Warrior in Training -The path of sweaty palms

I gave an artist talk last week at my old school.  This is not that surprising; I do a lot of these talks now.  What you may find surprising is that I have stage fright.  I am almost surprised to admit it myself, I havenít always had it, and I certainly would not want to have admitted it if I had.  I have a tendency to not want to show any signs of weakness to the outside world.  "No, itís o.k. I can handle EVERYTHING."  There was time when I couldnít wait to talk in public. When I was in art school I loved doing presentations, there was a rush of excitement that I actually got off on.  I seemed fearless and strong, ready to take on anything.  I loved showing my work to others and talking about what I had in mind while I created it.  Then somewhere along the way something in me changed. 

Iím not sure when it happened.  Several years after art school I started to be asked to do a number of lectures.  I felt good about being asked because it meant that I had achieved a certain level of success, and I knew doing these talks was a wonderful way to Ďgive backí to the world.  Besides, it just feels good to have a room full of people listening intently to what you have to say.  The truth is I do feel that I have something important to say.  Namely, that we each have a unique creative voice that is worth sharing with the world, it is up to you to find out what you are drawn to.  One lecture led to another and soon I was being asked to speak to high schools, art school, Business Luncheons, and book fairs.

Each time I got up to speak I became a little more aware that my palms were sweating, that there was a strange numbness in my arms.  I started to become fixated on my heart beating at an alarming rate, the fact that my stomach was riddled with nervousness and nausea each fighting for dominance in my body.  Eventually it affected my sleeping, at first it was the night before, and sometimes many days before.  I felt like I had lost control of my body, it had taken on a perpetually terrified state!  That amidst a fear of impending doom. What had become of that fearless, and strong girl who loved to speak in public?

I started to research performance anxiety.  I would read about all the different solutions and tricks people would use, but none of them really sunk in.  I pretended to understand what the various methods were trying to do, but it seemed only an intellectual understanding, nothing that felt like it clicked.  Deep down I felt Ďbrokení.  Maybe I would just have to turn down any public speaking engagements that came up, I would tell people that my schedule was way too full and I could not possibly fit them in.  But I knew that wasnít really dealing with the roots of the issue.  I knew I had to go deeper.  Besides, Iím trying to get closer to the truth in my life, not hide from it.

So it was time to investigate the fear.  At the root of it I really worry about what people would think of me.  I noticed that every time I was to perform I wanted to control every single tiny aspect of the talk.  (A quick list- what I was wearing, how my hair looked, what exactly I would say, how my voice sounded, were the handouts good, etc.)  I noticed that for a week before I would play movies in my head of how the talk would go, ALL possible outcomes were explored.  There is a part of me that wants to control it ALL, and that part was making me sick.  So after noticing these things I decided to try something different, just as an experiment.

-What if I said to myself "I am enough."  That means that I could walk into a talk "as is", with no preparation, no special outfit, and no aid, and people would still really respond to what I had to say.  I am o.k. just as I am.

-After reading a blurb from an interview with Gloria Steinem in which she admits to having stage fright I grasped the concept that "it is o.k. to be nervous".  Not just grasped it but really felt it in my body in a burst of "aha"!  Every single person on this planet has this same reaction.  I had convinced myself that I was ALONE, or that I wasnít doing it right, (broken).  But in fact this is an inherited part of being alive.  The Buddhist concept that we are all one!  This is what they meant.  For a long time I have been fighting the nervous feelings as if Iím not supposed to have them.

-I started to meditate on the idea that every person in every group that I speak to has the exact same feelings that I have, fear, insecurities, foibles, and doubts.  They cannot possibly pose a threat to me because we are the same.

-I now make a point to talk to all of my friends about my anxiety.  Every time I do this I end up laughing because everyone has "performance anxiety".  It is not a "condition" but a natural state of being.  My friends immediately launch into their own stories of freaking out before a gig, barfing before a lecture, or wanting to cancel for fear of failure.  I love hearing stories of Laurence Olivier, or any of the famous people who where temporarily or permanently paralyzed by their fears.  Join the huge club.

The lesson in this is much bigger than just speaking in public.  It reaches to other aspects of life, fear in general which we all experience on a regular basis.  And while I have not "conquered" my performance anxiety, I am learning to work with it.  I am learning to be more gentle and compassionate with myself.  I still have the same sweaty palms, heart palpitations and difficulty sleeping, (though itís getting better).  We are not taught how to be warriors we have to learn it along the way.  The more we can share our experiences with others, the more we learn that we are not the only ones.

Thanks to all of you who share your stories with me!

Keri Smith is a free-lance illustrator and native of Toronto.  A graduate of  O.C.A. she has a wide following of clients in North America and Japan.  She currently resides in a ďmagicĒ cottage in Flesherton, painting, illustrating, creating, writing, and living out loud.  Her new book "Living Out Loud -an activity book to fuel a creative life" is being released in Fall of 2003 by Chronicle Books.