“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” —Plato
Something momentous happened recently. I spoke in public for the first time, in front of 50 people, at a female entrepreneurs conference led by my friend and mentor Jenny Fenig. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.
You see, I was always a shy girl. I would literally hide behind my mother’s skirt when I was young, and I grew up afraid to even ask a question in class or share an opinion at a dinner party.
Come to think of it, I was probably just a typical girl who internalized society’s message to not ask for too much. I didn’t want to stand out too much or be too loud, because it was the boys who should take center stage.
Those lessons hit home in college, when I was asked to read a poem aloud in class. My voice shook the entire time, and although I made it through to the end of the poem, the reading was so awkward that after I was finished and looked around the room, I noticed that the other students couldn’t meet my eyes.
In that horrible moment, I could feel myself shriveling inside. I felt ashamed.
So I adopted silence as my new mantra. And I embraced it with a vengeance.
In graduate school, when I found out I was required to give a talk in front of 50 fellow students in my philosophy class, I went to see the teacher. I told him that if I had known this was going to be part of my grade, I never would have enrolled in the class. I explained that I had a crippling public speaking phobia and flatly refused to give the speech. To my surprise, the professor let me off the hook. In lieu of the speech, I could write a paper instead. Honesty was the winning strategy that worked!
I used it when I entered the corporate world, too. As a magazine editor, I occasionally received requests to do radio or TV interviews. I would go to my boss and explain my situation. I was gentle but firm that giving interviews was something I could not and would not do. Amazingly, I almost always received sympathy and understanding rather than condemnation. Surely it is because public speaking is one of the most common fears out there; almost everyone can relate.
At that point, I knew I could go my whole life without ever speaking in public. I was safe. Yet over the years that idea gnawed at me. I wasn’t really safe, was I? How could I be when Fear, and not my own mind and will, was running the show? I was letting myself be controlled, and I didn’t like it.
Now I reached the point where I wanted to confront my phobia, which had now been my bane for almost twenty years. It was time.
The reason was partly that I was just so tired of giving in to fear; another part is that my fear of speaking in public had, over time, morphed into something bigger and infinitely more powerful. It had spilled over into my personal life. I had trouble standing up for myself when something bothered me (except, ironically, when I was confronted with the task of public speaking!). It was even hard for me to express my needs and desires in relationships. I was a mouse.
Things had gotten way out of control. I realized I had completely lost my Voice, my power.
To make a long story short, I found it again when I began writing. Writing wasn’t just the way I found my Voice, it was my Voice. Writing had been a passion and something I had always wanted to do, ever since I was a little girl. And yet that was the same little girl who was taught to keep quiet, the one who was shamed into silence when she tried and failed.
I was so grateful when I finally found the courage to leave my magazine editing career to write a book. I loved editing, but writing was what made me happiest in the world. I was utterly peaceful and content. It was the real me expressing my gift, the very best part of myself.
Not surprisingly, the more I wrote, the more confident I became. And the Fear of speaking up—whether in spoken or written form—just dissolved.
That’s why when my mentor asked me to speak at her conference, I said yes. I was nervous in the days before the event, but I had written out my speech and practiced it, and I felt thoroughly prepared when I stepped up on stage.
What I told the audience—no shaky voice this time!—was this: Embrace the hardships, the failures, the disappointments, the BIG FEARS. Trust your God-given ability to face and move through them. Find a way, even if it takes years, decades.
You may not know it now, but the challenges that you face and conquer are preparing you for the incredible things that lay ahead, the life of your dreams. In the end you will triumph.