Fear of public speaking

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Written by Peter Honey on 29 November 2013

A new survey of common phobias has shown, once again, that fear of speaking in public is, for many people, more concerning than death. I have heard this before and to me, thankfully free of this particular phobia, it seems incomprehensible.

In fact, I struggle to understand any of the well known phobias (probably a disgraceful admission for a psychologist!). I don't suffer from any of the usual ones - heights, spiders, snakes, open spaces, claustrophobia, flying, dentists.  And it had never even occurred to me to be afraid of some of the more unusual ones, for example, woolly jumpers, being buried alive, and losing photographs. Having had my appetite whetted, I'm beginning to feel that I'm missing out!

I suppose trainers either don't suffer from a fear of public speaking or have overcome their fear (or don't say much!). I have been casting my mind back to see if I can remember when, and if, I was ever terrified of speaking up in public and I can't.  At school I was in the debating society and in lots of school plays and I can't recall having any palpations. Perhaps this explains why I am incredulous that anyone - apparently more women than men - would rather die than speak in public. 

I have two major puzzles. Firstly. how is it possible for intelligent people to acknowledge that their phobia is irrational (i.e. doesn't make sense) and yet continue to feel fearful? How do they sustain this unproductive fear whilst knowing full well that lots of people cheerfully speak in public without any adverse consequences? Secondly, what exactly are they afraid of? That the ground will open up and swallow them? That someone might think they are stupid and laugh at them? If this is the problem then can't they work out that if someone did think they were silly, it wouldn't mean they really were silly? It would just mean that someone thought that what they said on this occasion was silly; not the same thing at all. Saying silly things does not mean you are silly. 

I once went on a CBT course where we all had to undertake a shame-attacking exercise.The challenge was to force yourself to do something that you would normally feel embarrassed or ashamed about - and to keep doing it until the emotional impact dulled. Basically, the philosophy was, 'if you do the thing you fear, the fear will disappear'. I chose to go busking in the nearest High Street to see if I could overcome feeling an absolute idiot. I soon discovered that the worst that happened was that some people completely ignored me. This was not so very terrible (and, of course, a very sensible reaction on their part!).

I'm totally sold on the idea of replacing self-defeating beliefs with something more user-friendly and productive. I know lots of people doubt that this is possible but I always reassure them that they acquired their self-defeating beliefs and that they are therefore malleable. In other words, beliefs are not instinctive; they have been learnt and can therefore be unlearnt and replaced with something more helpful. I appreciate that this isn't necessarily easy because lots of beliefs have ossified into well worn habits. But any habit can be broken.

I read a newspaper article recently where the author, Janice Turner writing in The Times, suggested that glossophobia is a wholly rational fear. She said, 'It must come from deep inside our primeval selves. Imagine our ancestors with their puny spears deep in the forest, their terror of being seen, watched, evaluated by enemies and predators. No wonder when you perform, your fight-or-flight response kicks in'.  

Sorry, but I think this primeval stuff is tosh; just an excuse to stay fearful, a convenient way to let yourself off the I-can-change hook. Much better, in my view, to assume fears are learnt - how else could people finish up being afraid of different things? If phobias were instinctive, a built in condition of the human race, surely we would all be fearful of the same things? 

About the author
Peter Honey FRSA, FCIPD, FIMC is a chartered psychologist and founder of Peter Honey Publications. He can be contacted at peterhoney1@btinternet.com or via www.peterhoney.org

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