Putting your nervous butterflies to work

When it comes to fear and anxiety, we tend to fight our feelings even though we would be better off using them

Faith WoodWe all tell ourselves stories that cause us to behave in peculiar ways – even if our behaviour seems logical in the moment.

We might not even be aware of how compromised our problem-solving mechanisms might be perceived by others (or ourselves if we were more objective).

There’s an old joke about a fellow walking down the street at 2 a.m. who sees another man, obviously drunk, on his hands and knees, searching for something.

“What are you looking for?” he asks.

“My house keys” the man replies.

“Where did you drop them?” he asks.

“Two streets away,” he slurs.

“Why aren’t you looking there?” he asks incredulously.

“Because the light’s much better here,” comes the answer.

It’s perplexing how we sometimes respond to problems.

I used to fear public speaking. I tried some of the more familiar fear-reducing tactics (picture the audience naked – that just horrified me; have a small cocktail before speaking – define small; and over-rehearsing), but none seemed to consistently work.

No matter how hard I tried to quiet my nerves, I still got a serious case of butterflies when I stood up to address a group – especially if I perceived a lot riding on the presentation.

When it comes to fear and anxiety, we tend to fight the feelings a great deal. I have spent plenty of time arguing with myself about how ridiculous certain feelings are.


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Then one day I stood up to speak and said to myself, “OK, butterflies, you’re going to ride shotgun today. You don’t get to be in charge or make any decisions, but you can tag along.”

An amazing thing happened because of this frank discussion with myself. The panicky feeling dissipated! I was stunned. I wasted all that time and effort fighting the nerves when simply acknowledging those emotions would have disarmed them.

Perhaps you have encountered this, too.

Whenever you experience an unwelcome feeling, it’s natural to struggle against it. But when you fight with yourself, someone always loses – you.

I decided to stop fighting my nervous energy and start accepting it as part of the experience. After all, nervous energy caused me to prepare more and be more deliberately focused in my speaking.

So if you encounter a feeling that you find unpleasant, unhelpful or that you just plain don’t like, consider deploying this strategy:

  • Map out the feeling. Identify where in your body it is, how large it is, how it moves, what temperature it is, etc. Define everything about that feeling you possibly can. While most people are aware of their feelings, very few ever get truly acquainted with the physical characteristics of their emotions. Our emotions have a physical manifestation in the body so it’s an important first step to map out that physicality in a mindful way.
  • Acknowledge the feeling. Be OK with the fact that you’re feeling it. This can be trickier for some, who will say, “But I don’t want to feel it,” or “I shouldn’t be feeling it.” But here’s the thing: you are feeling it and if you want to change the feelings, the most expedient way is to accept the presenting symptom without judgment.
  • Invite it to tag along, even remain where it is in your body, but establish rules of conduct. The unwanted feeling can’t be in charge, can’t make any decisions and can’t speak. Over time, you might even start to imagine turning the volume down on the feeling – just like a radio dial or the video on a computer monitor.

If you refuse to do this, any attempt to change unwanted feelings will involve starting from where you aren’t (a positive affirmation space), and that rarely works out well, as our man looking for his keys on the wrong street can attest to.

Then you’re just telling yourself fanciful stories and behaving in a peculiar way.

Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. 

© Troy Media


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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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