Fear of Being in the Presence of Others (Pt. 2)

 Vijai P.Sharma, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist

 The story mentioned in an earlier article of a mental health trainee who was afraid of speaking in public lest he produce an uncontrollable bout of hiccups, is indeed a story of courage.  Fears could not deter him.  Each time he spoke, he proved that his determination to overcome his fear was bigger than his fear of fear.  IN doing this he discovered that he was bigger than his fear.

This is how the rest of the story goes:  For days I deliberated on how I could possibly help my friend.  Finally, I came up with the idea that next time when he spoke to a group, I would tell them beforehand that he was doing a "social experiment," in order to study how the audience handled embarrassment and surprise caused by a speaker's unexpected predicament.

I then told him about an ingenious lie I was prepared to tell the group "behind his back."  I would tell them how he randomly faked a spell of hiccups to observe how people responded to such a bizarre event.  For example, do they look away, leave the auditorium, smile, have an exchange of glances, bring a glass of water to the speaker, etc.  I would "double cross" him by disclosing his experiment to the group.

Instead of surprising the group, he would be the one to be surprised by the group's reaction.  Oh, what fun it would be to turn the tables!  The whole group would stay calm and ignore the faked hiccups as if nothing happened.  I would further tell them that the experiment was done randomly, so he may or may not produce the hiccups in a particular meeting.

When I told this to my friend, he thought it was a crazy idea and that it would make him extremely self-conscious and he wouldn't be able to speak at all in the meeting.

But as he thought more about it, he realized that if he happened to break into real hiccups, others wouldn't know that those were real.  They would still think he was faking them.  In fact, they would think what a masterful performer he was to fake them so good.  If he didn't break into hiccups, the audience would just think that it was designed that way.  But if he had them, he wouldn't be embarrassed.  So everything was well, whichever way it went.  He felt "free" to have hiccups without an embarrassment to himself.

I told nothing to the group about the hiccup "experiment," but my friend didn't know it.  Since he thought I had already told the group about it, he felt relaxed.  There was not the fear that he had earlier had to fight for several hours prior to his speaking.  He made his entire presentation and there were no hiccups!  I breathed a sigh of relief/.  Had this scheme misfired, my friend would have never talked to me again. 

My friend had a whole new experience.  He discovered the freedom to act, that is, the freedom to embarrass himself.  When I told him the whole truth, he began to use it as the opening joke for his public speeches.  He would tell the audience his problem up front, and the he would joke about it.  He would tell them that he is still conducting his so-called "experiments."  He does them so randomly that even he doesn't know when he is going to do his hiccups, and he fakes them so well that no one can tell that they are not real.  There would be a roar of laughter.  He would be relaxed, and his audience would be relaxed.

People who tell their audience up front that they are anxious begin to feel relaxed.  The audiences sympathize with them and act forgiving when such speakers fumble or show signs of nervousness.  People who try hard to mask their anxiety stay tense.  Those who brace up to the possibility of making a fool of themselves find themselves more relaxed and often come out of the ordeal just fine, without stumbling and fumbling.

Another way to handle social fears is to have some face-saving excuse up your sleeve just in case what you are afraid of happening. Happens.  Devise a strategy beforehand.  Plan your escape route and rehearse it.  When we make light of our predicament and make others laugh with us before it happens, we reduce the power that fear of embarrassment has on us.  These suggestions can help in the case of moderate social fears

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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