“Fear of Public Speaking” and “Agoraphobia”
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
With Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D. Min.
There are so many patterns in NLP and NS (Neuro-Semantics) for dealing with fear that we found that we could not use all of them when we put the training manual Mastering Your Fears (2000) together. So we picked the best to design the training that Bob is currently doing at Gaston College.
Along the line of working with and modeling the subjective experience that goes under the heading of “fear” we found that not only are there a wide-range of experiences that fall under this category, but that there are some experiences that are so-called “fear” that have nothing to do with fear. In such cases, an experience has been anchored to the term “fear,” but falsely so. Fear at meta-levels can differ radically from fear at primary levels and can take on some very different properties. Here are some examples.
Fear of Public Speaking
“I’m still afraid of public speaking. I don’t know what didn’t work about the ‘Phobia Cure,’ but it didn’t work. I felt better for awhile; but I was still afraid. I guess I need something more powerful than that. Do you have something specifically for public speaking?”
The gentleman, a professional in his field, had studied NLP and had become a practitioner. I also knew that he held himself to a high standard and that “walking his talk” was really important to him so that he would not have been the kind to have only run the pattern in a half-baked way or to have excused himself with stupid excuses.
Tell me, how do you know you’re afraid of public speaking.
How do I know? Because I get afraid every time I speak in public.
Really? And how do you actually know that you’re afraid?
Well, because I get nervous mainly. And my hands sweat and my heart is beating fast and my stomach feels queasy. That kind of thing.
That’s all? (I said in a credulous and doubting tonality.) I still don’t understand how you know to call that “fear;” that’s what I feel when I get “excited.”
Well, it’s really uncomfortable.
Yeah? (More incredulity and with a tone of “You’ve got to do better than that!)
Well, there’s the nervous energy. I never start out very smoothly, sometimes I even stumble for my words and I nervously move my hands…
Yeah? That still sounds like it could be excitement and possibly the lack of thorough training in gesturing. What is there about any of that which has to be labeled “fear?” That’s what I want to know.
It’s not fear? But it feels fearful.
That’s what I don’t understand yet, how do you know it’s “fearful?”: Do you freeze up and can’t talk?
Well, no. I always finish the speech.
Well, maybe you have the fearful cognitions of wanting to run away? Is that’s what’s going on? You really don’t want to do public speaking?
No. I do want to speak in public. It’s great for my career, it helps me to influence others and that kind of thing. And I’m actually pretty good at it.
Well, maybe you’re scared to death of what others’ think? Afraid of criticism, afraid of being rejected as a worthless human being? That you’ll be disgraced by your incompetence?
(Laughing) No, no. It’s not that. I do want to make a good impression. That’s why I do the extensive preparations that I do.
So you’re not wetting your pants in fear about messing up and looking like a fool?
(Laughing even harder) No. Of course not!
Well, Todd, I think we have here a case of a mistaken label. It doesn’t sound like fear to me at all. It sounds like the marvelous excitement of really wanting to knock their socks off.
But I don’t like the feelings that I…
That’s the problem! (I said interrupting)
You mean I’ve meta-stated myself with a dislike of my nervousness and have falsely mislabeled it “fear?”
And that would explain why the NLP Phobia Pattern didn’t work with me? It wasn’t a phobia in the first place?
Precisely. You weren’t phobic of anything. Did you ever have a traumatic public speaking experience that invited you to set the frame that “Public speaking is dangerous?”
And your thoughts about public speaking?
Well, ah … that I like it; that it promotes my influence, that it’s important in my career, … and that I don’t like being nervous.
Ah, the meta-state structure! You “don’t like being nervous.” You don’t get a kick out of feeling and sensing your whole body revving up and getting ready to let them have it!
Yes, I guess that’s it. I have always thought that “nervousness” meant fear and was a bad thing.
Like the first time you had sex. If you felt nervous about it, that had to mean that you were a flop, not really excited, scared of women, that kind of …
(Interrupting me with laughter) I get it. I get it. You made your point.
Todd just had a bad relationship with “nervousness.” He didn’t like the experience of nervousness and he didn’t like the idea or concept of being nervous. For the first, I just coached him into using deep breathing and relaxation to give him the edge on turning the nervousness into managed excitement so that he “had” it rather than it having him (Instant Relaxation, 1998). With the meta-state of dislike of the idea of being nervous because of all the things it had come to mean to him, we reframed its meaning, accessed acceptance and appreciation of his nervousness so that he could “dwell more comfortably in his skin with the fact that nerves sometimes generate somatic energy.”
I then meta-stated him with several other resources. If you have eyes and ears to detect the meta-levels and meta-states, you can catch frames that I set for him:
Todd, since you’ll be speaking to a group on Thursday, I want you to use it to see if you can use your managed nervousness and come up with three gestures that you can use to transform it into “excitement.” And every time you feel the sensations that you have called “fear,” I want you to imagine a resourceful voice saying, ‘Not fear, anticipation of how I’m going to knock their socks off!’ And as you do that, just experiment with how much nervousness you can translate into excitement knowing that as you do, it is increasing your professional skills as a public speaker.
When “Fear” is Mis-Labeled
We have found that fear is most often mis-labeled, as it was with Todd, because we can so easily confuse another emotion with it– namely, the emotion of “dislike.” Todd disliked a certain set of sensations and had learned or been taught or somewhere picked it up that those sensations mean “fear.” Consider some of the things that you say you fear.
Taking a risk Elevators
Cold calling etc.
Now step back from your frames and wonder, really wonder, “Could I just dislike the sensations, or some facet of the experience, or the idea of it and only be confusing fear for my dislike?”
Not being turned on about taking on the dislikes and disapprovals of others (“criticism,’ “rejection”) strikes me as a pretty normal response. What if, instead of it being a fear, your experience really indicates that you do not particularly like it, not particular drawn to it with total excitement, “Oh, Boy!,” or even that you just lack some of the necessary skills to handle that event with grace and dignity.
I (MH) worked with a group of agoraphobics a number of years ago. They had (and have) an Agoraphobics Association. I always thought that was kind of paradoxical. They asked me to come out to the leader’s house to work with them. Usually, 5 to 7 people would show up. After establishing rapport, I asked,
If you’re agoraphobic, how are you able to drive here to Ruth’s house?
Well, we’re not as agoraphobic as Ruth. That’s why we have to have it here at her house, she can’t leave her house at all, but we can leave ours.
Right. That makes sense. So there’s a rating system in how agoraphobic a person may be.
Yeah. Some people are very agoraphobic and some are in the process of getting more afraid and others are in the process of becoming less afraid.
So tell me, what are you afraid of specifically? What’s the worse thing that will happen to you if you leave your house. Ruth, since you’re the most skilled at this ability, or “the worst,” what scares the hell out of you so much? (I said that with more of a tone of levity than seriousness.)
Well, I don’t know… not when you put it that way.
Well, I mean with all the car jackers here in Grand Junction, there’s got to be something that would be the worst possible thing that you could possibly imagine.
Well, I just get uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. My heart begins to pound, and I sweat and I begin to worry, ‘what if I freeze?’ and then I just have to pull over and get my breath and head back home.
Oh, so you do leave home?
Not really. Not anymore. Just if I have to go to the store for some food if my husband can’t leave work and do it.
Ruth, if you did not have this program inside your head that scared the hell out of you when you left the house, and you had a normal response to leaving home, what would you life be like? What would you be doing with yourself?
Well, I used to work. I was a receptionist and …
That’s what you’d like to return to do?
No, not really. I didn’t like that at all.
So what would you do?
I don’t know.
Pretend that you do know and just describe what you’d love to be doing.
Well, ah… I really don’t have anything that I’d like to be doing.
Do you like what you’re doing now… staying at home and all?
Well, yes. I get to do some of the crafts and things that I love to do. … but it’s such a hassle to not be able to go to the Mall or other stores to get supplies.
So you just do without?
Oh no. Larry picks them up for me.
You know, Ruth, it sounds like you have a wonderful life and wonderful lifestyle and that you’re not really an agoraphobic at all. You just love staying home, being waited on, and being treated as special for this so-called agoraphobia.
(Stunned silence.. . Hurt looks… ) You just don’t understand.
I left the dialogue there and turned to another. Three years later Ruth wrote a letter and said that she was never more shocked, anger, upset, and hurt than by what I had said to her in front of the group that evening. But that it was all true and she hated to admit it, and that she couldn’t admit it at the time. She said she had come to realize that she hid her anger, but would fret and stew every Wednesday and Thursday prior to the meetings. And unknown to me, she complained to the others that I didn’t know what I was doing and that we should stop having me come, that I was making her agoraphobia worse.
And that went on for several weeks until two of the other persons confronted her by using the same questions. And when they asked the questions, she couldn’t complain that they didn’t understand and because they were “getting better,” they pushed the questions until it became clear that fear was an excuse. That the real issue was a willingness to take on and accept some of the more unpleasant facets of life, to accept distressful feelings as just feelings, and to face the discomfort through building up more resourceful responses.
In her letter, Ruth said that the moment came when she decided to stop calling her experience fear and agoraphobia.
“Once I dropped those labels, everything was strange for awhile. I kept saying to myself, ‘What do I call this?’ And eventually I decided to call it, ‘being out of my Comfort Zone,’ and as I decided that was okay, then I began asking the questions that you zapped me with, ‘What do I really want?’”
Thereafter she began making plans, and re-orienting the focus of her life. She shifted it from what she didn’t want, to what she did want. She began driving again. She found a job that she really enjoyed, and she re-entered the life “of the normals” as she expressed it.
This doesn’t mean that all agoraphobics have this same experience or structure, but provides one example of how one person (actually several) mis-labeled their experience, too comfort in the label, and then began building their lives and identities around the label.
When “Fear” Goes Meta
Feeling afraid of a specific event, person, situation, or external referent in our world provides us the informational value and signal that all emotions provide. This makes them useful. They then become feedback to us about the relationship between our model of the world and our experience of the world. The emotion as such tells us that we need to adjust one or the other, or both. And the emotional also provides us the energy to make some adjustment.
However, when we react to any of our reactions of thought or emotion with fear and begin to fear ourselves, our states, our emotions, our thoughts, etc., when we begin to dread and feel apprehension about a meaning, an idea, a concept, what we may become, what we may find, etc., then the “fear” becomes something other than primary level fear. Now it becomes a taboo against ourselves, a corroding and weakening of ego strength so that we make ourselves an enemy to reality, to human experience, to our fallibilities, to ideas, etc. This can lead to repression, psychosomatic problems, unsanity, weakening of our personal power, etc.
Such “fear” puts us at odds with ourselves. In constructing such “fear of self,” this can take so many forms: fear of our sexuality, fear of our assertiveness, fear of our passions, fear of being a fallible human being, fear of being vulnerable, fear of sadness, fear of excitement, fear of the idea of getting fat, fear of the idea of being rejected, etc.
And, when we begin to bring fear against ourselves and against our ideas, feelings, awarenesses, etc., this seems to start an ongoing process that can, and often does, worsen with time. It’s a basic meta-stating process in that we create it so simply. We reflect back onto ourselves and “fear” an experience and especially some idea of what that means. Consider that, we fear what something means. Then, because “fear” makes us freeze, fight, and/or flee– we then experiences those reactions to ourselves, the feeling, the idea, etc.
Yet this kind of “fear” (if we can even call it that at this level) begins a corroding and destructive process. In Meta-States trainings, as well as the basic books, Meta-States and Dragon Slaying, we constantly emphasize that mostly if we bring negative thoughts and feelings against ourselves we create “dragon like states” so that we experience a self-created self-conflict.
This kind of “fear” does not respond well to the NLP Phobia Cure. Why? Because it is not a fear of an external referent. It is rather a “fear” (dread, dislike, upset, stress, anger etc.) of what something means, an idea, our experience, etc. For this kind of so-called “fear,” we need reframing. We need to set a new frame (i.e., meta-state ourselves) with some resource that creates a higher level structure that allows us to face, accept, appreciate, own, etc. the idea, experience, state, or whatever.
That’s why so-called “paradoxical” things work so well here.
- “Try really hard to freak out when I say this word, mention this idea, etc.”
- “I want you to fully embrace and welcome your fear … as you do, listen to it and notice what informational value it has for you. What does it say?”
- “As you look with the eyes of appreciation at that idea or feeling that you’ve been afraid of, just for a moment, look beyond the immediate things it does and look for its higher values and intentions. How does it seek to serve you?”
All fear is not the same. This is the nature and wonder and marvel of meta-levels. This is the value of understanding what Korzybski called “multiordinality.” Experiencing love at the primary level differs from loving our love. We call that “infatuation.” And loving our infatuation then becomes “romanticism” or something. At each higher level, the nature, feel, and experience of the same emotion transforms into something different. So with fear. At each level it transforms itself.
Knowing that, always begin by asking the referent question:
- What are you afraid of?
- Is the referent of your fear out there in the world or a state, experience, idea, etc.?
- At what level is this fear? Is it one level up, two, three, etc.?
Bodenhamer, Bobby; Hall, Michael. (2000). Mastering your fears. Spiral manuscript of training manual. Grand Jct. CO: Neuro-Semantics Publications.
Hall, L. Michael (2000, second edition). Meta-States: Mastering the higher levels of mind, Grand Jct. CO: Neuro-Semantics Publications.
Hall, L. Michael; Bodenhamer, Bobby (1999). The structure of excellence: Unmasking the meta-levels of submodalities. Grand Jct. CO: E.T. Publications.
Leder, Debra; Hall, L. Michael. (1998). Instant relaxation. Wales, UK: Crown House Publications.