Return to Toastmasters!!!

Hi friends! It”s currently 3:46am on this Thursday morning. As usual, sleep isn’t coming easy, so I decided to write about my day!

Yesterday (Wednesday) was a formative day indeed. It started off slow– my moods and motivation level were low, and I could barely get myself out of bed. Once I mustered up the strength to roll out of my warm comfy sheets and get the day started, it was already the afternoon! I got some work done (studying SAT math, because I’m teaching a course starting on Saturday); danced for an hour at the studio; scrolled through social media; took a short nap.

At 6:30pm, I made the spontaneous decision to attend my first Toastmaster’s International meeting in a long while! For those of you who don’t know, Toastmasters is an organization that helps people improve their public speaking skills, with chapters all around the world. I started my Toastmaster’s journey back in high school, as a way to overcome debilitating social anxiety and build my confidence as an orator. Slowly but surely, my public speaking skills improved with constant exposure throughout college. I was even invited to give a student TED talk, which was such a fun experience!

The thing is, I’ve always had a fear of public speaking. That deep-seated fear did not truly go away, despite how much practice I had. The physiological reaction, aka the fight or flight response, was always there. I just learned how to better cope with it. I went from being completely non-functional during a presentation, to becoming a (more) confident public speaker.

A big part of the reason why I was able to temper the anxiety was because I practiced a lot in college. I had to give presentations and participate in debates in my classes. I raised my hand a lot in lecture to learn and participate in discussions. I experienced many interviews for various extracurricular leadership roles. Slowly but surely, my shyness was shedding.

Then, I came home. The transition out of college was difficult, and without constant exposure to challenging social situations, my social anxiety returned, full force. I mean, what do you expect from someone who’s naturally introverted and going through a bout of depression, holed up in her room all day, living like a recluse and homebody?

So yesterday, I decided to challenge myself for the first time in a while. I attended my first Toastmaster’s meeting in over a year. I did not anticipate the experience to be so anxiety provoking. I felt the familiar fight or flight response– a physiological reaction to fearful situations. As I was out of practice, I lost faith in my ability to cope under pressure. I let the fear overtake my composure.

I was welcomed as a guest, but seeing as the meeting was missing a timer– aka the person who times the speeches to make sure everyone is speaking in the allotted time frame– I volunteered to take over the position. When I was introducing myself to the others, I was visibly nervous. For some reason, I struggled to make eye contact with the audience. My voice was shaking. I tried hard to not judge myself for it– I am only human, and I have imperfections. Then, it came time for me to introduce the role of the timer to everyone. I basically read off the paper the entire time, again not really making eye contact with anyone.

Then came time for Table Topics. Table topics is the portion of the meeting devoted to training participants in impromptu speaking. You are given a topic to speak about on the spot and are expected to give a 1-2 minute impromptu speech. I was the last person to go. My topic was, “What is your favorite winter vacation spot?” As I was walking up to the front of the room, my mind went blank. What is my favorite place to go during winter holidays? I didn’t know! I got up there, and immediately I knew that this speech would be a disaster. I didn’t know what to say, and I sure as hell did not have my wits about me. I think I ended up blurting out something like “Lake Tahoe” and “skiing”. Very original, Bel. Without much else to say, and with a whole minute left to spare, I looked to the President of the club, eyes pleading, “Help me, please.” He was so kind and prompted me to speak about summer vacation spots, or made-up vacation destinations. But my mind kept blanking! At that point, I was panicking inside. I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone, a sheen of sweat lined my forehead, my voice was trembling, and my heart was beating out of my chest. Even typing this out and recounting the experience, I find my palms sweating. In that moment, being up there with everyone staring at me (them witnessing the debacle unfolding before their very eyes, and probably feeling just as uncomfortable as I was), I wanted nothing more than to escape. I remember thinking to myself throughout the speech, “This is the worst thing that can happen. I am completely blowing it.” I even had to stop in the middle, take a breath, and admit to everyone that I was super nervous. One kind lady whispered to me, “It’s okay.” Once I hit the one minute mark, I clumsily ended my terrible speech and was met with scattered, sympathetic applause. I was mortified!

Here’s the interesting thing, though. After I came down from that harrowing experience and regained my composure, I found myself feeling a mixture of emotions. Yes, there was embarrassment. But more than that, there was pride. I felt proud of myself for getting up there and speaking! My worst nightmare unfolded– aka, a very flustered me stumbling through what was quite possibly the worst speech in human history. But you know what? I survived the experience and lived to tell the tale!

They say that failure begets growth. I couldn’t agree more. While I may not have delivered the best speech I could have possibly given, upon further reflection, I take this experience as a win. Because in the process, I gained something invaluable. The flame in my soul is reignited. Once more, there is a fire in my belly that screams at me to strive for improvement. I am wholly committed to becoming a better speaker. I may have sucked today, but I have absolute, 100% faith in myself that one day, I WILL be a great orator and move people through my words. I know that the path to getting there won’t be easy. I will be scared. I will be embarrassed. I may even be downright mortified. But if there’s anything I learned from my life as an athlete, it is that I am RESILIENT. With each “failure” comes a hunger and yearning to be better. I refuse to resign myself to fear and let that fear hinder me from achieving my full potential. So eager was I to prove to myself that I could be better, I immediately signed up to be a speaker for the next meeting. So in two weeks’ time, I will be delivering my first prepared speech in over a year. I am nervous, but I am also excited and curious to see how I will handle myself in such a situation. I’ve also decided to take some acting classes and explore improv comedy through a troupe in the Bay Area called “BATS Improv”. I need to tackle this fear head on and overcome it.

Time and time again, I am brought back to Eleanor Roosevelt’s inspiring quote: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Once you look fear in the eye and emerge alive, you realize that a lot of that fear was irrational and existed only in your head. No matter how badly you handled the situation, you WILL emerge more confident. Why? Because you looked fear in the face and survived. The next time a similar situation rolls around, you may still experience that same fear and ensuing physiological reaction. No one said it would be comfortable. But this time around, you will be grounded with the knowledge that you will survive. Your worst nightmare came to fruition, but you survived it.

Another quote I love is that of esteemed UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. He said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. We can have no progress without change, whether it be basketball or anything else.” Sure, I may have regressed in terms of my speaking ability. I may not be the speaker I envision myself being… yet. It’s that last word– YET– that makes such a profound difference in your thinking. It’s the hallmark of the growth mindset, which is rooted in the belief that one can transcend one’s present abilities and improve, with patience and practice.

I am excited to see how far I can go as an orator. I love challenges, and I guess that’s one thing I sorely missed, upon returning home after college. Every day at UCLA, I was challenged, be it intellectually, socially, psychologically. While challenges may not be comfortable, they sure as hell make you grow tremendously as a person.

I will continue to attend these Toastmaster’s meetings. In fact, I plan on joining multiple chapters of Toastmaster’s– one in San Carlos, and two in Redwood City– so I’ll be getting in practice at least once a week. I know, I just know, that in time, I will be a great public speaker. I overcame my fear once. I can do it again.

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