Confessions of a Psychoanalyst: Performance Anxiety and the Dread of Shame

Shame is the primary indicator of not belonging to oneself. In shame, you belong to other people's eyes.
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This blog started out as a speech. To improve my skills as a public speaker, I joined Toastmasters International, an organization where members cultivate public speaking skills by studying manuals, practicing and helping one another. Soon after joining I was called upon to give my first speech. As I expected, all my old fears and insecurities emerged. Since that experience, I've given a number of speeches at Toastmasters, and yet continue to struggle with those same issues of performance anxiety. Realizing that I'm not alone with these feelings, I wanted to share my experiences with you.

Childhood is the air that we breathe. As a psychoanalyst, I've spent many years as a patient in psychoanalysis myself, understanding as deeply as I can the different aspects of my personality and how I developed. I'm at a crossroads now, and I'd like to share with you how issues from childhood having to do with performance anxiety and the dread of shame bring me face to face with a very deep conflict within me. On the one hand, part of me wants to expand professionally by writing and speaking -- hence my joining Toastmasters -- but I have an internal prohibition against taking center stage and calling attention to myself. In other words, when I stand in front of an audience, I'm terrified. So, let me explain.

I was raised in a very loving home, with four generations living together. My father was 30 years older than my mother. He believed that "family takes care of family," and he invited my mother's mother and grandmother to live with us. Three of the adults in the household had been born in the 1800s, and to say that they were "old-fashioned" doesn't do it justice. "Victorian" is a better word. My brother, sister and I have always had the feeling that we were born in the wrong century.

Rules for girls were different than for my brother. Girls were to be ladies at all times, no matter what. To call attention to oneself or to express opinions that differ from others was not okay. It was important to always let other people think they're smarter, and a girl was always, always supposed to be modest in every way. Bragging was completely unacceptable, as was any display of negative emotions.

My grandfather, my father and my uncle were all well-known orators in their day, and of course, it was the men who stood out -- not the women. As a child I marveled at my father's ability to speak with ease and wit in front of anybody. His stories were amazing. So my father wanted us to be at ease with public speaking. By the time I was four, I was memorizing long poems and reciting book reports. I remember standing in front of this godlike figure, anxiously performing for my father. It helped me tremendously in my ability to memorize, but not in being able to speak extemporaneously. After all, I wasn't supposed to try to be the focus of attention, or to show off in any way, or to appear smarter than others.

So now, as a member of Toastmasters, I find myself standing there week after week, talking more about myself than I've ever done with a group of people. I've always thought of myself as a listener -- not a talker! I feel like a total narcissist, calling attention to myself and telling stories that make me feel like I'm bragging. The fact is that I've never before told stories to more than two or three people at a time in my life. When I left my job as a flight attendant for Pan Am to begin my new career, I deliberately left that world behind me. I was anxious to fit into my new world, and didn't talk much about Pan Am. My fellow members of Toastmasters were my very first audience for my Pan Am stories. As a fatherless child at eight years old, I determined that if I couldn't have my father, that I would become him by traveling and knowing the world that he had seen. Do I dare try to become a storyteller like he was?

As part of my conflict about performing, there's a deeper underlying issue for me than anxiety and that is dread of shame over exposing my anxiety. Perhaps the title, "Confessions of a Psychoanalyst" provided a clue. Shame is the primary indicator of not belonging to oneself. In shame, you belong to other people's eyes. You don't matter -- other people's eyes matter. As I get more anxious, I feel shame, and I make myself matter less and less because the audience's eyes become more important. So stage fright for me is all about shame over exposing anxiety. Not only am I not supposed to show off in any way, but if I do, I'm supposed to do it flawlessly and fearlessly.

As a child growing up, I felt that I needed to be very calm for my mother after my father died (
), and developed a requirement to try to never show anxiety. I wanted to appear at all times as calm and soothing. A lot of times I am that, but not when it comes to public speaking, and I'm aware that the anxious part of me is totally visible. Because I now believe that anxiety is just a feeling, and all feelings are acceptable, I'm trying to make friends with it. I'm working to accept that anxiety is just another part of me. I have to be willing to show it, or else I'm in a form of bondage in which I don't belong to myself; I belong to other people's eyes.

I had a traumatizing experience on stage when I was a freshman in college. Seventeen Magazine held "best dressed" contests on most college campuses throughout the states. I won it at my school for my freshman class, and was called up on the stage with the sophomore, junior and senior girls. We had to walk around and pose, and answer a few questions. Just as we were leaving the stage, the head of the school announced that we were going to be judged not only by our clothes, but by our appearance in general, our sense of style, our poise and our grace. Just when she said the word "grace," we were headed down the stairs at the side of the stage and my heel caught something, and I went down like a sack of potatoes -- boom, boom, boom, boom -- until I landed on the bottom step. I was humiliated, and everybody stood up to see if I was hurt. So much for "grace," and ever since then I have felt terrified of being the klutz that I can be in front of an audience.

And when I say "ever since then," I mean that it happens to me every time I give a speech. I feel anxiety, and I try to face my shame about that. And as every speech ends, my only thought is, "Helen, just don't trip on your way back to your seat!"

So far, that hasn't happened yet, but there's always the next time.

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