A Reason to Stop Avoiding

{ 27 comments }

Public Speaking Fear

For sixteen months, my own personal doomsday has been slowly approaching. With the launch of my book, I knew I was going to have to face up to something I’m terrified of.

I’m not talking about deep water or heights or snakes. I’m talking about something that has held me back from opportunities and shaped my life choices.

For 32 years, I’ve avoided public speaking.

At university, I immersed myself in my own personal study of Not Speaking in Public. When the time came to get up in front of the class and talk about our graphic design projects, I’d quietly slip out of the room, get in my car, and drive to the cinema. Watching a two-star romantic comedy alone in the dark was so much more appealing than standing before sixty sets of eyes.

I was always amazed that nobody noticed I was gone, and despite my Houdini act during public speaking occasions, I finished university with top marks.

I was smug that I’d gotten away with it. Bwah-ha-ha! I win! I thought.

From there, I became so good at side-stepping public speaking that I practically invented my own dance. Left, right, avoid! Right, left, avoid! I applied only for jobs that would allow me to hide behind computer screens all day, and I somehow even managed to avoid any obligations to answer the phone (my fear also extended to telecommunications).

I was smug that I got away with that too. Bwah-ha-ha! I win!

Avoidance is a funny thing. The more you do it, the more stubbornly you stick it out. A simple refusal—a one-time “No”—somehow turns into a lifetime of “No’s”. I accepted this limitation as a part of me, like a missing leg. “I’m scared” was my disability, and one that I believed to be legitimate.

Like any disability, it put limitations on my life.

Part of the appeal of self-publishing my book was avoidance. If I was the master of my own publication, then I wouldn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, like radio or talk shows or reading events. Instead, I could quietly promote my book from behind my laptop screen. I knew it was going to be a challenge to get the word out digitally, but my determination to avoid public speaking was so strong that I became a social media whiz to compensate.

And then (thanks to my superb social media skills) my book sold to five publishers. I told you all that I was excited because that seems like a fitting reaction, but the truth was, in between all the celebrating, I was filled with gut-clenching dread.

Publishers sent over proposals with words like, “Book store events,” and “Live radio” and I could hear the squeak of the spotlight turning on me, ready to flush me out from my dark hiding place with stark white light. I didn’t know how to talk about this, as I was afraid I’d get accused of looking a gift horse in the mouth. On the odd occasion that I would mention it out loud, I was told, “Psht! Puh-leez, Torre. You’ll be fine.”

First world problems, I know.

And yet the thought of the world ending in December 2012 felt genuinely comforting to me. Death—the ultimate way to avoid. Boom! We’re all dead! Game, score, match! I win! Bwah-ha-ha! 

But we didn’t die. The world kept turning, dammit, and the dreaded launch date approached. Just before returning home to Melbourne for my Australia/NZ launch, I got sick in Thailand with something that could’ve been a tropical bug or a flu, but was most likely nerves. I was shitting myself. Literally.

On Feb 27, I was scheduled in to appear on ABC RadioNational on a popular program called Life Matters. It was to be broadcast around the entire country. Live.

The game was up. I was about to lose.

But the results were shocking…

I woke up that morning in a state of perfect calm.

I drove to the ABC studio in a state of perfect calm.

I went into the recording studio in a state of perfect calm.

And all throughout the interview, I was calm—perfectly so.

If you’d like to listen to it, here’s the interview.

I didn’t embarrass myself and melt into a pile of my own goo. My throat didn’t close over and suffocate me. Nobody laughed and called me stupid. My insides did not spill out into the room. I was just me as I always am, but on radio, talking to a lot of people. No biggie.

Once I lost my option to avoid, it was easy.

In fact, it was a whole lot of fun.

Since then, I’ve done five radio interviews, and the experience was the same for each one: easy, exhilarating, fun. Last night, after a successful interview with ABC774, the presenter Lindy Burns said to me, “That was great. You’re a natural talker.”

Me? Really? A natural talker? Huh! Who would’ve guessed? I never would’ve known this if I hadn’t been forced into facing this fear.

For 32 years, I’ve been pointlessly avoiding public speaking. Why? In a way, it’s like playing a video game that scores points when I successfully escape the bad guy—the public speaking. Only it’s a fictional baddie in a make-believe game that I invented when I was a child. There is no way to win this game. What felt like a win was actually my own loss.

Is there anything that you’re avoiding?

Leave a Comment

  • Karen March 8, 2013, 8:41 am

    You and me both lady. I’m sure if they taught psychology in the dark I would have stuck with a psych major rather than film.
    Once I did eventually stand up and face my public speaking demons over 10 years later as a mature age student and came out on top, I realised how much I had become a slave to the avoidance.
    Does this mean your phone phobia has been cured? x

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche March 8, 2013, 1:22 pm

      Yes, I know Karen. And I’m so proud of you for facing that fear. I know how much it shaped your life too.

      I’m okay with phones. They’re still not my preferred method of communication, but I’m not scared anymore.

      Reply
  • Chris Marlowe March 8, 2013, 12:01 pm

    Me too! terrified, not only of public speaking, but also private speaking. I stammer…I stutter…and avoid all the vocal communication that I can avoid. I’m not a “loner” as I adore being in company….until it comes to my turn to say something. I get a feeling that I must say something meaningful, or else, I’ll be thought a fool. Even now, at age 67, I get hundreds of flashbacks of moments when I’ve opened my mouth and something ridiculous and gauche has come out …and I physically shudder! Perhaps, my avoidance of speaking is why, as a kid adolescent& young adult, I loved Solo Sailing so so so very very much. Out in the middle of Tasman Sea, Bass Strait, Coral Sea, southern/Indian Ocean or even Port Phillip Bay there was nobody to answer to, only myself….and I was eloquent and well modulated.
    I congratulate you on overcoming your fear in the early stage of your life, while I’m in the latter stage of life and am at my happiest alone in my woodwork shed where the noise is so loud nobody can speak at all! *lol* Thanks very much to you Torre!
    Cheers,
    Chris Marlowe (aka “J”)

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche March 8, 2013, 2:10 pm

      Chris, I feel for you. I think it’s a terrible habit to stew over your performance like this, and I used to do the same thing. I’ve learned to stop myself as soon as I notice that I’m combing over old conversations, looking to criticise myself. I say, “STOP IT!” and I let my mind move on. I give myself a mental slap on the wrist. Over time, this has become more and more automatic, and I’ve trained myself out of the habit.

      Well… even if you’re shy in person, I very much enjoy speaking to you online. What do you make in your woodwork shed?

      Reply
  • Ruth Dupre March 8, 2013, 2:19 pm

    Phone phobia. OMG, yes. Please don’t make me call someone I don’t know. Please…
    But what scares me is finishing my memoir. As long as I’m writing I can hide *in here*. I don’t run the risk of being *out there*, promoting the book. All the stupid gauche things I will say and do… gah!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche March 8, 2013, 2:26 pm

      There is such a huge difference between the delicious inner world of writing a book, and the naked exposure of releasing and promoting it! But you will surprise yourself, Ruth.

      Reply
  • Cristina March 8, 2013, 2:42 pm

    I panic if I have to talk in public. I almost fainted at university when giving my first presentation. I felt like puking. It was HO-RRI-BLE.
    Funny, like you, I hate talking on the phone too, but this is because people here realize I am not American and say stupid things like “ohhh your accent is so cute” and (the one I hate the most) “Say that again! Say that again! Oh you are so cute!”
    I am a zoo animal in a world of idiots on two legs.
    I have a call to make on Monday and I am dreading it. I will look (sound) like an idiot and they will turn the other way. Meeeeehhh!!!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche March 9, 2013, 5:00 am

      I hope that you’re born as a four legged beast in your next life, Cristina. A painted dog perhaps?

      Reply
  • Carmel March 8, 2013, 3:05 pm

    In college, I had no choice when it came to public speaking…we all had to take a class to graduate. I put it off until my senior year, last semester. It really wasn’t that bad, other than having a weird professor who was a stickler for long written tests. And by then I had to give so many presentations for my business classes and had been on the radio for an internship that it was kind of no big deal. I still get that terrified heart beat any time I do have to speak in front of others, but I sound surprisingly competent.

    I tend to avoid speaking Spanish, even though that was a major of mine in college. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect at it.

    Reply
  • Wanda St.Hilaire March 8, 2013, 5:03 pm

    Hi Torre,

    I had to suck it up both in sales & marketing (presentations) and then for book signings and launches, so I get it, completely.

    My acupuncturist, “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” and I discussed fear and avoidance yesterday.

    “Can you say yes to life, yes to whatever your greatness is, no matter the responsibility?”

    Hmpf. The grand avoidance. The responsibility of stepping into all of yourself, whoever that may be, wherever it may take you, and whatever you are asked to do.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche March 9, 2013, 5:03 am

      Obi-Wan Kenobi sounds rather amazing! It really is about embracing all that comes once you decide to open yourself up to the world.

      Reply
  • jackie buchanan March 8, 2013, 7:15 pm

    Hi Torre

    I can’t hear your interview because it doesn’t play. Anything you can do or is it my computer?

    Reply
  • Sarah Somewhere March 8, 2013, 8:07 pm

    I loved the interview, well done Torre – I would have been terrified too!!! Good to hear your voice :)

    Reply
  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures March 8, 2013, 10:19 pm

    Oh wow I love the new website!!! It’s gorgeous! I HATE public speaking too. I’m not sure I would have been calm like you, I think I would have been sick to my stomach. Listening to your interview now!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche March 9, 2013, 5:06 am

      Thanks, Andi. I can relate to that sick feeling, but it thankfully goes away once it’s time to perform.

      Reply
  • James March 9, 2013, 7:29 am

    Great post, Torre! Although I’m a natural ham and thrive on being in the public eye, I love the idea of forcing yourself to move past your own barriers. We all have them. Sometimes we just need a little bit of a push (or maybe a shove!). Congrats on all the great things that are happening!

    Reply
  • Jema March 9, 2013, 4:00 pm

    I think this is a huge accomplishment! I too avoided speech classes in college. I feel so much more comfortable with writing, and yet there is this little tug to put myself out there in the public through either speaking or video. Ah, the stretching and growing of life.

    You did amazing!

    Reply
  • sarah corbett morgan March 9, 2013, 7:42 pm

    Count me among those with a public speaking phobia. I do fine with one-on-one chats, but put me in front of 20- 2000 people and it’s all over. Sweat, butterfies, clenched throat. All of it. I’m really glad to hear you survived the ordeal, and it sounds as though you did, not only just fine, but great. Maybe there is hope for me yet. ;-)

    Reply
  • Luke Simmons March 11, 2013, 3:46 am

    For the 2nd time, I cannot believe you watched The Exocist at age four. I would have accepted it as truth, just like I bought the Easter Bunny…

    I’m sure your interview would have provided some pretty solid entertainment for many a random around Australia listening at that time. It rocked.

    May I ask, how regularly did you take a swim off the edge of the boat without land in sight.

    Reply
  • Lynne Knowlton March 12, 2013, 11:51 am

    Torre,
    To say that you are an absolute inspiration is probably going to sound very corny… and you are AN ABSOLUTE INSPIRATION. The palms of my hands are sweating just THINKING of public speaking.

    CONGRATS !!!! to you for taking the leap. You rock out loud !!
    Lynne from Design The Life You Want To Live xx

    Reply
  • Normandie March 12, 2013, 8:04 pm

    Torre, loved it. You did beautifully, absolutely a natural. I’m glad your boundaries have stretched in another area beyond the ocean!

    Reply
  • Britany March 13, 2013, 12:06 pm

    Gosh every word of this was my life in graduate school. Every week we were forced to share our writing and I would do ANYTHING to avoid it and often did so successfully. And when I wasn’t avoiding, those that knew me well could hear the fear in my voice as I’d stumble through my latest essay, trying to catch my breath for the first few paragraphs. It probably wasn’t as bad as I thought, but I still hate it. But I know that if I’m forced into a position where its a regular part of my life that I’ll learn to deal with it. Its always reassuring to hear other people admit to this very inconvenient fear — especially those who have faced it and come out a smooth talking success!

    Reply
  • Sky March 14, 2013, 8:52 pm

    Oh, there are so many things I avoid…water (and therefore things like rafting, kayaking, boats, etc), heights, bugs, public speaking…the list goes on and on. I’m slowly starting to face some of these fears, though and I can honestly say I’m so glad I faced my fear of planes because if I never had, I’d have never left the country.

    I particularly love what you said about “I’m scared” being a disability. I definitely agree with that and it’s an excuse I’ve used many, many times.

    Reply