About Shame, Perfectionism and Fear of Public Speaking and How Self-Acceptance is the Answer


Shame and perfectionism are interrelated.  Shame is the painful feeling that comes from a deep-seated belief that “I am not good enough.”  It is generated from an unconscious thought that “I AM wrong.”  That means your very Being is not acceptable.

Perfectionism is what we do to try to avoid the feelings of shame.  We think that if we just do it (whatever it is) perfectly, that we will be acceptable. Striving to be perfect allows us to get away from the feelings that happen in the body when we experience shame. It keeps us focused on doing something rather than feeling.

Shame has felt to me like my blood freezing. I have experienced it as a full-body hot flush of tension that made me want to turn inside myself and disappear. Shame is painful!  Whenever I was seized up with shame, it would cause me to disconnect from others, because if I can’t accept myself, how could anyone else accept me?

What to do with the feelings of shame is simple – first, just feel it; then, express it.  Here are the exercises that I have used for many years to heal my shame when I was flooded with it. Each of these exercises results in more self-acceptance. The goal is to develop compassion for yourself, to love yourself while you are in your body, so that you can be who you are and give your gifts to the world.

Exercise 1 – Love Yourself Anyway

When shame happens, let it be in your body, hold the feeling of it inside your body, and tell yourself that you love yourself anyway, even if you are not perfect.  Let your heart melt with love for yourself.  Commit to loving yourself anyway.

Exercise 2 – Kick, Punch, Shake, Stomp

Go deeply into the feeling of shame.  Feel it all through your body.  Then express it out anyway you can.  The things that have worked for me were to kick my legs like I am trying to kick down a door, to punch the air like a boxer, to stomp around the room screaming “No, No, No.”  and to shake my arms and legs to shake it off of me.  Express until you are tired.  Get it out of you. Then lie down and rest.  Feel the freedom from the feelings of shame.

Exercise 3 – Change the Voice of Shame into the Voice of Truth

When you are seized up with feelings of shame, sit or lie down.  Feel it all over you.  Then listen inside your head for the words that are running in the background.  Listen until you can catch what the voice of shame is saying to you.  Usually it is something like. “I am not good enough.” Once you have caught the voice, challenge it and correct it. Ask, “Is this the truth about me?” and “What is the truth?”  Then tell yourself the truth about ‘yourself. Truth is usually a much more reasonable voice. You won’t be perfect, but you won’t be worthless either.  Allow yourself to know the real truth about yourself.

Now about fear of public speaking.  The reason we fear speaking in front of others is that it triggers feelings of shame.  We are afraid that we are just not good enough. And experiencing that feeling in front of others seems too much to bear.  So we think to ourselves “Better to avoid public speaking if possible.”  But, if we can’t avoid speaking, then we believe that we have to do it perfectly. We chase a perfection in speaking that does not exist.  Again, the pursuit of perfection is just a way of trying to avoid the feelings of shame.  You might ask, “How do I work with shame that surfaces in public speaking?” Here are a couple ways I have learned.

 Learn to tell the truth to your audiences.

Tell them your story about what you have been going through to prepare for speaking.  That is what Dr. Brene Brown did. (See my post just before this one.) Learn to share the truth with listeners so you take the wind out of the feelings of shame. I’ll share a story about my speaking to the Houston National Speakers Association group. This was a big test of authenticity for me.  You can find this story in my book It’s Your Time to Shine: How to Overcome Fear of Public Speaking, Develop Authentic Presence and Speak from Your Heart.

Perhaps the greatest standing ovation I ever received was at the Houston Chapter of the National Speakers Association where I was a member. I was scheduled to give a fifteen minute speech to my NSA group. It was my first talk to my peers who were all professional speakers. I had prepared, prepared, prepared for over a month. I had written an impres­sive talk, full of metaphorical stories and grand thoughts. At 4 am the morning of the talk, after not sleeping a minute due to high anxiety, I realized I could not give the talk I had written – it wasn’t authentic, it wasn’t me. At 8 am, trem­bling, I stood before the group and said the truth.  “I had no idea how very nervous I was going to be to talk to you!” I said. I went on to tell them I had written a talk and rehearsed it, but I couldn’t give it to them because I had written it to impress them. So, I said I was just going to share a little of my work with them. I talked about stage fright, presence and connection with listeners and I guided them through my grounding meditation so they could feel the difference between being grounded and not.

I recall so clearly how I became present with them and began to share my love with them in that moment. A sense of spiritual rapport filled the room as I connected authenti­cally with them. I could sense how I captured their attention and drew them magnetically to me during my talk. When I finished, they rose to their feet and applauded for a long time. The president of the chapter later told me he did not ever remember feeling the quality of energy that was created in the group that morning.

Work on speaking in a safe group.

My work is facilitating groups of people to transform the fear and anxiety of public speaking into an authentic presence.  Our groups allow people permission to feel the feelings of tension in front of a group, to express the feelings and to release the tension. Very much like Exercise 1 above, we are learning to love ourselves in front of others, even when we feel tension, anxiety and shame.  I believe you need a safe group where you give each other permission to feel while being at the center of attention.  In our groups, we release the shame, learn to be comfortable at the center of attention and free ourselves to speak by simply being authentic. As we learn to accept ourselves in front of others, we are freed up to shine when speaking to groups.

What’s different at Self-Expression Center.  What we do differently at Self-Expression Center is work with emotion as bodily-felt energy.  Feelings are just emotional energy flowing through the body.  Negative emotions are just energetic intensities that are stuck and not flowing through the physical body.  We don’t try to figure out where emotions came from, who did what to whom or what caused the feelings.  We simply learn to feel the feelings and transform them into flowing energy.  Once you learn to give yourself permission to feel and to express feelings, you can be authentic wherever you go and you can give your gifts, talents, ideas, insights and expertise freely.  That is healing!

If you want some support for dealing with the energy of shame, we can help coach you individually through any of the above techniques and we’d love to have you participate in our group classes where you can become more comfortable at being the center of attention and speaking to groups. As a result of hearing and meeting Dr. Brene Brown, (See last post) I am formulating some classes for next year that will address even more of these issues. Stay tuned.