Social anxiety may seem to come out blue but there is always a root, it just may be something that you have hidden in the back of your mind. Here is how my public speaking anxiety seemed to come out of the blue.
All through college and graduate school I had no problem speaking in public. Even defending my dissertation – the torture that graduate schools put you through when your whole dissertation committee try their best to discombobulate and rattle you with rapid fire questions – went relatively smoothly. When I went on to become a psychologist and then was promoted to be the director of outpatient services, public speaking was never a problem. I gave talks to my staff, no problem, I presented to the board of directors, no problem, I gave talks to a hundreds of people, no problem.
As a director, I used to hold my staff meetings in a rectangular conference room with a long conference table. I usually sat at the head of the table so I would have easy access to the big blackboard behind me and my staff would sit around the rest of the table. One day I was working on some project and decided to go into the conference room early to finish work on the project, so I sat on the side of the table with my back to a long bank of windows so I could spread my work out and because the lighting there was better because of the sunlight coming in from the long bank of windows at my back. When it came time for the staff meeting I just collected my papers and stayed sitting in the middle of the table with my back to the window instead of moving to my usual place at the head of the table. The meeting went well until we got to some policy change that nobody liked. Several of my staff – who were now circled around the table – started arguing, complaining and generally barking at me. This was nothing new – it sort of comes with the territory of being a director – but for some reason, looking around the table and seeing all of those angry faces got to me. All of a sudden my heart started racing, my hands start sweating and my brain totally froze. It felt like ten years but it was probably at lease a full minute or two where I literally couldn’t get a word to form in my brain let alone to come out of my mouth. This with everyone looking directly at me and waiting for my response. I finally said some lame thing just to stop it and made some excuse to end the meeting and get to the safety of my office as quickly as I could without looking like I was running away. The worst thing is that I had absolutely no idea why this happened. It made no sense either. After all, I was the boss in this situation, I was the one who could promote or fire the people in the meeting – how could I get so intimidated by people who reported to me?
Then things got worse. The next week I made a routine presentation to the board of directors which was held in a room that was sort of a cross between a small auditorium and a large classroom. I got up at the podium as usual and looked into the audience. In the front row were 2 of the barkers that had been at the staff meeting. As soon as I saw their faces, all of a sudden, it happened again – total brain freeze, another agonizing couple of minutes of painful silence as my brain fumbled to find a coherent thought and my mouth started sending out seemingly random and disconnected words. There were all the board members – from across the country – all there to see and witness my melt-down. I’m not quite sure how I pulled out from a complete nose dive – most likely by shifting my attention away from the barkers to my boss who had always been supportive and encouraging.
Then things got even worse. I started going into a panic when I was asked to speak in church. Then it started happening in any meeting. It even started happening when I met new clients. It just grew and metastasized to just about every situation where I had to speak in front of anyone who wasn’t a best friend or close relative.
A few months later I was having lunch in Uno’s – with one of my staff that hadn’t been barking in that meeting – and all of a sudden I knew exactly why I had gone into a panic at the staff meeting. As I started to tell my friend about my moment of insight tears started rolling down my face right there in the middle of the restaurant – really embarrassing. Even through it was embarrassing, at least this time I wasn’t panicking and I knew exactly why I was having the feelings that were coming up.
I realized that when I was in first grade we had moved mid-year – so I was the new kid on the block. One day during recess, the older kids – fourth and fifth graders – for some reason decided it was pick on little David day. They ganged up around me as I backed up so that my back was against the fence with the sunlight coming from behind me and they started yelling and barking at me. Then they started spitting on me. I hadn’t thought of that memory for years or decades, but there was no doubt that it still had a toxic emotional charge, the tears on my napkin proved that.
So that’s where the staff meeting panic had come from – sitting with my back to the windows with the sunlight coming from my rear and being surrounded by angry faces barking at me was the exact same situation that I had been in first grade – minus the spitting of course. So now I could trace the rapid development of my public speaking phobia and social anxiety. The playground memory had laid dormant for years and decades. It wasn’t triggered when people barked at me, it wasn’t triggered when people circled me, it wasn’t triggered when light was coming from my rear, but on that one day when people circled me and barked with the sunlight coming from my rear, that not only pulled the trigger but it detonated into a full panic. Then the board meeting reminded me of the staff meeting – the 2 barking staff members in the board meeting triggered the memory of the staff meeting. Then since I became afraid of repeating the board meeting fiasco, speaking in church even without the light behind me could trigger the panic. Then anything that reminded me of speaking in church could trigger the panic and so on and so on until I had a full-on case of social anxiety.
The good news is that this understanding not only gave me a map of how I developed social anxiety but also how to get out of it – once I worked through the emotional roots, the playground, board meeting and church talk memories my social anxiety and public speaking anxiety just dried up and blew away – I now look forward to talking in public and I totally enjoy meeting new people, especially my clients.
So the moral of the story is that social anxiety doesn’t come out of the blue – it just comes from what some psychologists call the ‘unthought known.’ The playground incident wasn’t something that was locked away in my unconscious, if you had asked me if that had happened to me I would have told you about it, but it was something that I had trained myself not to consciously think about – it wasn’t so much locked away as it was in an old file on the hard drive of my mind that I had purposefully misplaced until a set of circumstances clicked it open and triggered a chain of emotional reactions that nearly exploded my career.