My entire life I’ve been shy and suffer from social anxiety. I make friends easily, but I feel extremely uncomfortable with groups of people. If I’m asked to give a talk in church, I get nervous to the point that I would rather eat dog food than give that talk. The irony is that everyone says that I’m a good speaker and for as passive as I am, my career is in Sales. I realize that everyone gets nervous, but I get it to the point where life can be miserable. What should I do to overcome this anxiety?
Don, from West Jordan, Utah
I know exactly how you feel. I’ve been there, and it’s not pleasant! When I was in my teens I simply refused to give a talk in church. But when I joined the Army Air Force during WWII I determined to get over that terrible stage fright, so I accepted requests to speak in church. I tried writing and then reading the talks word for word, going to the pulpit with a set of notes, speaking extemporaneously. Nothing worked. I knew that the people on the back row could hear my heart beating when I got up to the pulpit. When the war was over and I returned home I was the first person called from our Stake as a missionary. At my farewell Sacrament meeting my mother and my father, who did not belong to the Mormon Church, were on the stand with me. After the Sacrament was over the bishop got up to the pulpit, said a few kind words about our young missionary and then said, “Now we’ll hear from Brother Gorton.” I got up to the stand, looked out over the congregation, and was so petrified that I turned around and sat down without saying a word! That was my missionary farewell talk, and I was 23 years old! When I got into the mission field I had to give a talk in church almost every week, and I finally overcame the stage fright, except for the problem of getting emotional when I spoke. At which time my voice would crack and I would almost lose the ability to speak, which would embarrass me to tears. After returning from my mission, getting a college degree and a job, I sang in the men’s choir at the place where I worked. For one performance I was asked to sing a solo. I about died! and refused the opportunity, and told the director why. He told me that my problem was not with my voice, but with my diaphragm. He said that such emotions often occur with professional singers, and when they get emotional they take a breath and tighten their stomach muscles by pushing their stomach out against their belts. This causes the diaphragm to drop and then the air can be expelled in singing or talking with complete control. I tried it the next time I had to give a talk, and it really worked! I still use the technique when I get emotional during a talk.
So my only suggestions are to take every opportunity to speak in public, and do it until it becomes so common that there will be nothing to it.
In social situations I was so uncomfortable that when introduced to someone, I could not look the person in the face because I knew that I would not be able to remember his name long enough to say, “Glad to meet you, John.” I have no great techniques here, but just practice, practice, practice. Sorry I can’t help you more, but I can really sympathize with you.