I stepped off the plane and walked with the other recruits toward the sergeant waiting for us. He watched us approach, lit up a cigarette, and immediately began yelling: “FORM A LINE! MOVE IT! LET’S GO!”.
I remember standing there at that moment and thinking to myself: “Oh my god Carol, you’ve done a lot of stupid things but you’ve really done it this time”.
In the 1970’s, women were a rarity in the Air Force. There were so few of us, that every time I would go somewhere on base, I was stared at. I would go to the chow hall to eat, and it felt like everyone in there was watching each and every bite I took.
On top of that, my first few months had been far from smooth sailing. I felt like I was constantly messing up; I couldn’t even make my bed right. Two inspections in a row, my training officer had ripped my bed apart, yelling at me to start over. I developed a real fear that I couldn’t hack it, that I would wash out and be sent home.
And I knew there were people back home who thought I would fail- they had told me as much. Even my own mom, who loved me and ultimately supported me, had her doubts, saying: “You’re just so headstrong, Carol. I don’t know how long you’re going to last being told what to do”.
I couldn’t let them be right. Once I figured out how to make my bed correctly, I started sleeping on the floor to avoid messing it up. When I felt the eyes of men watching me as I ate, I focused on holding my head high and walking tall. I was going to fake it until I made it.
In the end, I eventually found my way, serving in the Air Force for more than 20 years. But I always tell people that I survived the first four because my mother said I couldn’t do it. Come hook or by crook, I was gonna do it- And I did!
It was never public speaking itself that bothered me. Once I was in front of an audience, I felt okay. Confident even. But the anticipation leading up to it was almost unbearable. The reliable, steady beat of my heart- duh-dun, duh-duhn, duh-duhn…-would spiral into a disorderly, off-beat flutter. My hands would turn frigid, my fingers feeling like small icicles
But when I launched my own counseling private practice, I realized almost immediately that I was going to have to push outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to feel like I had accomplished something, that I had something I could be proud of. I wanted to feel like I had created a safe, familiar place for myself and also for my clients.
I counsel women undergoing major life challenges, spending hours each day encouraging them to face their fears, pushing them out of their comfort zones. What would it mean if I couldn’t push myself outside of my own?
So I created a new mantra for myself: “I will try anything new at least once (within reason, of course!)”.
And I did. I stood up in front of a room full of strangers to deliver my elevator pitch. I gave live phone interviews without having much time to prepare beforehand. And I started to regularly facilitate discussion groups where I directed the conversations.
I’ve turned to the tools that help me stay grounded and present in my everyday life, like journaling and meditation, and have found them to be instrumental in keeping me calm when I feel my heart rate starting to increase and the familiar chill creep up in my hands.
My goal in all of this isn’t to knock it out of the park every single time I speak in front of a group. Instead, I focus on simply being proud of myself for showing up, for pushing my own boundaries, and for taking one more small step forward.
I have ghosts from my past, memories of people saying incredibly insensitive things about my stutter. It goes as far back as to the 3rd grade when my teacher caught me laughing with friends, shamed me for trying to be funny, and told me: “Stop trying to be the class clown, Nina”.
And these ghosts cause me to have negative self-talk and think “Why am I doing this? I shouldn’t be here. I’m not funny. I’m not a real comedian”. And when that happens, I have to put myself in check, get up on stage, and just do it.
I challenge the ghosts, tell them they’re wrong by putting all of the shitty things that happen to me into my act and laugh about them. Just a few weeks ago, I did a training session. And this person in the audience would roll their eyes every time that I stuttered, it was awful.
Instead of being stagnated by the fear and insecurity that triggered, I chose to turn it into a joke in my act about that exact moment. Now, I start off by saying “I stutter but I’m not blind. You know I can see you, right?” I take back the power through laughter.
The thing that I constantly hear is that people are supposed to fight disability, take back your power, act as though you don’t have an impairment. People always talk about disability as something that you’re supposed to overcome. But my belief is that you don’t ever overcome your disability. You overcome assholes. My disability doesn’t need to change; the assholes do.
Growing up, I always wanted to be a musician. But the idea of people hearing me play triggered a sense of insecurity within me. I was too caught up in wondering what people would think of my playing: Do they think I sound ok? Did they catch that last mistake? Are they just counting down the minutes until I’m off stage?
So I made it a point to never perform in front of anyone who I knew was listening to me. I would pick jobs where I knew people weren’t really listening to me like as a ballet pianist or playing jazz in restaurants.
It got to the point of where, if I really wanted to play, I needed to overcome those ‘not good enough’ voices in my head. So I started playing as an accompanist in a church. The churchgoers were very forgiving towards any mistakes I made. Each week I played there I gained bit more confidence, softening the inner critic and becoming less afraid.
Now I see stage fright as a state of intensity rather than a fear, something that I can train myself to face.
I prepare myself for the intensity by making it a point to always count when I play ‘1,2,3,4…1,2,3,4…’– the only time I let up on counting is when I perform. It’s helped me to feel less afraid when there’s a little extra going on in mind, like in situations where I have nervous thoughts.
When I perform, I try and make the space on stage my own. I’ll move the piano bench just a little before I sit down. I make it my space, own it so that me being there is an intentional act. Just make it my space, so that I feel like I have a right to be there. Then, I can focus on enjoying being there and doing my job, rather than worrying about whether or not I sound great.
A few years ago, I moved to London to get my MBA. I took on a ton of debt, way more than I ever had in my entire life, with no clear-cut career or life plan. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to stay in London, the city I knew I had always wanted to live in, once I was finished with my degree.
But I had spent the last 11 years living in L.A., in a city that I knew wasn’t quite right for me, out of a fear of change. It wasn’t that I was miserable there – I had my support system. I loved my work team and respected the company I worked for. But I had this overwhelming sense that I was too complacent, that I was just a passive passenger rather than the driver in my own life. I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this really it for me?”.
I believed I had more potential than what I had been living up to. But for the longest time, I didn’t do anything about it out of fear that I would fail. I feared losing my sense of security, of burying myself too far down into debt, of landing a career where I would be miserable.
I took this huge leap and moved to London anyway, thinking there was a chance something great could happen. I came to terms with the fact that I would never not be scared. So instead of focusing on being fearless, I focused on not being reckless. I thought through the risks I would be taking, took the time to truly understand what they would mean for me, and I decided which risks I could accept and still move forward.