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Excerpts from DANCE OF FEAR | By Harriet Lerner

Chapter 3


Therapist David Reynolds says: “When people tell you they don’t fly because they’re afraid of flying, you need not believe them. They don’t fly because they don’t buy airline tickets.”

On many occasions, I have felt anxious or frightened and I’ve decided that I won’t let fear stop me from showing up and doing what I need to do. Flying is a good example. Like many women, I became terrified to fly, or more accurately, terrified to crash, after having children. Waves of anxiety would wash over me at night as I pictured my little boys’ faces and then imagined my plane, engulfed in flames, plummeting to the ground, leaving them grieving and motherless. These fearful imaginings began days before every departure.

People often calm down by going for the facts. My friend, Miriam, for example, has had no heightened anxiety about flying since 9/11. But she has always feared that her plane will be struck by lightning. Her anxiety was considerably lessened when I gave her an article on this very subject, which said that the last confirmed commercial plane crash in the U.S. directly attributable to lightning occurred in 1967. The article also stated that even if a bolt of lightning happened to strike a plane, “nothing should happen because of the careful protection engineered into the aircraft.”

Back in my own fear-of-flying days, this article would not have encouraged me. “Nothing should happen,” I would have said to my husband, Steve, and anyone else who would listen. “What the hell does it mean that ‛nothing should happen’ if lightning hits the plane? Why didn’t this expert say, ‛Nothing will happen?’” I would have been inconsolable.

Even after I felt comfortable flying alone or as a family, I insisted that Steve and I protect our boys from orphan status by flying separately for about 20 more years. This terribly inconvenient practice made no logical sense. I would insist on separate planes for Steve and me, then drive with him from the airport to our hotel in a cab with broken seatbelts and a thick sheet of glass separating us from the driver that would have inflicted a major head injury in the event of even a minor accident. Some of the cab drivers appeared to be on drugs and/or to harbor homicidal tendencies. Had I been even a teensy bit rational, I would have flown with Steve and insisted that we take separate ground transportation.

Back then my friends’ cheerful reminders that air travel is the safest way to go did not at all reassure me. No amount of statistical evidence could compete with the terrifying scenarios I concocted in my head. Nor was it my spiritual belief that if my plane went down, it was part of some divine plan. Neither science nor faith put me at ease.

I was cured because I kept buying airline tickets — in short, I kept showing up. I haven’t always been as spunky in other situations that scare me, but my work demanded a fair amount of travel and the consequences of not flying would have been intolerable for me, both personally and professionally. Things become less terrifying the more we face them, and each time I got off a plane intact, I felt a little more capable of managing my fear. I flew so much that my fear eventually melted away. Experience gave me comfort where reasoning had failed.

Fears vs. Phobias

If my fear had reached phobic proportions, I would have availed myself of the best treatment program or medication I could find. A genuine phobia, which happily I did not have, comes complete with a racing heart, breathing difficulties, sweating, an overwhelming need to flee the situation, and sometimes an imminent fear of death. It causes enormous suffering. A phobic individual is gripped by paralyzing neurochemical storms that render advice like “feel the fear and do it anyway” totally irrelevant. Nor does it help to tell a phobic person to take a Valium and wash it down with several in-flight cocktails while repeating to herself that air travel is safer than driving.

People often use the word “phobic” to describe ordinary fear and trembling. “I’m phobic about flying,” a client told me just this morning. He’s a white-knuckle flyer who feels an adrenaline rush when the pilot announces that he’s putting the seat-belt sign on because he anticipates some choppy air. My client hates takeoff and landing, and he gets a mildly upset stomach whenever he flies. He also tortures himself with a certain amount of pre-flight catastrophic thinking. But he doesn’t have a true phobic reaction to flying. If he did, he wouldn’t be able to board a plane in the first place.

If you or someone you know has a genuine phobia, the good news is that it can be treated and overcome. This is especially true if you have a specific phobia, though help is also available for panic attacks that strike for no apparent reason, and for social phobias involving a paralyzing fear of social or work interactions. Treatment is important because avoidance won’t work — in fact, it makes things considerably worse. Research demonstrates that the harder phobics work to avoid the things they fear, the more their brains grow convinced that the threat is real.

If you’re not phobic but merely terrified, avoidance also makes the problem worse. Like Frank in the preceding chapter, you need some experience with the very activity you dread, be it dating, driving, or raising your hand in a meeting. But only you can judge what you’re ready to take on. If you jump right in, you may learn that the fearful imaginings cooked up by your overactive brain never come to pass. Then again, they might. I refuse to reassure people that the universe really is a safe place and that you should always trust it. If you push past your fears, bad things may happen.

Consider my adventures at the podium, where I confronted my fear of public speaking. It’s a bit like buying a plane ticket. You say “yes” to an invitation because it’s way off in the future. Then the future shows up and you’re supposed to show up, too. Public speaking rarely results in a fatality, but, as my podium adventures will illustrate, it does offer wonderful opportunities for public humiliation and shame. Which, we will see, can be its own reward.

Speechless in Seattle

Several years ago, I stood before an audience of Seattle psychotherapists, about to begin a lecture on the topic of women and intimacy. After several impromptu comments, I glanced down at the podium to begin my formal presentation. At that moment my most dreaded fantasy materialized. My prepared talk had disappeared.

Waves of anxiety washed over me. There I stood in front of hundreds of people who had left the comfort of their homes and had paid a considerable sum to hear me talk — and now I had no talk to give. Minutes earlier, I had placed the only copy of my talk on the podium, and then retreated backstage while being introduced. But when the person who introduced me finished, she carried away both her introduction and my talk. She then rushed out of the building to another engagement.

At other times in my public speaking career, I have been entirely sure of what I wanted to say — but got it all wrong. Once, in Portland, I opened a lecture by saying, “I’m so happy to be here with you in Denver this evening.” It was the next-to-last stop in a 17-city book tour, and I was beyond exhausted. Several women in the front row yelled back at me, “Portland, Portland!” They were trying to be helpful, but I stood there on stage and stared at them blankly. Why, I wondered, were these women yelling “Portland” at me?

Then there was the lecture in Berkeley where I tossed my head in an infelicitous fashion, snagging an earring on my wool suit jacket. My right ear was pinned to my shoulder, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t extricate myself. After several minutes of silence and fumbling, I was rescued by a relative who ran up on stage to release me from a position that I have otherwise assumed only while doing neck rolls in yoga class

During my early years of public speaking, I also suffered more than a few plain old-fashioned anxiety attacks. Since I couldn’t predict when nausea, tachycardia or other symptoms of terror would strike, I worried nonstop about it happening. Shortly before going on, I would huddle backstage with my manager, Jo-Lynne Worley, and whisper urgently: “I can’t do this. Why am I doing this? Nothing is worth going through this. I will never do this again.” Jo-Lynne, who had heard this litany before, would respond calmly, “You’ll do great. You’ve done it a million times,” whereupon she’d remind me to breathe and push me on stage in the direction of the podium. My evaluations invariably included comments like, “Harriet is such a warm and relaxed speaker.” But even the most enthusiastic audience response did little to reassure me the next time around.

Your Worst Fantasy May Happen!

Public speaking ranks right up there with snake handling and death on the list of activities that grown men and women most dread. But unlike snake handling and death, public speaking is something that many people want to do — but don’t dare to. I know, because folks tell me so. When I ask people what stops them, I hear one or another “neurotic fantasy” — their words, not mine — about the hazards of facing an audience. (“You’ll think I’m crazy, but I have the recurring dream that I’ll be up there and suddenly I won’t have my lecture notes.”) Of course, these folks are not crazy. I can offer no glib reassurances about the perils of public speaking. In fact, it’s clear to me that if you do enough lecturing, your worst “neurotic fantasy” is highly likely to become reality. I was quite lucky in Seattle: I had given versions of that particular speech several times before, so I could wing it without too much trouble. At other times — many other times — my blunders have been unmistakable and irretrievable. Mishaps, I’ve come to realize, are simply part of the lecture-circuit territory.

The Gift of Gaffes

The inevitability of my podium faux pas didn’t mean that I had to consign myself to a career of dodging public speaking opportunities. The secret to managing onstage anxiety, I’ve discovered, is to stop viewing your goof-ups as intolerable humiliations and begin to see them as useful, perhaps even essential, elements of an effective public presentation. Improbable as it may seem, bumbling can be powerful.

I made this discovery several years ago in Chicago, where I was to give a keynote address based on my new book at the time. I had every reason to feel confident about my upcoming performance. I had carefully prepared my talk. I had insisted upon, and received, a state-of-the-art laser pointer that I felt would help me get my ideas across more effectively. Not incidentally, I had borrowed an elegant suit jacket from a friend that was more professional looking than anything I could find in my own closet. What, I thought, could possibly go wrong?

I found out almost instantly. As I strode out before the audience and placed a copy of my speech on the podium, I failed to notice that this particular lectern lacked the conventional ledge for holding papers. The pages of my speech cascaded to the floor. This incident might have been relegated to the category of minor embarrassment had it not been for the fact that I had not bothered to number the pages. Unlike my Seattle speech, this was a brand-new presentation, and I wasn’t yet familiar with its flow and structure. “Just a minute,” I said brightly, then spent the next five shuffling papers and trying to control my panic. At last, I was ready to begin.

Ten minutes into the speech, I broke the expensive laser pointer that I had borrowed from my hosts. Keeping my sense of humor about it became difficult, when, a few moments later, the left shoulder pad of my silk jacket somehow lost its moorings and came to rest up against my neck. “Breathe,” I sternly ordered myself, but by now I was beyond the reach of oxygen therapy. I finished my talk in a stew of embarrassment and wondered if I should drastically lower my fee for future (if any) speaking engagements. But my trials were not over. During the question-and-answer period, I was forced to respond, “I don’t know” several times. “Some expert,” I berated myself.

Then, mercifully, it was over, and I busied myself for a moment at the podium, gathering up my speech in preparation for a quick getaway. When I lifted my head, I saw to my surprise that a small crowd of women had gathered around the lectern. They were smiling at me. “Thank you,” said one, reaching out her hand to shake mine. “It was wonderful to see you being so real.” A younger woman, a psychology graduate student, chimed in. “I’ve always been afraid to speak in public,” she confessed. “Now I feel, if you can do it, I can do it!” Others spoke of the palpable connection they felt with me during my talk, a sense of being in the presence of someone whom they already knew and understood. Being approached by members of an audience following a speech wasn’t a new experience for me. What was new, however, was the level of vitality and connectedness I felt flowing toward me that evening. I looked around at the open, loving faces surrounding me and felt my embarrassment melting away.

The Perfection Trap

One reason that public speaking is so terrifying is that it’s hard to feel we have the right to be ourselves — flubs and all — at the lectern. After all, the podium has historically served as a place for an elite group of men to reflect themselves at twice their natural size. It has never been a place to admit ignorance, confusion or even complexity. To stand at a podium is to elevate oneself — literally — above other humans. To pretend to have all the answers and to never drop one’s papers, break a pointer, or, God forbid, lose track of a shoulder pad. But what I found out on my Night of a Thousand Screw-Ups, and countless times since, is that audiences don’t just tolerate mistakes; they actually can be inspired and invigorated by them. After my blunder-fraught speech, the women in the audience no longer had the option of idealizing me. Instead, it was as though they could now see a reflection of themselves in me — both the schlep and the successful woman that reside within me. If I was simultaneously a vulnerable, mistake-prone and competent woman, then perhaps their own limitations weren’t as important and defining as they may have believed. The women I talked with seemed exhilarated by this knowledge and, ultimately, so was I.

Honor Your Stage Fright

Don’t get me wrong. I still haven’t entirely transcended my fear of public speaking, and there is an excellent chance that I never will. To this day, I prefer to stand when someone is introducing me, so that I won’t get dizzy and pass out in the process of rising from my chair. And each time I approach the podium, I still want things to go perfectly. The truth is that I have an uncommonly high schlep factor — a seemingly limitless capacity for spillage, breakage, tripage, and collisions with inanimate objects. No one chooses to be a schlep in front of a large audience. When I goof, I still entertain fantasies that the stage floor will open up and swallow me whole. But I also honor the fear and trembling that continue to seize me before each public presentation. Stage fright is often characterized as a form of narcissism, a crippling over-focus on the image of the self that one presents to the world. But I believe that the opposite is true. I have come to view speech anxiety as a sign of fundamental integrity. It seems to me that those of us who face our audiences with weak knees and fluttering innards understand too well the essential humanity that we share with our audiences. We know in our bones that we are no better or more evolved than the people who sit before us, yet we are being invited to pretend just that. The podium’s mandate: Fake infallibility and aim for perfection. To approach an audience in the face of that demand — even when we disbelieve it — is a harrowing experience.