The Imps of Fear

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When it comes to public speaking, we all face fear, to a certain degree. I like to imagine that we have little Imps of Fear, dancing gleefully on our shoulders, whispering in our ears: “You stink! You’re gonna fail! Everyone will see you’re (pick one) a fraud/ stupid/ a jerk!!!!” Sometimes they are easy to shoo away– but sometimes they are loud enough to pull us off task– if we let them.

Debra Messing, who plays Grace on television’s WILL AND GRACE, is apparently terrified of public speaking– and this is a seasoned actress who has no trouble facing a live audience when taping her sit-com, week after week! She decided to face her fear head-on in a very public way: By appearing on Oprah and delivering a 20 minute monologue– with no script– to the studio audience. I didn’t see the show, but I can only assume that Debra’s Imps of Fear were in prime form that day (after all, they were getting their 15 minutes of fame– on Oprah, no less). I have no doubt they were practically yelling in Debra’s ear as she faced that expectant audience.

Was the speech brilliant? I don’t know, and I don’t care. All that matters to me, and hopefully all that mattered to Debra Messing, is that she got out there, thumbed her nose as those little Imps of Fear and did what it was she was there to do, which was to give that speech. Good for her. Good for any of us who make the choice to face those Imps of Fear head-on!

The Imps of Fear were hard at work on my new friend, Jim’s, shoulder this weekend. I was visiting a wonderful antique store (Robin’s Nest) in the little town of Urichsville, Ohio, run by Jim and his wife, Robin. When Jim discovered that I was a professional performer, he asked if he could sing a song for me. I settled in a lawn chair while he grabbed his guitar. But before he’d played or sung a note, Jim looked me square in the eye and said “I’m terrified! I’m scared to death!” Then, he launched into his song. Midway through the first verse, he stopped again. I could tell the Imps were getting louder in his ear: “I’m so scared!!!!” he blurted. “I’m screwing up all over the place!” Then he jumped right back in, singing and playing. He stopped and started, stopped and started. And each time he stopped, he voiced his fears: “I’ll never get through this song! I’m so incredibly scared! I can’t believe I’m playing so badly for you!” The funny thing is, the more he played, the more he voiced his fears and addressed the fact that he was scared, the better he played and sang, and the less those Imps of Fear had a hold of him. Once he got through that song, that same admittedly “scared stiff” man couldn’t wait to play me two more songs!!!!! Sure, he was scared. Sure those Imps of Fear were whispering (and sometimes yelling) in his ear. But he played and sang for me anyway.

Later on, Jim explained that the reason he wanted to play and sing for me was because he was going to perform in a coffeehouse that night and knew he’d be scared silly. So he figured he might as well put himself in the line of fire by playing for me. I not only thought that was commendable and brave, but smart: The fact is, the more you face down your Imps of Fear, the less they will mess with your head and trip you up. As Debra Messing and Jim both discovered, you gain the upper hand when you consciously confront and acknowledge your Imps of Fear, see them for what they are (a figment of your imagination) and move your attention back to the task at hand.