Ten years ago I was invited to give a talk at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting. In those days, I wasn’t used to public speaking. Like many people, I dreaded the thought of standing behind a podium and giving a speech. Public speaking is pretty high on the list of most people’s top fears. In fact, according to surveys, fear of speaking in public—or glossophobia—is even higher than fear of death! As the ever observant Jerry Seinfeld mused:
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
The underlying concern is negative evaluation by others. Nobody wants to be laughed at or mocked or judged.
“Just go out there and be yourself,” suggested a well-meaning colleague. I smiled and thought, Well, that’s terrible advice. I was pretty certain that simply being myself would lead to me fainting at the podium or escaping through the back door. I didn’t need to be myself. What I needed was to be un-me.
An old friend told me about a patient who shared my performance anxiety and recommended a counterintuitive strategy. Before facing an audience, the patient would go into panic mode: “My heart starts racing, I feel like I can’t breathe, beads of sweat collect on my forehead, my hands are shaking, my palms are sweating, and I feel sick to my stomach.” One night he was watching a late-night talk show on which Bruce Springsteen was a guest. The host asked the Boss how it felt to go on stage and perform in front of twenty thousand people. Springsteen reportedly responded: “It’s the most incredible feeling. I feel my body kicking into high gear. My heart starts racing, I start breathing a little harder, my palms are sweating, my hands are shaking, I feel sweat on my brow and I have butterflies in my stomach. It’s a sign to me that my body is ready to rock.”
Both people’s physiological symptoms were strikingly similar—elevated heart rate, sweaty palms and forehead, rapid breathing—and yet their interpretations of them were radically different. The patient realized that his problem wasn’t performance anxiety, but rather his inability to get out of his own head. From then on whenever he had to speak in public, he thought of Bruce Springsteen. Channeling the Boss helped him be un-him.
I needed to do the same and pretend to be someone who spoke well and who was accustomed to being in the limelight. The answer for me at the time was obvious: Barbara Walters. The acclaimed anchorwoman had recently given a speech that I watched in awe. She was confident, self-assured, funny, and unflappable—everything that I needed to be. Plus, I had just read her book, Audition, an inspiring memoir about finding one’s voice despite the odds.
On each page of my speech, I wrote the initials “BW” to remind me to stay in character. I adopted her posture and imagined how she would look out from the podium and smile at the audience. I spoke slowly and with conviction.
The speech was a hit. Instead of escaping out the back door, I escaped the wave of insecurity that would have enveloped me had I been myself. Today, whenever I give a speech, I still scribble her initials on my notecards as a reminder.
There is evidence that looking forward beyond oneself and channeling someone whom you admire provides better guidance than stewing in your own emotions. A study of children highlights the benefits of not being yourself. A group of six-year-olds was asked to work on a repetitive task on a laptop but could take a break whenever they wanted to play games on an iPad. The iPad was placed right next to them. One group of children was told to think about their own thoughts and feelings. A second group was told to think about themselves in the third person. A third group was told to think about someone else who was really good at working hard and to pretend to be them. Batman, Rapunzel, Dora the Explorer, and Bob the Builder were possible choices. The iPad games proved to be a tempting distraction for all the kids, but the kids who pretended to be someone whom they admired persevered the hardest and staved off temptation the longest.
I am not suggesting you go out and buy a Batman costume—okay, maybe I am suggesting that—but this research has relevance for how we face challenges and hassles. Conjuring others, rather than looking exclusively for answers within or relying on what we already know, helps us transcend the limits we impose on ourselves.
Related research found that people demonstrated greater flexibility and were more successful at creative problem-solving when they imagined themselves to be eccentric poets. When people typically think about creativity, they assume it is a fixed trait, a talent people are either born with or not. But as this study highlights, to unlock creativity we may only need to get out of our own head and imagine ourselves in that of a creative individual. Tapping into the capabilities of those who exemplify qualities we wish we possessed may, in fact, help us find them for ourselves.
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman