Last night, when my class broke up into groups, one of the members of my group mentioned that she felt comfortable speaking in small groups like this, but would get nervous when speaking to the entire class. I joked that she shouldn’t worry, because half the class would be zoned out and not paying attention anyway, not because I particularly think that about this particular class, but because I wanted to try and give her a strategy to get around those nerves. Those kinds of nerves are still quite familiar to me, even if I’ve convinced myself that I’ve gotten rid of them.

After our main discussion, I told my group that my speaking out in class was not something that I could have or did do in my twenties. I wanted them to know that I am not a natural at making myself heard or speaking in public, even if I do talk in this particular class a good deal. I think, at what I perceive to be their age, I did not realize that I could change myself. My “self” seemed such a sacred thing, something I would have to accept and deal with, rather than modify. I defined myself as shy, unable to speak up and easily frustrated in group situations. To challenge myself to change was unthinkable. If I changed, then I would become other than myself.

Now, I feel differently.

At my last job, I, at times, had to take phone calls. It’s a pretty standard thing to do at a desk job, and I didn’t really have to take all that many – maybe one to three calls in a week. But every time that phone rang, I would react. My hands would go cold, my face would go hot and my heart would race. It made answering the phone almost unbearable.

I didn’t like my reaction, and I was just starting to come to realize that it was entirely within my control. I knew that nothing happened on those phone calls to justify that level of fear response in my body. I had nothing to be afraid of, and nothing to worry about, but I was worried anyway. Why?

There was no reason. To fear sounding like a fool or making a mistake to that extent only hurt me. It did not help me. There was nothing I was doing that made me feel good or enjoy myself. The only reason I kept reacting that way was that I was clinging to some notion that I couldn’t change without losing my identity.

I was wrong.

I think there’s something misleading about the idea that it’s okay to be yourself, and loving yourself just the way you are. It forms of the self this impregnable edifice and allows people to hide behind claims that they cannot change, when it’s really that they won’t. Life is change, and to prevent yourself from growing does nothing to preserve your self-integrity. It merely limits you.

“When they tell you to shut up, they mean stop talking. When they tell you to grow up, they mean stop growing.” – Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

I read that novel in high school, and that line has always stuck with me. I cherished an ideal of not growing up, in the sense of being open to grow. I went to a college where the entire experience was built around group discussion, even though I was terrified of speaking up and voicing my opinions. I didn’t talk a lot then, but I learned, and I passed and I graduated, eventually. And now, I’m talking in meetings and classes, and it probably seems like I’m one of those confident people I alternately despised and admired when I was younger.

I don’t know if I succeeded, but I really wanted to let those members of my group know that it was possible to change. There are techniques, tricks and, of course, there’s always practice, but you have to want it. And sometimes, it helps just to know that it’s possible.

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