Afraid of Speaking Up? Maybe You’re Doing It All Wrong

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This article first appeared on Happify

Speaking in front of others is hard, isn’t it? I remember Jerry Seinfeld once saying that most of us would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.

I’ve had my own dance with the courage to speak up for as long as I can remember. My earlier training as a cognitive behavioral therapist helped convince me that I could do the job and brave the dreaded moment, but it did little to create lasting change. When faced with the next opportunity to put myself in front of others, I would experience the same gut-wrenching self-doubt and urge to run away.

In the years that followed, I learned that my efforts were short-lived because reason cannot communicate with the fears that stop many of us from speaking up when we need to. Most times, these fears of being judged, of doing a bad job, of making a fool of ourselves in some way, live in the deep recesses of our minds as beliefs of inadequacy and unworthiness. Unless we kneel down and talk to them in a language they understand, we’re simply arguing with an inner critic that’s doing its best to keep us alive. Except that we’re in no danger of dying!

I don’t know which area of your life could benefit from the courage to speak up. Perhaps you need to say sorry or let go of a grudge. Perhaps you need to advocate for yourself or rock the boat in some way. Perhaps you need to speak in front of a group of 10 or even 100. Or perhaps you simply need to say “I love you,” but the words keep sticking in your throat.

Wherever you need to find your voice, step away from your head and step into your heart. That’s where you’ll find not only your fears but also the emotional courage you seek.

Step 1: What’s Your Why?

Be clear on your intention for the meeting, the conversation, the presentation—whatever it is for you. What’s at stake? What do people need to know? Why will you regret not saying it? When I ask these questions of my clients—and sometimes it takes a little probing—I’m always in awe of their reasons to speak up. Most of us want to raise our voices for something that’s aligned with our values, for a cause that’s larger than ourselves, that makes a difference in the lives of others or toward a better future. There’s a pull force in such reasons that’s far more powerful than the push force of working against the inner critic. (Because we all know who tends to win that argument.)

Step 2: Go Slow

With this clarity, approach the situation with the grit of your why and the grace of a measured pace. You see, fears rush us. They make us impulsive. They can’t deal with the uncertainty we feel. Some of us rush through presentations, talking really fast so we can get it over with and feel calm again. Some of us come up with excuses or avoid the situation altogether so we don’t have to experience the discomfort. But when you go slow, you let your conscious mind stay in charge. Your why stays front and center of your awareness, and you allow yourself to feel the emotions without them overpowering you. Sometimes it helps you talk gently to your fears, especially if you’re aware of feelings of shame or inadequacy, or helps you breathe into them with compassion so they feel heard and understood.

Step 3: Don’t Let Go!

Once you’ve done the speaking, take time to reflect on it. Most of us are really bad at this. We either rehash every mistake we made, every moment we stumbled, every sign of impatience from the audience, or every hurtful word our partner may have said. We may even text our friends about how terribly it went and how we’ll never do it again. Or we heave a huge sigh of relief and distance ourselves from it almost immediately. Have you ever caught yourself saying “I don’t want to talk about it” when someone asks you how it went? You’re missing out on one the greatest opportunities to let your successes—however small—sink into your long-term memory. These wins not only build self-belief and make it easier the next time around but also provide you with the motivation to work on the moments that make you blush with embarrassment.

And if there’s nothing at all to celebrate—because no act of vulnerability promises success—you’ll have the comfort of your why to help you move on regardless. And guess what: resilience in the face of failure builds self-belief even more than success does.

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