I stood paralyzed in the center of the room, water gushing around my ankles. A pipe had exploded in my dorm room in Jerusalem and I needed the campus repairman to come stat.
“Hello?” said the man over the phone. “Hello? Are you still there?”
I tried to respond, but I couldn’t. Instead, I put the phone down on the coffee table in the living room, wrapped my arms around my head, and sat down shaking in the middle of the flood that surrounded me.
In the weeks leading up to this incident, I had been asked to give a presentation at the Hebrew University. I was a visiting graduate student from the U.S., completing my master’s in security intelligence in the Political Violence and Terrorism Program. I was a straight-A student and rising star among the professors, but many other things hadn’t been so smooth for me in the past year: I was struggling with a mood disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. My public speaking phobia was just the cherry on top of the cake.
Leading up to the burst pipe incident, one of the professors had given me two weeks’ notice to give a presentation on the topic of escalation and deterrence in hybrid warfare. I had written an entire research paper on the subject and should have been excited to share my findings with my classmates. Instead, I went home that afternoon and threw up in my dorm room.
In the weeks that followed, I started avoiding anything that reminded me of public speaking. When I started to stutter at a friend’s dinner table while introducing myself, I decided it would be best if I stopped going to dinners. Eventually, it got so bad that I could barely make eye contact with my parents in America over a video call without breaking into a sweat. By the time I got to the burst pipe, I was so anxious about public speaking that I literally stopped being able to speak.
By the time I arrived at the incident of the flooded living room, I knew I needed help. At the end of the campus, there was a counseling center. I walked through the lobby to the front desk and asked if they had a phobia specialist I could talk to. They wound up referring me to a cognitive-behavioral program that specialized in phobia treatment on the other side of town.
I knew I wasn’t the only one struggling with public speaking. Approximately 70% of the population suffers from anxiety when it comes to speaking in front of an audience. More people are afraid of public speaking than death. These facts are a powerful reminder of the immense fear that many of us have when presenting ourselves in front of others.
Either way, I was finally willing to try something new, including therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), as I quickly learned, was about tackling distortions in order to retrain our brains to think more clearly. Our thoughts determine so much of what we believe to be reality; if we can take control of our thoughts, we can change not only how we feel, but how we react to our reality.
The therapist and I didn’t have to dig deep to figure out the cognitive distortion that was fueling my public speaking phobia. Simply put, I was a perfectionist. I already judged myself so harshly that I couldn’t bear to stand in front of a wall of eyes poring over me with judgments of their own. Public speaking made me feel painfully visible, like a failure exposed in daylight.
On the behavioral side, the therapist incorporated a type of exposure therapy that could be summed up as the “face your fears” roadmap. We worked together to identify external stimuli that triggered my anxiety around public speaking (introducing myself at a dinner table, talking on the phone, etc.). I then had to start slowly facing each of these stimuli while practicing the calmest version of distress awareness without allowing myself to get too distressed. Each week I made my way up another rung, until I was able to reasonably face my ultimate fear without having a meltdown.
As the therapist predicted, with time public speaking got easier, even if it was never easy. I continued to give presentations as a graduate student and later on I gave the occasional briefing as a working professional. I still continued to experience anticipatory anxiety before public speaking, but at least it was bearable. The CBT had been helpful, but for years after I had this vaguely nagging feeling that it wasn’t the complete solution, that there was still some cognitive distortion that persisted.
It wasn’t until recently that I finally figured out the missing ingredient while listening to psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais speak on an episode titled “How to Achieve Ultra High Performance” hosted by Tom Bilyeu: “The greatest fear in modern times is what other people think,” said Gervais. “So our job is to love others and not give a s**t what they think of us.”
At first, I chuckled. Then I stopped, pressed rewind, and listened again. That’s when it hit me that my approach to public speaking, even after CBT, was still wrong. I was still afraid of what others thought of me; I dreaded the wall of eyes that “judged” me. So, I responded by putting up a wall of my own, when what I should have been doing was taking down the wall and connecting with my audience (while also not giving a s**t what they thought of me).
I’ve now done more public speaking in the last year than I have in my entire lifetime. I interview military leadership, CIA officers, law enforcement, and psychologists on my blog. I hop onto others’ podcasts to give interviews about mental health and my memoir (note: they’re related topics). I teach storytelling and writing workshops to the government and at my company, because I love connecting with an eager audience and sharing my skills set.
I’m not going to lie; I still get a twinge of anticipatory anxiety on most days before a public speaking stint. But I’ve also learned to let go of trying to be perfect, instead aiming to inspire and even entertain, with authenticity. (Perfect is boring anyways.)
When we give in to the fear of being criticized, we forget that we have the power to share and spread a message. We forget the real reason that people come to hear one speak: not to judge, but to learn. Maybe even to be inspired, to be entertained, and to make a connection. Ultimately, people show up because they’re curious about what the speaker has to share.
So, when it comes to public speaking these days, instead of focusing on myself, I prefer to focus on what matters most: the message. I know now that it’s not about the speaker; it’s about the material. It’s also about the benefit the audience receives from the material. And for the speaker, it’s about the connection you forge with the audience, while maintaining a steady confidence in your own abilities. With practice and time, I’ve finally learned to lose the jitters, focus on the mission, and enjoy the new connections.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense sector. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, filmmakers, CIA officers, journalists, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.
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