No matter how much preparation you put into a speech or presentation, the moment you are in front of an audience, looking down at their judgmental expressions as they sit comfortably with indifference, you’ll likely feel panicked. Heavy breathing, rapid heart rate and increased sweating are typical responses you may experience before even taking the stage. Whether we label it a fear, phobia or anticipatory anxiety, in some form, it’s a sensation that we all experience.
Allegedly, Sir Winston Churchill first mentioned picturing his audience naked as a mechanism for overcoming his early fear of audiences. Possibly the greatest public speaker of the 20th Century, Churchill was always upfront about the difficulties he encountered when addressing large audiences.
The idea of picturing an audience naked is not ridiculous; it actually makes perfect sense. Creating an ironic or humorous mental image separates one from stressful tasks at hand. It allows you to gain perspective and to manage a situation that you are completely equipped to handle — after removing the mental barrier.
Victor Frankl, the father of a branch of psychotherapy called logotherapy, conceptualized this idea. He observed that fear brings about what one fears. In other words, when we try to control and prevent fear, we merely propagate it. Therefore, Frankl suggested doing the complete opposite, a technique he coined paradoxical intention.
Paradoxical Intention requires the individual to deliberately wish for that which he or she fears most. Humor is the key to this approach, since it requires presenting yourself with ridiculous scenarios. It’s totally counterintuitive. In the case of fearing public speaking, a person is naturally inclined to focus harder and concentrate more on the assignment, but this tends to make situations worse. Meanwhile, imagining the audience naked, which one would think might cause a loss of focus, helps the individual overcome fear and present without any problems.
In practice, paradoxical intention has helped people who struggle to maintain a diet due to fear of binge eating, people who feel nervous in group situations due to fear of perspiration and people who have difficultly falling asleep due to fear of sleeplessness. In each case, the solution has come from deliberately thinking about the fear coming true: eating as much as possible, willing yourself to sweat profusely and trying to stay awake. The humorous absurdity of such a thought is what allows the individuals to separate from their fears and anxieties.
One of my clients is rather difficult. During past phone conversations, this person has grown to be particularly confrontational, leading me to resort to complete defensiveness, and now, I’m totally anxious when I have to call this person. I replay the encounters in my head for days after the calls and I’ve even had dreams about it. So, I tried going completely against my natural tendencies; rather than preparing for a defensive conversation, I imagined the phone call erupting into an enormous fight. The scenario I envisioned was so far-fetched and ridiculous, it was almost laughable. I practically geared myself up to go into battle.
But the conversation came and went, and it was actually quite pleasant. Best yet, my mouth didn't dry up as it previously had. It was a pretty amicable call.
Paradoxical intention, or more simply, going against your natural instincts and making fun of stressful situations may be the most novel approach to combating anxiety and fear. Though it requires reexamining these fears and ridiculing them, if it worked for Sir Winston, it can certainly work for the rest of us.
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