For the majority of my time as a student, I would not voluntarily speak in class. I rarely raised my hand, unless I was 100% sure of the answer and there was no chance of embarrassment. If a teacher ever called on me without warning, my very pale face would instantly flush bright red. When we were reading out loud, I would count the students ahead of me so I could practice the paragraph that I’d have to read on my turn. Anything I could do to minimize any sort of spontaneous speaking was crucial.
I was required to take a public speaking class my first year of college, which you could imagine was my version of hell. Our professor gave us a questionnaire at the beginning of the semester to gauge our comfort levels with speaking in front of people, and she said if anyone’s answers showed high enough levels of anxiety, they would be allowed to drop the class and find an alternative GE requirement. So you know I was all about bombing this questionnaire. But no luck. Turns out I had totally normal fears about public speaking, or at least that’s the lie my professor told me. Whenever we had to present and my professor asked for volunteers to go first, I couldn’t raise my hand quick enough. I was Katniss levels of desperate because I needed to get it over with as soon as possible; I couldn’t have the uncertainty of when I would be speaking looming over me for the entire class. I managed to survive the course, but there was no part of me that felt more comfortable with public speaking when that semester was over.
The following year I declared an English major, and what I didn’t know – but admittedly should have anticipated – is that meant a lot of class discussions. Cue the daily panic. It didn’t help that I had absolutely no idea how to prepare for a discussion on a book I couldn’t even follow. The language was weird and confusing and I could not figure out how anyone actually knew what was going on. I couldn’t even fake it half the time. I found myself Googling “how not to turn red from embarrassment.”
This fear of speaking wasn’t limited to school. The thought of talking on the phone was – and in a lot of ways, still is – the most stressful thing in the world. Ordering take out required a full script on my end. I avoided talking to retail workers at all costs. I didn’t go to the dining hall my entire first semester of college because I didn’t know how use my meal plan and didn’t know how to ask without sounding dumb. I never ate lunch at my first internship because I didn’t know the break policy, and once again, I was too afraid to ask. The thought of asking someone for any sort of help or clarification was crippling; I can’t even begin to guess the amount of experiences I missed out on because of this single fear.
I’ll admit that it wasn’t until my senior year of college that I started to work on making a difference. The fact that I was back in therapy and starting medication obviously had an impact on my development in these situations, but at that time, I had also changed my major to something I was actually interested in. I found myself raising my hand to share opinions with my classmates. I had a moment of epiphany when it came to asking employees questions or talking to someone on the phone: I shouldn’t feel weird about asking questions from someone whose literal job it was to help me. Which was also something I could apply to school. I needed to own the fact that I didn’t have the answers for everything.
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who uses a vocabulary word or makes a reference that you don’t understand, but you let them carry on as if you did? I was the queen of this for the longest time. I thought that if I stopped to say “I don’t know what that word means,” or “I don’t know who that person is,” I would sound dumb. Notice a pattern? I eventually came to realize that not knowing and trying to continue on with the conversation probably made me sound even dumber, and obviously a lot less genuine. If you have to fake understanding, it’s a lot more work to maintain that facade than to admit you’re unsure.
Looking back on all of this now, it’s wonder I managed to get hired at jobs or get decent grades. I managed. I coasted. But I didn’t quite thrive. And to be completely honest, I don’t even know if I could pinpoint exactly what I was afraid of. Was it embarrassment, judgment, magnifying insecurities, failure? Probably all of the above.
I discovered a big part of finding my voice included listening. You would assume that listening was something I’ve done plenty of because I wasn’t speaking. But the truth is when I wasn’t speaking, I was still only listening to myself. There would be a million thoughts racing through my head, ranging from what I would say if I had the nerve, to how I could possibly recover from a potentially wrong answer. It’s true when people say that you shouldn’t care what people think about you, because odds are, they are too preoccupied about themselves.
So with the minor adjustments of owning my uncertainties and being a more active listener, I started to notice some changes. It was a slow process, but eventually, I found myself craving those moments when I could engage. By absorbing more of what was going on around me and opening myself up to the ideas and opinions of others, I got more comfortable with not only responding to people’s thoughts, but also challenging them. It was miraculous to me that my initial worry about admitting I didn’t know something had turned into a tool I could use to learn more. I was asking questions of everybody – professors and classmates, whoever was on the phone helping me schedule a doctor’s appointment, or even friends when we needed to solve a problem. Not only does asking question help you learn and communicate better, but it also takes the pressure off you to take the lead. It’s honestly a win-win.
Starting this blog over two years ago was the perfect example of taking a step toward overcoming my fears. I had wanted to start my blog for a while, but I was constantly asking myself “Would anyone read it? Will they care? Will my content be good enough to keep people interested?” Self doubt has a way of seeping into our most precious aspects in life, and it’s difficult to ignore. Even as I sit here writing this, there’s a part of me that wonders if it’s worth posting. It’s a constant practice that I encourage everyone to engage in, because without it, there’s no growth. It’s still slightly shocking to me that I’ve made so many strides in this area of my life – enough strides that I feel confident in telling others to follow my lead. I’m sure there are plenty folks out there who can relate to these fears, and it’s definitely going to take some time to work them out. At the end of the day, when it comes to finding your voice, my biggest piece of advice is this: when in doubt…accept that you’re in doubt. It’s a much easier way to find clarity.