my breaths shallow. My heart raced, and my stomach turned.
I was experiencing textbook symptoms of nervousness and anxiety. But more than anything else, I was intimidated.
This bully wasn’t a malicious kid on the school bus or a mean girl in the lunchroom. It was the daunting task of public speaking.
As a child, I was painfully shy. I’d hide behind my mum’s legs at birthday parties and family events. I’d eventually come out of my proverbial shell in my teenage years — but as a timid fifth-grader, being asked to get up on my school’s auditorium stage to speak to a crowd of approximately 500 students was completely and utterly terrifying.
I was tasked with speaking on stage after I had been nominated to run for school president.
This was an honour and a huge accomplishment. But my debilitating fear of public speaking hindered my ability to feel excited about the opportunity.
I wanted to run away — I may have even packed a bag — but I knew that wasn’t a feasible option. So, instead, I prayed the school would burn down before I ever had a chance to give my speech.
I could have bowed out (and I seriously considered it), but I didn’t want to be seen as a quitter — or worse, a wuss who lacked courage. I couldn’t let my bully win.
So despite every fear and hesitation, I wrote my speech and trembled with dread for the next two weeks.
Much to my disappointment, the school didn’t burn down in that time — and on the morning of that mid-September day, I woke up with a sharp pain in my stomach.
When the morning assembly commenced, all candidates were asked to take the stage.
I felt dizzy and weak but managed to make it up the three steps without fainting. When my name was called, I panicked. I took to the podium and introduced myself to my peers. My voiced quivered, and my hands shook. I never looked up from the two pieces of paper I was holding.
I robotically read every word from my speech — pausing between sentences, and occasionally fidgeting with my ponytail. At one point, I lost my spot. It felt like an eternity before I found it again, but I’d bet a lot of money that it took less than 10 seconds.
When I finished, the audience applauded, and I cracked a smile. I was so relieved it was over and that I could breathe again. I didn’t even care about winning the race. I just wanted it all to be over.
I won’t sugarcoat it: It wasn’t fun. But I made it through. And though I wasn’t elected president of Howell Road Elementary School that year, it was a meaningful learning experience, and I don’t regret it.
I’m still not completely comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people, but I’ve figured out ways to do it with without appearing as nervous as really I am.
I learned three valuable from facing (and defeating) my bully as a kid that have stuck with me ever since:
1. You can feel scared and still be courageous.
I was terrified, but I didn’t quit. And that made me brave.
I never thought fear and courage could go hand-in-hand, but reflecting on this experience, I realised they can (and often do). And that knowledge has helped me maintain my confidence through other challenges in life and at work.
2. Admitting your fears doesn’t make you weak.
I never told my parents or friends how nervous I was about giving that speech. I didn’t want to admit it to anyone, mostly because I was too proud, and I wasn’t in the market for a series of pep talks.
So instead, I sucked it up and spent the next two weeks contemplating every possible worst-case scenario (all completely ridiculous and entirely unlikely), losing sleep over it.
I’ve since learned that being too proud, or isolating yourself, can hold you back.
3. Never let your fears overshadow your accomplishments.
Big accomplishments are often simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking.
They’re exciting for obvious reasons, and nerve-wracking because they sometimes come with added pressure or new responsibilities.
In this case, I was nominated for school president, which was a big deal in the fifth grade. But my fear of the tasks associated with running overwhelmed me. I wasn’t able to feel excited because I was so distracted by my fear.
I’ve since realised that we all have the power to manage our feelings — even the bad ones. So always allow yourself to be excited about your accomplishments before you start worrying.
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