Honors English, freshman year of high school:
The entire week leading up to our Greek mythology poster presentations, I was living in complete dread. My voice often shook when I spoke in front of a class, and I perceived that everyone already thought I was the quiet girl, so they must think I have nothing significant to say, too. Of course, when the day of my presentation finally came, my toes tingled, my heart pumped loudly as I walked to the front of the class, and my voice shook for the entire 5-6 minutes I was up there. It was humiliating.
The reason I couldn’t succeed with presentations in my younger years wasn’t that I couldn’t get my heart rate to slow down before I presented. My heart racing at the events that made me nervous was (and is) unavoidable; that’s the physiology of epinephrine. My failure in this arena boiled down to the fact that I hadn’t fully learned how to breathe through my anxiousness. This was a lesson I learned over time that not only helped me perform better, but also enjoy the moments where my heart raced.
Knowing I can expect a pounding heart before I step out on a stage to do a performance of some sort actually helps me. I’m no longer surprised and taken aback by how my body reacts to stress. I learned how to cope with my inevitably clenched muscles and tingling sensations largely by pushing myself into situations that made me nervous. The goal of this wasn’t necessarily to get comfortable with every situation, but rather to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
I started pushing myself by joining show choir in middle school to get comfortable on stage. Am I an amazing singer or dancer? By no means. Was it fun to feel the adrenaline pumping through me, knowing I was doing something bold? Yes, only after I shifted my mindset from defeatist to empowered. Studies show we perform worse if we feel defeated. If we perceive that we’re already disliked (or in other words, judged), we’ve already lost half the battle. In other words, if you feel like you don’t look good, won’t sound good, or have already lost the audience’s respect before you step out on stage, you’re going to do worse. In another attempt to feel empowered, I sang a solo at a performance a few years later (I sounded pretty bad, but that’s beside the point). I tried my best to shove my fears of being judged and ridiculed out of my head and sang the solo.
Afterwards, my tolerance for pushing myself to do these scary things skyrocketed. I had done something I was terrified of, and made it through…what else did I have to fear when it came to making it through moments that made my heart race?
In high school, I started dancing hip hop. I’ve always loved dancing – I found it to be a fun way to exercise, and loved the adventure of stepping onto a stage in front of a large crowd. Was I actually an astounding dancer who would impress the audience at recitals? No. But was I going to allow a defeatist mindset to keep me from the aliveness I found in the dance studio and on stage? Absolutely not.
Over the rest of my teenage years, I grew far more comfortable doing things that made me nervous because I practiced doing them. I did an optional assignment that forced me to recite a Julius Caesar monologue in front of the class. I became president of a student org so I had to speak at meetings and assemblies. I spoke on the News for ABC 33/40. Because of all of the practice, I now don’t give much thought to giving a presentation; it has become so natural for me to take deep breaths, allow my brain to be supplied with oxygen, and begin speaking.
The purpose of this story is not to brag about how far I’ve come; it’s rather a testimony to the powerful effects of making choices that help you overcome your fears. Choose practice runs before the real thing – before it really counts – because you’ll help your future self. In other words, take advantage of low stakes opportunities to get comfortable with the moments your heart beats fast. Then, it’ll get easier for you to enjoy those moments.
Because feelings of defeat can ruin a performance, my advice to you would be to walk on stage with a confidence that you know what you’re doing – it’s going to help you do better! Of course, carry a humility knowing that there will always be ways you can improve a speech or performance, but your worth doesn’t depend on how perfect you were in a given moment.
My heart still speeds up before I have to speak in front of a large group of people, but I have learned to dismiss defeatist thoughts and breathe through it. I now get to enjoy the time that I have to share my thoughts or research on a topic or express myself through dance. A few jitters don’t get to rob me of that. As for the things that used to make my heart beat fast that no longer do: I’m proud of the progress, but also miss the fluttering in my chest that both humbled me and reminded me that I was in the midst of an adventure. Learning to get comfortable with the uncomfortable is a process; get out there, let your heart race, and enjoy it!