Self-Monitoring: The Silent Killer in Stage Fright
by Peter Desberg Ph.D., author of Speaking Scared Sounding Good (Square One Publishers)
“I’m afraid I’ll get ‘pantsed’ in court.”
This was an attorney’s explanation of why he was terrified to step into a courtroom. I immediately connected with this because as an adolescent, I had nightmares of being “pantsed” in a series of awkward situations…always with an audience of girls I had crushes on, so I knew how deep the fear of his embarrassment runs.
When I asked him why he thought he’d get “pantsed,” he came up with several reasons: “I may have omitted something in my preparation,” “the other attorney may be much better than I am” and “I don’t think well on my feet under pressure.”
The content of your fear may be different, but the way your fears work is the same. Understand that everyone experiences stage fright…you just need the right situation to feel its grip.
It Starts With A Prediction
As a psychologist, I can tell you that you make a prediction before you take any action, no matter how trivial. Depending on the familiarity and safety concerns, these predictions can be totally under your radar…or all-consuming.
Here’s a simple example. You want a glass of milk, so you just walk into the kitchen and get it.
So where are the predictions? Actually, you predicted that you will get to the kitchen and back safely, that there would be adequate milk in the fridge, and most importantly, that the milk has not exceeded its dreaded expiration date.
This would all happen so fast that you wouldn’t have noticed it, unless…
If you had broken a glass in the kitchen that morning and you were now barefoot, you might find yourself making a few safety predictions. If you once drank very stale milk and spent 20 minutes trying to get the taste out of your mouth, you might make a prediction here too. Here’s how the prediction process may look back in your law practice.
Preparing to go into court, you might be very likely to make predictions about the opposing attorneys — especially if you know them to be competent, brutal and condescending. You might make predictions based on the assessment of your own skill level, your preparation and your ability to handle pressure.
Your predictions will also be affected by how much is at stake. Here is the formula for anxiety (this would play better if you could hear a drum roll in your head): if you are about to face a dangerous situation and believe that your resources are inadequate to handle it, you will become anxious. As you know, anxiety can be very distracting. Here’s what your brain does with these distractions.
Research in Cognitive Science demonstrates that we are wired to do only one complex mental task at a time. If my word isn’t good enough for you and you still believe in multi-tasking…try this little demo:
Step 1 – Begin counting the words in this blog to yourself. Stop when you get to 20.
Step 2 – Begin counting the words again, but this time, repeat the word “the” to yourself over-and-over as you count.
Notice what happens to your counting. At best, your performance deteriorated. “The” is the most commonly used word in English. You have been counting since you were a small child. If repeating a common word is enough to interfere with a simple act like counting, think what may be going on in your brain during your courtroom presentations.
In a complex legal argument, you need all of your mental resources. You cannot count on them if you are self-monitoring. The human brain doesn’t have the capacity. When your attention drifts to your assessment of your performance or your predictions of it, or your attention is on how scared you feel, or how scared you look to the audience…something has to give.
As you begin to make mistakes or feel outside of your body observing yourself, you are experiencing the essence of stage fright. Is there more to the picture? Yes. Is there a way to deal with it? Yes… and that’s why we have another post coming soon.
Peter Desberg can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.