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How a spotlight on shame made me stand up for myself

I've always been scared of public speaking. Ever since the memory of falling off a metal toadstool dressed as a huntsman in the village pantomime became lodged in my mind. I was probably about 10 years old.

So, deciding to book onto a stand-up comedy training course in my 40s felt both crazy and exciting to finally be able to transform the shame I felt at being laughed at for all the wrong reasons the last time I was on stage.

As soon as I’d signed up, memories rolled in of how I had often been told as a child that I had ‘too much to say for myself’.  The fear of speaking up and speaking out had kicked-in.  I guarantee you now that during those 6 weeks of Saturday afternoon workshops, I definitely didn’t feel like I had too much to say for myself – or for anyone else for that matter.

Each Saturday afternoon I drove the 40 minutes or so from my home in Bath, UK into Bristol city centre with a knot in my stomach and images of deathly silent or sniggering audiences in my mind.

I asked myself what the hell was I playing at? I even called a friend on one of the Saturday mornings to explore whether I might be repeating an old (shame) pattern or whether my higher-self instinct to do this was a positive one – which was to heal the past and transform the way I felt about public speaking in the future.

Some people skydive, climb mountains or endure great physical challenges.

But mental and psychological challenges have always inspired me more. What is it about us as human beings that holds us back?  Why do we tell ourselves we can or can’t or should or shouldn’t do this or that?  Facing my fears – and helping others do the same is what motivates me most.

The group was smallish – around 15 – but still big enough to feel the anxiety pulsate. We were what you’d call an eclectic mix.  A diverse bunch, including confident people who performed regularly in one shape or another, those who were hoping to pursue a comedy career and people like me who had engaged in some kind of mad thinking about writing and performing stand-up to ‘grow’ or engage in ‘personal development’.

Every Saturday morning, I would wake up with a feeling of terror.

I hadn’t written anything – and you have to write all your own material and deliver it to the group each week.  But somehow, very early on each and every one of those Saturday mornings – I still don’t know how – I managed to transform that terror into words. Material manifested on a page and gradually emerged as I wrote about the anxiety and Self I knew well. I created some funnies about myself, my life, my fears, my therapy-laden background and my body image. Yes, something I never thought I’d talk about openly to strangers, let alone ‘perform’ to an audience on stage.

To my surprise, sometimes I remembered my lines and delivered ‘comedy’ to the group. Even more surprisingly, people laughed. And although I still cannot say I ever ‘looked forward’ to those Saturdays, I persisted – through to delivering my 5 minute ‘gig’ at a final performance to an audience of real people who had paid real money to come and watch us perform real comedy on the Real Live Comedy School Stage.

I never did remove the fear of standing up in front of wide-eyed people, staring in anticipation as I bared my soul and try to make them laugh.

But I can honestly say that the joy of writing and pushing through my fears about performing changed what I believed I could and couldn’t do.  It was both exhilarating and intimidating in equal measure. And it still stands out (or stands up?) as one of the most satisfying challenges I have faced and overcome.

Not least because of the professionalism, experience and support offered by The Comedy School, London www.thecomedyschool.com who run these – and other amazingly creative workshops – with ease, but because of my decision to risk ‘having a go’ and ‘putting myself out there’ with the terror still intact.

So, what is the one big challenge you continue to see as an obstacle, but that you’d like to overcome?

What activity or challenge are you drawn to take part in which you know would help but you’re equally terrified to do so?

What might happen if you dared to do it?

For you, of course, the problem may not be public speaking (or the fear of shame) as it was for me, nor the solution stand-up comedy, but as Helen Keller once said “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”

As a fully-fledged introvert, my instinct is still to shy away from speaking to audiences, but now I also embrace opportunities to do so, showing up exactly as I am so that I can see what the space may hold for me now and how it might unfold with me as I enter into it.

Remember, Your Authentic Life Matters! www.slowcoachsarah.co.uk

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