In Front of the Crowds
How we can support ourselves with our inner conflicts about being seen.
Most of us experience some level of nervousness or discomfort when we suddenly feel that we are in the spotlight. May it just be an introduction round at a work meeting, where we start feeling under pressure to introduce ourselves clearly and briefly without making a bad impression, or may it be our big moment of doing a talk at a large conference. And yet many of us also harbour a deep longing to be seen and acknowledged.
It is a tricky conflict as we find ourselves contract and shrink every time we feel seen and are unable to show our expanded, natural and confident self, no matter how much we want to.
Afterwards, we feel exhausted and frustrated with ourselves. We know that we could be so much better at this. We would love to be able to just show up confident, being ourselves and truly connect with people. We would like to feel at ease and expansive in our bodies and just enjoy being seen.
Unfortunately, many of us know this struggle. Stepping in front of an expectant crowd and allowing ourselves to be seen can evoke a fight or flight response in our nervous system. This deeply instinctive mechanism causes us to lose the ability to rest into ourselves and socially engage with other people. Accumulatively this is a jarring process that could well be the first step to burnout if this is a frequent conflict at work for example.
We can use Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory to get a better understanding of what is happening to us when we feel being seen.
When we are at peace and enjoying the company of others we are in a ventral vagal state. We feel grounded, calm, and at ease. Our body is able to take care of all internal processes like digestion, restoration, musculoskeletal and cognitive function in an easy and balanced way. We feel connected to and seen by others in ways that make us feel safe and validated. This ability to socially engage with other people is something that fuels our ventral vagal state further. We have a sense of “I can.” about us and our ambitions. Most of us will have an experience of this and some of us feel at home in this state of being more so than others.
If we are under a lot of stress, experiencing pain, or managing difficult relationships, we may not find a ventral vagal state easy to maintain. When we then step in front of other people in this state, we quickly begin to pick up the signals that trigger a sympathetic nervous system response. We perceive many unfamiliar eyes suddenly looking at us expectantly or even challengingly. We are suddenly under public scrutiny and feel the pressure to perform and deliver. We tense up, our eyes go wider, and we cannot see the room as a whole anymore as we fixate on this or that. We become a little uncoordinated or even walk into things. We get a mental block and cannot think properly. Our voice and movements speed up and our breath becomes shallow. We cannot look people in the eye. Even if we are aware of these changes, it is difficult to control or influence them. The body has gone into a sympathetic nervous system state, associated with expecting or preparing for a fight or flight situation in a moment when we are desperate to relax and connect with people.
How frustrating is this? In our attempt to make it work, we put more pressure on ourselves, and our sense of “I can” changes to “I must.” Unfortunately, no matter how much we try to hide how we really feel 70-80% of our communication with others is non-verbal and a lot of it is subconscious and instinctive. Chances are that others pick up on our sympathetic nervous system state, which means that now neither of us are able to socially engage with each other.
If we remain in this situation and are unable to return to a more ventral vagal state we may shift into a frozen state. Unable to think or do anything we experience an overwhelming sense of “I can’t.” and something has to seriously change for us to be able to get back to “I can.”
If this experience is repeated, again and again, we may eventually collapse into a dorsal vagal state, a form of nervous system shut down. Literally physically overwhelmed with the repeated stress of being seen we may experience symptoms like headaches, chronic tension, stiffness and pain, voice problems, and chronic exhaustion.
What can we do about this? Ideally, we want to be and remain in a ventral vagal state as much as possible when we are being seen. We want to be able to connect with others, put them at ease and make a good impression.
Below are a few simple tips that can help you self-regulate your nervous system in preparation for those challenging public speaking events at work or other moments in which you feel seen beyond your comfort level.
Before The Event:
- Take A 15 Minute Time Out
Perhaps the most important question we want to ask ourselves is: how do we enter the situation? Are we already in a sympathetic nervous system state when we get there? If we are, it will be very difficult for us to shift this while under the pressure of being seen. Schedule 15 minutes before the event in which you can take time out for yourself where you are undisturbed.
Grounding is extremely powerful in helping us shift into a ventral vagal state. Spend some time acknowledging the contact and support you are receiving from the ground and other areas in which you are making contact. Feel your feet on the floor and perhaps lean into a wall or back of a chair and feel the sense of support and holding this gives you.
Give your body some support by making gentle contact with your hand on your heart, stomach, or thighs. Follow your instinct, keep it simple and give this time. Track the sensations that arise.
- Identify A Resource
Ask yourself what else might help you settle and feel more the way you want to feel. Would a hot drink be helpful or maybe your favourite music on your mp3 player? Maybe you put on your favourite shoes that make you feel great? It is those little things that can be a great resource to us when it comes to settling our nervous system. You can also connect to a resourceful memory of a time when you felt the way you want to feel now. As we connect to such memories, our body resonates.
- Track Your Sensations
You may observe energy rising. This is okay. Allow it to travel through you and keep acknowledging your soothing resources and the contact and containment from the ground, your surroundings and self-contact. Chances are that energy will settle if you allow a little time for this. Once you feel calmer and more relaxed, spend another moment to really soak up this nervous system state with your awareness before you enter the situation.
This 15-minute preparation will make a huge difference to your following experience as it will be easier for you to maintain your ventral vagal state and others may also feel more inclined to connect with you from the get-go.
During the Event:
- Notice your Triggers and Slow Down
When you feel the very first triggers that challenge your calm, allow yourself to slow down. You have more time than you think. We quickly feel under pressure to act, especially in a fight or flight state. Know that you have time to attend to yourself.
- Acknowledge the Ground
You also have contact with the ground here, just like before. Notice it and allow it to support you. You do have the time to sense the ground and acknowledge that it is always there to support you. Notice how it feels to acknowledge this.
Placing your hand to your heart, putting one hand into another, touching the back of your neck, whatever helped you soothe yourself before, is perfectly acceptable to do while in front of people. There are plenty of those gestures that we do subconsciously all the time, so chances are nobody will notice as you get a powerful reminder of your ability to self-soothe.
- Remember that you can
If you notice yourself thinking that you must make it through or that you must give people a positive experience, take a breath and remember that you actually don’t have to do anything at all, but that you can absolutely do this, otherwise you would not be where you are, doing what you do.
If you can follow the above steps in full you will find your experience of being seen change. Not only in challenging work-related scenarios, but also in your private life. However, don’t be discouraged if the above steps are not solving your problem completely right away. Often, a little more support, guidance and practice are needed to help our nervous system regulate itself in challenging situations.