Have you had an epic public speaking fail? Here is how to stop berating yourself and practice self-compassion instead.
Many of my clients come to me after an epic and humiliating public speaking fail – or a series of more minor fails.
I spend the first half of the course explaining the reasons why we are hypercritical of ourselves and why they have probably overestimated the extent of their failure. With public speaking, we judge ourselves more harshly than the audience does. We make inaccurate assumptions about what the audience is thinking, and we focus too much on our mistakes.
I explain that it is important to recognise these errors in our thinking (known as ‘cognitive biases’ by psychologists) and adopt self-talk to neutralise them. For example, we can remind ourselves that the audience’s attention is not entirely on us as the speaker. The chances are that no one will remember the occasional fumble! In other words, that epic public speaking fail usually is much more significant in my clients’ minds than in anyone else’s.
But in the second half of the course, I offer some tools for people who have had a genuinely bad experience. Perhaps they completely froze in front of an audience, and their manager has told them they have to do something about it, or someone tells them afterwards that they looked incredibly nervous.
One of the most effective tools I can offer is self-compassion.
How do you currently talk to yourself when something like this happens? Do you tell yourself that you are hopeless and will never be any good? That you know everyone is nervous about public speaking, but your fear is much worse than anyone else’s? That you should look for a different job even?!
Now imagine you have a friend who is nervous about public speaking and has a bad experience.
What would you say to them? Would you tell them they are hopeless and will never be any good? That they were the worst performer on the day and that they are more nervous than anyone else you know? That they should start looking for a different job?!
Of course, you wouldn’t! With a friend, you would use words of encouragement, offer some suggestions and acknowledge their strengths. You are much harder on yourself than you would be on a friend.
Dr Kristen Neff is an expert on self-compassion. Here is a link to her website https://self-compassion.org/
She recommends practising self-compassion or self-kindness when your instinct is to berate yourself.
One of the ways that Kristen uses to explain self-compassion is by explaining what it is not.
Self-compassion is not letting yourself off the hook – telling yourself that it doesn’t matter or that it is not important to be good at public speaking. Of course it matters, but you need to be analytical instead of judgmental. Figure out what went wrong instead of beating yourself up. Were you well prepared? Did you let yourself put off because there were very experienced people in the room?
My husband plays golf, and he recently had a lesson to improve his ‘drive’. The instructor told him that his swing was good but to change where he was hitting the ball. And she gave him some videos which he proudly showed me. Not once did it occur to him to feel bad about himself. He knows something is going wrong (and it can be frustrating), but he is curious about how to fix it – no judgement. We can apply the same analytical approach to workplace skills such as public speaking.
Self-compassion is not self-pity. It is not about saying, ‘poor me, it is not fair that I find this so hard.’ It is about practising kindness and patience and reminding yourself that this stuff takes work and time.
Here is the most interesting one. Self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem. This surprised me initially because I have always thought my role was to help my clients build self-esteem.
Kristen explains that we are programmed to think that self-esteem is desirable – and it can be. But not when it is conditional. So much of our self-esteem depends on something else -for example, how we performed that day. And it is often comparative. If we feel that we are doing well compared to others, we feel good about ourselves.
The big problem with conditional self-esteem is that it is not stable. Another day you might have a bad experience or feel that you performed worse than others.
According to Kristen, we need the type of self-esteem that says we are worthy regardless of our performance. We are worthy as human beings. This type of self-esteem is consistent with self-compassion.
Following an epic fail, you can practice self-compassion by focussing on things you know to be true about yourself. Perhaps you are a loyal friend, someone who always keeps their word, or a great collaborator. None of these things has changed just because your presentation went badly.
Notice I talk about ‘practising’ self-compassion. For most of us, it doesn’t come naturally, and it takes some effort!
The next time something goes badly, try to treat yourself as you might treat a friend.
You can practice self-compassion when things go well too. Try to resist feeling good just because you were better than others. Instead, focus on how your hard work has paid off. Feel proud of your achievements but even prouder of the efforts that made those achievements possible.
For more on helpful self-talk try this article.
Article written by Catherine Syme
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I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.