Hi, my name is Anne, and I’m an Academic.
Oh, and I also often suffer from a pathological fear of public speaking.
Oh, and ARGHHHHHH … my PhD defense is in 4 days and I feel like I don’t know or understand anything anymore … SOS, SOS, MAYDAY, HEEEELP !
Yes, I’m stressed, but deep down, I’m actually ok.
More specifically, I’m trying to accept that it’s OK to feel nervous, and to stop trying to fight it. Cause as we know, fighting anxiety just makes it worse. Deep breathing, self-acceptance, gentleness will go a loooooong way, and it’s true!.
In fact, as the final countdown to finishing grad school comes to an end, I realize that I am being given a beautiful gift — that of realizing how far I’ve come in changing my relationship to stress. That of looking back on the last 6 years, with its joys and its terrifying moments of doubt, wanting to quit, discouragement, and strong feelings of impostor’s syndrome. As this period comes to a close, I can see that I have developed a much more soothed/distanced relation to academia-related anxiety, as well as stronger self-esteem. Most importantly, I can see the dramatic acceleration of these positive effects during this last year, after I quit drinking.
During most of grad school, among other (shitty) things, I relied on alcohol as a (shitty) coping mechanism to manage the distress of anxiety, which in the long term only made things worse, adding a layer of shame to my already (shitty) emotional regulation skills.
When I stopped drinking I had no choice but to learn alternative ways to manage feelings of inadequacy and cope with temporary peaks of stress triggered by situations involving (my Achilles’ Heal) public speaking. It’s almost funny… I have many memories of being hungover while speaking at conferences because I drank the night before to numb out the discomfort and worries about performing poorly.
Fast forward one year sober and it becomes clear how yoga, therapy and meditation have been instrumental in gradually getting to a place where I can say: yes, I’m (VERY) stressed, but it’s ok, I can also make space for these uncomfortable feelings, without fighting them off like my life depended on it [If any of you have seen Season 1 of Stranger Things, when you try and fight it, anxiety is like the giant terrifying monster that destroys everything and everyone that comes close. And when you accept it, it’s … erm… like a cute badass 10 year old girl with psychic powers living inside of you (?)… and they all live happily ever after … until Season 2, THE END. Ok back to the point]. I can even tell these feelings that the are welcome, that they can stay here, just as they are.
And you know what? Turns out the anxiety is no longer monster-like and overwhelming or panic-inducing. It doesn’t spin out of control or threaten to drown/devour me. It just sits there, like a fat and annoying little guest, to whom I do my best to be polite and inviting.
These days I even catch myself engaging in positive self-talk, which I would have kept secret a few years ago, because of how “cheesy” it sounds. But F***k it – I ain’t got no shame! It goes something like: “It’s ok baby-Anne, you are strong, you can do this. You don’t need to ‘fake it’, you can actually DO IT because you actually do have REAL skills. You are not an impostor”. What’s new, is that this happens automatically now: I don’t have to ‘force myself” to say it or “fake it till I make it”. In a sense, this shows I HAVE “made” it.
So … Rather than an torture session / interrogation by the Gestapo or the Inquisition, I’m doing my best to think of my defense as a conversation, among human beings. I am trying to remember that my place/role is legitimate, and that it’s ok to be imperfect and not know all the answers (this is my worst nightmare = not knowing how to answer a question).
I am trying to remember that over half of my committee members already know and love me, and want me to do well.
I am trying to remind my ego (in the Western sense) that it is not in danger of being annihilated by this event, and remember that I do have SOME ego-strength. (In a more buddhist sense, the equivalent would be something like: I am trying to remember to set ego aside and let go of the need to live up to the perfectionist image I construct of having to be “good” at all costs, craving praise, and being averse to blame-rejection-criticism). In both paradigms, it’s all about letting things happen, letting go of the need for control, and the illusion that we can/should be perfect.
In these peak moments, where everything is very intense and I feel hypersensitive, I am also grateful to feel the more solid foundation that I have built at the bottom of it all: the trust that no matter what happens, I will be ok, and that even if it all goes to shit, I will still love myself. And I am grateful that my defense is happening on Zoom rather than in person. The screen makes it much easier (and I can always pretend the sound/image/internet stoped working if I can’t answer a question ^^ hehehe).
But still…. AAARRGGGHHH I am so nervous 🙂