I love the Disney movie The Kid with Bruce Willis. In it he plays a stressed-out, high-power image consultant. He wears expensive suits, lives in a chic, elegantly furnished home and has all the money he can spend. His biggest challenge comes when a young boy--his younger self--comes to stay with him. He doesn't recognize himself at first, but then comes to see that he can heal himself by comforting the boy he was and accepting the man he is. (Don't worry, there's still a lot of other fun, surprising stuff that happens so I haven't TOTALLY given the plot away.)
Often when I work with people who are anxious or uncomfortable with public speaking, they recount past experiences of perceived failure. They tell me their stories of screw-ups, stumbles and faults, all with a tone of humiliation and self-flagellation. They use critical, blaming language to describe themselves such as "I was so stupid", "I was pathetic", "I've never forgiven myself for that." It's bad enough to have had the bad experience in the first place, but we just make it worse when we spread the pain out over a lifetime by reliving the experience--and punishing ourselves for it--over and over and over again.
(WARNING: The following exercise may seem corny, but try it anyway. Seriously.) Close your eyes (after reading this article, that is) and see yourself as you are today. Don't analyze or judge who you are today, just see yourself. Relax. Try to let go of any thoughts or distractions. Now imagine a younger version of yourself approaching--the you who screwed up that presentation all those years ago. Perhaps it's the you who messed up your 5th grade book report, or the you who sneezed all over your slides at your first sales meeting, perhaps the you who completely forgot to include those important statistics when making the big proposal to the Board of Directors. That younger self looks at you timidly, filled with embarrassment and shame for the poor performance. After years of being angry at and embarrassed by this younger self, you feel compassion. Looking at this poor suffering soul, you realize it's time to let him/her off the hook. This younger self has suffered enough. As you let go of your judgment, you realize that that younger self did the very best job possible, given the where he/she was at the time. (Your corny meter may be going off but stay with me here!) Now, reach out, embrace and forgive that younger self. Give that younger self some comforting words of encouragement and soothe the pain they've been carrying around all these years. Take the burden off his/her shoulders as you both let it go. Imagine a conversation between your present and former selves. What went wrong that day? What was learned? How can the present you and the former you work together to speak up with more confidence in the future?
You may have several past "selves" to forgive. Picture each past self who disappointed you and go through the same process. You might be surprised at how this can lighten your load and ease your discomfort.
We can't improve in an atmosphere of self-blame and criticism. When we speak, all we can do is the best we can do. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we fail. But chastising ourselves for past mistakes can only hold us back. Let your "selves" off the hook and move on. Forgive the person you were and accept the person you are. It's through compassion that you'll create the even better person you are becoming.
About The Author
Melissa Lewis turns traditional thinking about public speaking upside down to give people more comfort, confidence and charisma in front of groups. She is a former comic actress, a certified facilitator of SPEAKING CIRCLES and president of the National Speakers Association Kansas City Chapter. For more information call (913) 341-1241 or visit www.upsidedownspeaking.com.