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October 01, 2014 - Welcome Guest!

Advice » Mental Health

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Why do I get so nervous about talking in front of the class?

Question:

I never really thought much about a lot of things, and life was just easy and went on worry-free. I always was shy, and wished to be more outgoing, but it didn't ever really bother me that much. I really didn't think about it. I was very academically driven, and got straight A's. Last year as a junior I was in Spain, because I really wanted to be an exchange student. The Spanish culture is very sensitive, open, and kind. This had a great effect on me. They also are not as high-strung as Americans over-all. I also met another American girl living in the same town as me. We had little in common, but became best friends. She helped me realize how important it is to be kind and friendly, and reach out.

With a new and hopeful outlook on life, one completely different from my prior mechanical life and personality, I came back with high self-confidence and determination to show the light on others. My family moved to a different city at the end of that summer, but I had no qualms, as I was ready and willing to meet new people and have another change in my life. I had sort of outgrown friends, and was ready for a new environment (of course I miss my close friends).

The beginning of the school year was hard, because I was overwhelmed by the shocking workload, and I was trying to get involved with many extracurricular activities. I was very motivated to meet and talk to new people, and I wanted to make others happy. That whole positive attitude drastically changed after a few months. I became frustrated from lack of response from others, and the high school I attend is so groupie, trendy, and obnoxious. I guess most are that way, and I want to accept it and be happy, but it's really hard.

Anyway, staying on track, this year I have developed an insecurity with getting up and speaking in front of the class. Even speaking up in class is sometimes a challenge. I used to do these things naturally, but now I am constantly asking myself if I'm nervous, if I can talk, etc. I was on speech team at my old school, and I was going to do it this year too. But there was never a meet I could go to, so I dropped it. I feel strange about this whole thing, because I feel like I am more outgoing, and should be able to carry that with me to the front of the room to simply read off a paper or a little report. I think that maybe I feel I should be able to be at ease, and it's weird that I get nervous and my voice shakes. Now it's been a while, so I think I'm finally accepting my weirdness. I just need to deal with it when I'm up there. I know I'll get nervous, so what can I do while up there feeling helpless?

Oh, one other thing- I started feeling like I had shortness of breath, and over a few months it got to the point where I felt I could not speak at all. It was horrible. The doctor told me I was healthy, and that was just frustrating. I get irritable with family easily, and now try to be superficial to keep my parents happy. Anyway, about my voice- I went to get Echinacea as recommended by a friend. By fate I guess I picked up the wrong bottle- it was Lungwort. I did some research, and decided to try it. It has helped quite a bit, but I still worry my body and lungs will grow immune to it. I guess I would appreciate your analysis on these issues, and recommendations for relaxation techniques or herbal remedies. Why am I experiencing such weird things in my life?

Jenn, 18-year-old woman

Answer:

Dear Jenn,

I had to read through your question many times before I put my finger on the problem.

On the face of it, you have everything going for you. You are a highly intelligent, high-achieving young woman. Only the very best are accepted for exchange scholarships. From the sound of it, you live a financially secure life, and are a thoughtful person who is able to think for herself.

You used to be able to face an audience. This is part of what an exchange student is required to do, and you used to be on the speech team at your old school. And yet, you are in distress. You have been for months, and it is severe enough to make you want to seek help.

The key is in your statement: "I AM FINALLY ACCEPTING MY WEIRDNESS".

You are not weird. There is nothing wrong with you. You are OK. Things have gone sour for you in your new school. In our crazy culture, this is taken to mean that somebody must be at fault. There are many of them, and only one of you, so it must be your fault. You must be faulty.

Rubbish.

Rather, it seems to me that you are the victim of a culture clash. Every group of people has a culture, and often even changing schools within the one town can get you among people who think differently from you. The kids at your new school are not necessarily all "groupie", "trendy" and "obnoxious". They are different from what you were used to, different from what you expected. And your way of looking at the world is somewhat different from theirs. Anyway, are they all clones of each other? Do they all belong to a thought-regimented army?

You arrived, and was greeted in a different way from what you had expected. Your attempts at friendship were rejected by some people, so you branded the whole lot as obnoxious. Then they reacted to your negative attitude by shutting you out even more. A vicious circle got set up. And then you decided that this must be because you are a weirdo. After that, you had a self-fulfilling prophecy situation. Things stay bad because you and the others expect them to.

I am sure that speaking in front of the class is not the only situation affected by this problem, but it is the situation where everything gets magnified. When you are forced to get up in front of this group, you feel their dislike, their negative judgments. Facing a hostile audience is a sure-fire way of getting stage fright, and that's what you have. Stage fright is when you focus on the impression you are making, rather then on the job you are about to perform. I hope that understanding these things will help you to feel better about yourself.

Now, what to do about your problem?

  • First, find some friends in your new school. They are not all uniform. I'm willing to bet that there are several who'd love to be your friends, but have been put off by the dislike you have shown to them because of what a few kids have done to you. You are smart and perceptive. Approach the lonely ones, the shy ones, the others who don't fit the groups. Do so privately, so there is no pressure on them to reject you just to "fit in". There are three kinds of people: leaders, followers and thinkers. You used to be a leader, and expected to continue in that role in your new situation. This was a challenge to the existing power structure, and you got rebuffed. You didn't want to become a follower, and rejected them in turn. Your natural allies are the others who are also not followers. Join up with them.
  • Realize that it is not your fault, or theirs, it was just an unfortunate difference in perception that got out of hand. If you can accept that you are not faulty, your self-confidence will return. This is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you KNOW you're all right, you will be.
  • Specifically, in the public speech situation, here is a first-aid trick. Before anxiety takes hold, breathe slowly and deeply, so that your abdomen rises and falls. Make sure you know your material, and tell yourself over and over, "I know this. I'm competent. I can do it." The first few times, you'll still be facing a hostile audience, who expect you to stuff up. This is a CHALLENGE. Prove them wrong!
  • I suggest you make time for fun in your life. If there is a speech team at your school, join it. Another avenue is Toastmasters. This is a wonderful organization, where all feedback is encouraging and positive. They'll love to have you, and you'll find them to be an enormous help.
  • And one final thought: next year, you'll be going to College. You'll find a different group there, with a different culture. You'll have another chance to make good. Whatever happens for now, just hang in there. It's only temporary, practice for next near. Learn from it, so you can do better next time.

    Good luck,

    Bob Rich

This question was answered by Dr. Bob Rich. Dr. Rich has 31 years experience as a psychologist and is registered with the Australian Psychological Society. He practices in Australia. Dr. Rich is also a writer and a "mudsmith".

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