A coldish evening and I am back from a class on how to give a presentation, cradling a mug of celebratory hot chocolate. Even the thought of the lesson had given me the heebie-jeebies. I had fretted that I would make a fool of myself by freezing and forgetting my words.
Humiliation is one of the most powerful emotions, and humiliating moments are often those we find hardest to forget. I did not want to be embarrassed. But I went because avoiding what I am frightened of usually only makes it worse. The best way to overcome my fears is to find the courage to face them, hard as that can be. As Eleanor Roosevelt supposedly said, do one thing every day that scares you.
So that’s why I found myself in a group of ten students and longing to be back home, cuddling Sammy in front of the telly. But my mood began to change thanks to a sympathetic tutor dressed in an inviting apricot kaftan. She told us how we would overcome our fears and move out of our comfort zones by practising in baby steps. We would adopt the Pre, During, and After method — or the PDA approach (no, not as in a Public Display of Affection!).
First, the Pre. This meant we would prepare for the presentation. We would remind ourselves of our purpose in being at the workshop, and how we would talk to a friend who was feeling nervous. We would practise in front of a mirror and in pairs. We were advised to use some relaxing standing exercises to steady ourselves.
Then the During stage, when we would present to all the strangers in the class. During these first two stages, we were supposed to stick with any anxious feelings, accepting the discomfort until it gradually dissipated and using breathing exercises if need be. The more we did this, she said, the more we would build up what psychologists call our ‘distress tolerance’ — our ability to withstand negative emotions or distressing states. We could even reframe anxious feelings as energising and arousing instead.
Then, in the After stage, we would discuss how we felt our about presentations and any other techniques we might include to improve them.
Her method worked. I was able to face the group without a pounding heart when I did my own presentation, and learnt much in the chat afterwards. Going forward, our coach suggested that we could continue our journey out of our comfort zones by listing those situations that fill us with fear, or those we avoid. So in my case, that might be giving a presentation to 20 people rather than the ten I had faced that night. We should list these scenarios from least scary to most frightening. Then we should build our confidence by tackling the easier ones first. If you begin with something too challenging, you might just give up all together. In addition, in the absence of a coach like her, was there anyone else who could support us as we embraced new challenges?
Understanding why we prefer to stay in our comfort zone can also, counter-intuitively, make us more adventurous. We humans are loss averse. We dislike loss far more than we like an equivalent gain. Such a cognitive bias probably kept us safe amid the dangers of the African savannah, where the downsides of taking risks were as big as the lions on the prowl. But there are dangers in not being a risk-taker: our ancestors also benefited from variety, whether of habitats, food or mating partners (though this is not an excuse for infidelity!).
In fact, the American educational psychologist, Carol Dweck, argues that we need to adopt a ‘growth’ rather than a ‘fixed’ mind-set: if something is hard, then that’s a good sign as it shows our brains are growing and adjusting. We need to question our self-imposed limits on what we can achieve and expand our horizons. We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual comfort zone, all is lost. But it is only then that what is new and good often begins. And that includes a mug of hot chocolate afterwards.
YOUR TURN TO FACE YOUR FEARS AND CHALLENGE YOURSELF WHEN YOU WOULD RATHER WATCH TELLY OR TALK TO YOUR PET:
1. Write on the dartboard the activities you will try that are out of your comfort zone. The more frightening the situation you face, the more points you receive. Think of it like a dartboard, only this time you aren’t aiming for the bull’s eye. You may find it daunting to think of as many as three different challenging situations, so just start with a 10-point activity if that feels more comfortable and perhaps come back to this exercise in a few weeks’ time.
2. Now choose a 10-point activity from your dartboard to ease yourself into this process. Here is a reminder of the PDA method. Have a think about the questions below and then plot your own PDA on the steps in the image on the next page.
The Pre stage– How you will prepare before the activity
Why are you doing this?
Is there a way of practising ahead?
How would you reassure a nervous friend who was contemplating something outside their comfort zone?
The During stage– How you will prepare for doing the actual activity
Using breathing to stay steady
Accepting difficult feelings and letting them dissipate
The After stage– How will you make the most of having found your courage?
What you have learnt
What you might do differently next time
Adopting a growth mind-set going forward
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: We are thrilled to have British Author and Mental Health Advocate, Rachel Kelly, writing for InSPIre the Mind. Rachel has written as a journalist for The Times and has written books including Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me — My Journey Through Depression, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, The Happy Kitchen — Good Mood Food and her latest, Singing in the Rain: 52 Practical Steps to Happiness — An Inspirational Workbook. This is the first blog of a three part series: part three coming soon.