We’re used to talking about “fear of public speaking” as though it’s just one thing. But the reality is more complex than that. There are actually four layers of fear, and excavating them will help you manage your fear more effectively.
1. Biological Fear: The Deepest Layer
Fear of public speaking is close to universal, because it starts with a universal (and primitive) part of our brains called the amygdala.
Your amygdala controls the fight-flight-or-freeze response—that involuntary reaction that helps you climb a tree, stand stock still, or run like hell when you feel threatened.
This handy mechanism kept us safe at the dawn of human time by producing enough adrenalin (a hormone that prepares our muscles for exertion) to give us a fighting chance of escaping physical danger. And since some of that danger came from people, our bodies are deeply wired to flood with adrenalin when we’re face to face with a group of people we think can hurt us.
Of course, the “hurt” of being killed in battle is very different from the hurt of stumbling over ideas when you’re speaking to your boss. One is lethal, the other temporary. But try telling that to your amygdala, which reads those two types of danger as being basically the same.
2. Cultural Expectations: An Insidious Promoter of Fear (especially when you’re speaking up)
All of us are born into particular cultures that combine elements of our race, gender, class, ethnicity, nationality, geography, religion, family beliefs, and more; and every culture contains a set of expectations.
Example: I’m a white women of Eastern European Jewish heritage who was born into a professional class “nuclear family” in the New England region of the United States during the post-World War II era of economic expansion. We could talk for hours about the expectations attached to each of those elements, but they converged in the very clear assumption that I would be cisgender and straight, would attend (and excel in) college, would marry a Jewish professional and have several children, and would strive to live a moral (in liberal Jewish terms), upper-middle-class life.
Cultural expectations can provide a tremendously comforting sense of safety. But they also include the threat of being thrown out of our clans if we don’t conform to what’s expected, or perform sufficiently well (and in the right way).
Tricky, tricky. Cultural expectations can be:
- Contradictory (mine included the opposing commandments to: a) stand out, but b) not self-promote—a head-scratcher I still struggle with), or
- Demoralizing (“Who do you think you are, somebody special?!”), or
- Scary (“Go ahead, raise your hand, and somebody will smack it down”), or
- Guilt-inducing (“If you fail, you’re not just letting yourself down, you’re letting our people down.”), or
- All of the above, plus many more.
But whatever shape or form it takes, you can be sure that some of the fear you feel around public speaking has to do with the cultural injunctions you grew up with.
And just because this isn’t complicated enough already, it’s possible that those expectations are baked so deeply into your brain that you don’t even realize they’re there.
3. Your Temperament: Fear Attacks from Within
We’re all born with qualities that seem to be innate, and that can observed by our caregivers from a very early moment.
There are probably hundreds of differences between one baby’s temperament and the next, but a few dimensions that seem relevant to fear of public speaking include whether a person is:
- Anxious or phlegmatic (which means having an unemotional, stolid, calm disposition).
- Outgoing or reserved.
- Self-reliant or dependent.
- Cautious or risk-seeking.
This is where the parameters of fear get personalized—because how you’re temperamentally inclined to interpret cues from your amygdala and expectations from your culture-of-origin can spell the difference between public speaking fear being a minor annoyance or becoming a major challenge.
Add to that the wide range of physical reactions people experience, and this is where fear of public speaking becomes very personal.
4. Your Lived Experience: Past Fears Live in Your Present
However old you are, and whatever career stage you’re in, it’s likely that you’ve already lived through some bad communications experiences.
These can range from stinging (someone dismissed your comment with an eye roll) to toxic (someone screamed obscenities and threw things at you; and yes, some bosses do that, which is why I coach people to interview for new jobs).
These things stay with us. Our brains are wired to focus on negative experience for the same reason that our fight-flight-or-freeze response gets trigger-happy—to, at least theoretically, help us avoid repeating past mistakes, and survive.
But just because bad experiences are “sticky” doesn’t mean we can’t overcome them. Even PTSD, a profound response to trauma, can be treated and healed.
Excavating the Four Layers of Public Speaking Fear
Excavating the four layers of fear is truly the work of a lifetime.
That’s because—although these fears are basically universal—the specific ways they impact each of us, and the specific strategies that can help us cope, area unique to each of us. (Or to put that in a tag line: Universal problems, individual solutions. :-))
So are you set about this exploration, be sure to bring a healthy dose of patience, and an attitude of wry acceptance with you.
Fear, which lives in the deepest and most primitive part of our brain, can never be completely vanquished. But we can learn to manage it with ever-greater ease, detachment, and calm.
Because the fifth, and most important layer of fear…is the one where we refuse to give it power.