My heart slammed against my rib cage. Tightness gripped my chest as I struggled to breathe. My hands were cold and clammy. My thoughts raced and my vision narrowed. I felt momentarily detached from reality, a sense of anxiety-induced vertigo I'm convinced only those who have experienced can relate to. Every instinct in my body told me to flee, "Get up and leave this meeting while there's still time. You're about to make a fool of yourself."
There were less than five minutes until I had to give my presentation. I felt trapped. Suffocated. The sense of dread was unbearable. I looked around the room. "What will these people think of me when they see me fall to pieces? Will I lose their respect? Will they talk about me behind my back? Will they pity me? Will they see how weak I am? Will they finally realize that I'm an imposter?
"This shouldn't be happening to me," I thought. "After all the work I've done to get better at public speaking, why am I still panicking?"
Frantic to recover before I had to take the floor, I went through the numerous exercises I had developed to try and get the anxiety under control. But nothing worked. I looked around the room again, scanning desperately for I don't know exactly what. Then, something unexpected happened. I saw a fellow member of the group smiling and nodding his head in agreement with the current presenter. I looked more closely at the others in the room. Some were jovial, some more serious, some sitting straight up, others laid back, some paying rapt attention, others doodling on their notepads or inconspicuously checking their phones under the table.
I'll never know exactly what it was about this seemingly trivial observation, but I felt something click. I realized that the room full of people I had so feared only moments ago were all just normal human beings like me. Fallible. Flawed. Afraid. Preoccupied. Distracted. Each just trying to find his or her way through an uncertain world.
I recognized that we were all connected in this most fundamental and important way—our humanity. And in this realization, the wrenching angst I had been experiencing only a moment prior suddenly evaporated. My heart rate slowed. My chest loosened. My breathing became effortless again. My mind relaxed. I was now only moments from taking the stage for my speech. The sense of stillness I was experiencing was unprecedented.
I can hardly recall the details of my presentation that day. But I remember vividly the profound sense of calm, of being completely at ease—a total absence of fear in a situation that only moments before had me on the brink of a full-blown panic attack. It was a deeply profound experience. An awakening. I've often reflected on it. What exactly happened?
At that point, I had spent years working to become a better public speaker. Tactically, I had indeed improved my presentation skills. However, I still regularly battled severe nerves. But something shifted that day. And what I found when I examined that experience was a lesson that transcends public speaking.
I've never had a great self-image. The voice in my head tells me all sorts of horribly negative stories. I am unworthy of acceptance. All my successes are flukes. The praise and accolades I've received are simply the results of good acting. I'm an imposter. Fundamentally flawed and about to be found out at any moment.
This is a struggle that dates back to my childhood (and that's a topic for another day). Suffice it to say, this self-loathing has never been a secret to me. What I woke up to for the first time that day before my presentation was the sheer depths to which this negative inner dialogue had been shaping my life. And more importantly, I'd finally glimpsed a way to wrest control back from the clutching hands of my inner self-critic.
My response to negative self-talk had always been to push harder. To this end, my public speaking journey had become a proving ground—one more place for me to tirelessly seek the approval of others I so desperately craved. But it never worked. No matter how hard I tried, I still felt inferior, like an outsider looking in.
At a deep level, something had shifted when I looked around the room that morning. After years of struggling in vain to earn my seat at the table, I had awakened to find that there was, in fact, nothing for me to earn. The profound calm I had experienced hadn't arisen because I had finally crossed some magical threshold of social approval. In reality, there was no threshold to cross. There never had been. The whole thing had been a mirage all along.
As a child, my inner critic had convinced me of a fearful narrative. I had bought it, hook, line, and sinker. The effect cannot be overstated. For decades, the desire to prove this narrative wrong had been the central theme of my existence. From the classroom to the playground, from college to my career, and from my marriage to raising children, there was not a single area of my life that was not significantly shaped by this struggle. Perversely, not only had my efforts failed to free me but the very act of trying had unwittingly validated and reinforced my negative beliefs all along.
It was as if I'd spent my whole life wearing a pair of glasses that blurred my vision. I had focused all of my effort on learning how to navigate the world with this compromised eyesight. Instead, all I needed to do was take off the fucking glasses.
Choose a different game
Battling our internal-critic is an unfortunate reality of the human condition. For all of its ill-natured tricks, the most insidious of all is to trap us in a game we can never win. If we're not mindful, this struggle can become the defining theme of our lives. An unsolvable puzzle. A stacked deck. A maze with no escape. The harder we try, the more ensnared we become. And in our flailing, we lose sight of the most important fact of all—we can choose to play a different game. We can take a different perspective. We can wake up. And only in this choice do we find the path to freedom.