What if being nervous wasn't that bad?

Handling stressful situations like a pro

Do you remember the first time you presented at a conference? I certainly do. I remember I was a train wreck right before my presentation and all I could think of was: why did I sign up for this? It’s not worth it. I was hating my adviser at the time, who had encouraged me to go and present (she’s great, by the way). Even if you haven’t presented at a conference, I’m sure you can relate to this experience. Something important is coming up and you become the most anxious person in a 100 miles radius. Everyone is going to face this situation at some point in life, why aren’t we taught about how to handle it? Wouldn’t it be useful to know how to handle yourself when this situation comes? I’ll share with you what I’ve learned about managing your difficult moments.

We need to start by understanding why we get nervous in the first place. The cause is simple: fear. Fear of failing miserably or not being good enough, not making a good decision, etc. We think we have control, but when your body senses fear, a more subconscious part of your brain takes over and tries to get you out of that situation (in my case at the conference, I wanted to run away and never sign up to present again). Your brain reacts the same way as if a mammoth was chasing you. And this is what you need to understand: your brain is doing its job, trying to protect you. The problem is that the consequences are not the same. What happens if you bomb your conference presentation? Not much, people might feel sorry for you, and then…they’ll forget (unless you are on the job market, then you might have some consequences).

Now that we understand why nervousness happens to us, let’s think about the opposite, what’s the complete opposite of being nervous? Being arrogant. Imagine that you’re interviewing people for a job hierarchically below you. Who would you rather have? Someone who is visibly nervous (but manages to give you good answers)? Or someone so confident they think they can be your boss? Reflecting on these situations gives us the power necessary to not let fear control us. Obviously, if you are so nervous you cannot even articulate an answer, that’s not good either. My point is that being nervous is not that bad. I came across this idea in the book Storyworthy, by Matthew Dicks. He says the following about his more seasoned performer friend Steve:

“When Steve [more experienced storyteller] performs, he is nervous. Backstage, he paces and mumbles to himself. Onstage, he is jittery and uncertain for the first few moments of his story, despite his honest-to-goodness greatness. His nervousness serves him well. Audiences love Steve before he even says a word. […] Steve connects with the audience before he even speaks because, through his nervousness, he shows them that he is just like them. They are rooting for him before he ever says a word.”

Then he goes on to explain how he (Matt, the author) used to perform on stage:

“I stand there like a jerk. I’m not worried at all. If the audience doesn’t like me, I act as if it’s their own damn fault. Steve is right. I had better tell a great story, because I give the audience nothing to love as I stand before them. I’m an overly confident, probably arrogant.”

Think about the moments when you get nervous. I’m guessing it’s not when you do your usual business. You get nervous when something new or important is about to happen. Humans are not wired for uncertainty and “new” involves uncertainty. So it gets scary and we try to get rid of that scary feeling. But now consider the alternative. If we don’t embark on anything new or important, things won’t get better and that is what we should fear. You might wonder what happened during my first conference presentation. It went well, people liked it and came to ask me for more resources. Actually, a few years later, I ended up winning an award for best student presentation at an international conference. Had I decided to avoid the intense fear of presenting after the first time, I wouldn’t have met wonderful researchers and shared ideas with them.

This sounds pretty, but it’s easier said than done. A bit over a year ago, I was getting ready to do job interviews and the first ones were scary, but the scariest one was the fourth one, the job I currently have. I really wanted that job and I was so nervous before getting on the Skype call, I could barely sit still. I had prepared a lot, spent hours researching the school and each committee member, figured out who would be the “bad” cop, and what they were looking for. But the uncertainty was killing me, is there something I haven’t prepare for? do they want someone with my profile? etc. If I could advise myself back then, I would tell myself to remember that the nervousness is getting me ready, no need to run from it, just an indicator that something important is about to happen. There is no guarantee it will go well, but if you want something better, you need to try something new, and, yes, new involves uncertainty. So next time you (we) feel that fear, remember that something better might come. The fear is just warning you to be ready, to stay alert, and it will help you not to be a jerk.

Cristina Lozano Argüelles
Cristina Lozano Argüelles
Assistant Professor

My research interests include bilingualism, second language acquisition, interpreting.

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