September 26, 2019

Anxiety and Community Engagement

Amy Collis, Office Volunteer, SFU Public Square

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

If you’re like me, perhaps the last place you might hope to find yourself is speaking to a room of well-read people who are comfortable quickly exchanging complex ideas.

Well, I mean, the idea of such an event is perfect. I live and breathe books and ideas, spending hours researching current issues well into the night. And in a world in which fake news and disconnection are rampant, I am keenly aware of how dialogue can unite and invigorate our communities.

But the reality of such an event is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Anxiety – an old friend

When it comes to speaking in a group, my comfort zone is fairly and squarely talking with people whom I know and trust very well. Ideally, on a one-to-one basis. But if you must, groups of no more than four, thank you.

Painfully shy as a child, I avoided ever having to speak up in any group situation. It was so bad that I made my mum request that I never be made to stand up and speak at our weekly school assembly. I dreaded ever being called upon in class to answer a question and became an expert at avoiding eye contact when the teacher wanted to call upon someone.

By the time I got to university, I had largely grown out of my extreme childhood shyness. Yet without tackling my anxiety around public speaking head on, it remained.

Then, quite ironically, I became a teacher. And have been teaching for six whole years. This is where I'm supposed to tell you that public speaking has become second-nature to me. But I can't, because I still struggle with being in the limelight and speaking to a group of people, even when I know them.

Perhaps I could have gone through life never developing this skill and getting to grips with the accompanying anxiety. But feeling strongly about how important dialogue and human connection is on a personal and societal level, I had no choice but to get a handle on it.

The road to engagement

So, when I was contacted by SFU Public Square to volunteer at their 2019 Community Summit on Disinformation, I found myself, quite by chance, confronting my fear of speaking in public.

The event I had signed up to volunteer for was SFU’s Philosophers’ Café. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, each café is an opportunity for philosophers and non-philosopher’s alike to engage in stimulating dialogue on the pressing issues of our times.

To kick-off the summit, the café was to discuss the topic of truth in the modern age in a round-table format. A topic that was so ‘right up my street’ that the street could have been named after me.

Well, as an events volunteer, I never actually thought that I would have the chance to be a participant in the dialogue. But I’m here to say, not only that I survived, but that I’ll be going back for more.

To anyone else who feels a strong unease in these kinds of situations despite wanting to be a part of them, I wanted to share my experience and thoughts with you in the hope that I won’t simply see you there next time, but that I’ll hear from you too.

Let the internal battle commence  

I won’t lie. I kept quiet for about 99% of the time. I listened intently to the comments, the questions, the opinions,and the theories. It was fascinating. There was a dialogue going on in the room. We were a community. Except, I didn’t really feel like a part of this community yet. And something was gnawing away at me as I listened.

I cared deeply about the issue of truth and disinformation. I had read widely on the subject, both during and after university. I had analysed it from various perspectives. I had something to contribute.  

But I hadn’t joined in.

My part of the dialogue was stuck in my head. “Why did they say that?”. “I’m not sure I understand this concept.” “I do hope they’ll clarify it at some point.” “Could you explain how that is relevant?”.

No turning back

We were about three quarters of the way through the discussion when it happened. There was no forewarning. As if connected to an altogether different brain, acting completely without the prior required authorisation for such out-of-the-ordinary bodily movement, my hand, timidly but unretractably, went up. The battle was one between that child in me who dreaded the spotlight and was terrified of ridicule, and the small yet ceaseless glimmer of light inside me that refuses to be defeated, which had decided that this would be its lucky break.

My heart pounded so hard that I thought the whole room might be able to hear it. My brain uselessly echoed what I was saying as I was saying it, as if it were some last ditch attempt to stop me in my tracks.But I managed to get it out. My point. Small though I felt it was. Jumbled though it sounded to me at the time.

While it was disregarded in the immediate moment as not quite on topic, on a personal level, I had a victory that no-one could take away from me. I’d put myself out there and nothing seriously bad had happened. Now I was in the community. We were a community. These feelings were second to none.

The power of community spirit

In one of the kindest gestures I have ever experienced, a lady came up to me and not only thanked me for my comment, but told me it was the key to the whole debate. She told me she wished she had spoken up. I told her I wished she had too. I would have loved to hear her contribution.

I wondered long after the event, if she’d known how difficult it had been for me. I also wondered if she knew how grateful I had been for her kind words, and how much it meant to me that someone ‘got’ me.

One thing that was clear to me was that everyone in the room that day had played a role in giving me the courage to speak.

It was the way in which the exchange of information happened. People truly listened to each other and responded to what they said with kindness and respect. They thanked each other for their comments. The diversity of opinion in the room was welcomed by all, evidenced by how people attended to any and all comments without putting anyone down.

Important conversations need us  

Perhaps you’re sensitive too, and the issues that interest and concern you also overwhelm you. They might even make you feel more than a little down on occasion. I’d hazard a guess that if you’re here reading this blog, it’s because you too are desperate to make the world a better place, and strive to do so in small ways on a daily basis.

But what is stopping a good number of us from truly getting involved in the fundamental discussions of our times is that we let our old friend, anxiety, hold us back.

So, what are we to do?

My anxiety is not going anywhere anytime soon. It is part and parcel of my everyday life. And to some degree, simply acknowledging that fact has had the effect of reducing anxiety’s hold over me.

I have also found that managing anxiety is possible through a variety of techniques and strategies.

One of the biggest things that helped me were notes of kindness to myself, to be read when I know a situation will be anxiety inducing.

Through teaching I learned how to quiet those voices in my head and ‘act’ confidently when I least felt it.

And I learned the power that a smile and laughter have in reducing anxiety for all.   

So, I challenge you to find and use the tools you have discovered to speak up the next time you go to a conference or discussion.

For those of you out there who also struggle with the anxiety that public speaking stirs in us, and the lovely lady who approached me after the Philosopher’s Cafe, the world needs to hear from us more.

I look forward to seeing and hearing from you all again soon. 

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