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Why I Love Public Speaking, but Struggle With Social Anxiety

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Public speaking is a common fear, yet as someone with social anxiety, I do not fear it; I embrace it. I always excelled at giving speeches and oral presentations in school. I even enjoy acting and have been in a number of plays and musicals over the years. If I can stand in front of a crowd of people and confidently deliver a speech or a monologue, then why do I crumble with fear when it comes to saying hello to people and making small talk? I’ve pondered this for a long time. It didn’t add up. I dug deep into myself and I finally found what factors are at play.

First, preparation helps. When I give a speech or deliver lines, it’s scripted. I know what’s coming. I know what to say. I’ve prepared it. However, when making small talk with someone, I don’t have a sure-fire script to follow. I don’t know what to say next. Sure, I can start with “Hello, how are you?” and rehearse that over and over in the mirror, but what do I say after that? When they mention their new job or recent trip, how do I formulate questions on the spot that won’t make me sound silly and will also contribute to the conversation? This is when I freeze up. I’m worried to talk because when talking unscripted I could say the wrong thing and look foolish and leave a negative impression, or I could stay quiet and look cold and uninterested. I cannot prepare my next line if I don’t know what the person who’s talking before me’s line is going to be. I can try to formulate a response, but by the time I overthink it in my head, the conversation has moved on.

My fiancé and I have quite a laugh over the fact I brought cue cards to our second date. That’s right; I am so awkward and socially anxious about small talk that I resorted to my safety net of scripting. I wrote questions to ask him on cue cards in order to get to know him better and whipped them out on our date. That may have made conversation move a little better, but I still couldn’t script his answers and anticipate what he would say.

It’s not just small talk that scares me; it’s also talking about myself. I struggle to say anything more than “good” when people ask how my job is going. Part of it is because I am scared to put my foot in my mouth and embarrass myself by elaborating. Part of it is because I’m worried people are just being polite when they ask me and they really don’t care about my job and a five-minute-long explanation of how I prepared real estate closing documents that would bore them to tears. When I’m sharing a personal story and talking about myself, and that causes people to judge me, then they are judging me on… well, me. If I’m giving a speech on the town I live in, or puppies, then there is a safety net of my words not being about myself and therefore keeping me safe from judgment about me and the details of my life. Speeches and acting don’t involve me talking about myself, but about some other topic, so it’s not scary for me, I’m safer from judgment.

In fact, when I’m acting on the stage, I feel the safest. That’s because I am not myself. I am, at that moment, a pirate or the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz” or Cinderella. I am whoever my role is. With the comfort of scripted responses, I get to step away and be someone else. When I’m at the dinner table with family, though, I am myself. If I say something silly, it’s actually me saying something silly, not the brainless scarecrow.

Many people are shocked and don’t believe me when I say that I, the quiet and anxious mouse that I am, love acting and dream of being a Broadway star. There’s a lot of assumption that you have to be confident to be on stage, but really the truth is that I’m on stage because I’m not confident. Maybe this same feeling is why you see Kristen Bell, Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds in the acting business — because it is a job that allows them to escape.

Photo by Jonny McLaren on Unsplash

Originally published: June 26, 2019
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