By Charles di Cagno
Charles di Cagno will be leading a five-session workshop on conquering the fear of public speaking at the Open Center starting November 11. Visit the class page for more.
I had a fairly normal childhood, and was generally outgoing and athletic, participating in school projects and speaking without difficulty. One year I was captain of the softball team and had the lead role in the class play.
I was anxious around girls and disliked confrontation; but, for the most part, able to communicate comfortably.
That changed in high school. Despite being quite small for my age, I played varsity basketball in the competitive climate of New York City, where our team was a perennial contender. Representing the school created enormous pressure and I dreaded performing before large boisterous crowds. The anxiety was so pervasive I began to have difficulty speaking up in class. The situation deteriorated steadily and the problem followed me to college.
One day I was attending a class with about 50 other students. The professor had a confrontational style and I raised my hand to challenge one of his pronouncements. As I waited my turn, I was engulfed by a wave of panic. My heart pounded uncontrollably, my vision blurred and sweat ran down my face. When the professor finally acknowledged me, I attempted to articulate my jumbled thoughts and hearing my voice quiver sent the panic spiraling even higher. I somehow managed to make my point, which the professor dismissed and I was unable to defend. I was humiliated and sensed something terrible had happened that would change me forever.
That very afternoon I experienced the same overwhelming panic speaking one-on-one and went into shock. It felt as if my world had crumbled and I didn’t know what to do or where to turn.
The problem got worse and began to affect every aspect of my life. I tried vainly to mask it and theorized that facing the fear was the remedy. Unfortunately, each time I undertook an unmanageable task, panic would ensue and destroy any accrued confidence.
This approach known as “Flooding”, has its place in phobia therapy, although it is rarely effective for performance based fears. Entering unmanageable situations adversely affects the ability to function; further undermining confidence and reinforcing avoidance behavior. After years of frustration with this method, I was ready for the more enlightened approach of The White Plains Hospital Phobia Clinic.
The Clinic, one of the first of its kind in the United States, was successfully treating phobias with gradual exposure, a novel concept at the time due to its simplicity. Speech phobias were typically treated by psychoanalysis or enrollment in public speaking courses. Unfortunately, uncovering root causes may provide insight, but rarely cures phobias; and the prospect of speaking in front of 30 strangers is far too daunting and ultimately counterproductive for someone with severe anxiety. No one runs a marathon without training at shorter distances first; yet, amazingly, most speech courses expect even the most timid to stand and deliver from the outset.
The White Plains Clinic offered a more reasonable approach. There I learned to pick the battles I had a chance of winning rather than fighting the problem at every turn, and that backing away from an overwhelming task was not failure, but an opportunity to break it down into manageable increments. For example, I was considering dropping out of graduate school to avoid classroom participation, but was advised instead to request the professor not call on me unless I raised my hand. This arrangement made an intolerable situation manageable and I was able to complete the class and graduate with honors.
My improvement continued at the clinic, but a piece of the puzzle was still missing. I was often the only patient with performance issues in groups treating agoraphobia, and travel related phobias by entering the phobic setting, allowing fear to surface and shifting attention to prevent spiraling anxiety. This method, although effective in treating non-performance phobias, is less so with public speaking, since shifting attention to an object or task obstructs the act of speaking itself. Social phobia also differs in that the group setting is the feared environment as well as the practice setting. Obviously, a specialized approach was needed to address these issues.
Upon completing my course of therapy, I enrolled in the training program at the hospital and studied directly under Dr. Manuel Zane, founder of the clinic, author of Your Phobia, and a pioneer in the field. After completing the program, I proposed forming a support group targeting public speaking and social anxiety. A specialized group was needed and I felt ideally suited to lead it, having grappled with the problem for years and amassed an eclectic array of presentation skills. I had an undergraduate degree in speech, a diploma from Dale Carnegie, was a mentor at Toastmasters International, studied acting with some of the leading teachers of our time (Stella Adler, William Hickey), and produced, directed and even appeared in several off-Broadway theatre productions.
I proposed combining the techniques from all those disciplines with the White Plains model of phobia therapy. The result was a support group dedicated to helping people overcome social and public speaking anxiety by gradually exposing them to an array of interpersonal and performance situations.
The group was initiated in 1990 and we have been helping people with varying degrees of disability ever since. By combining an intelligent approach with hard work and perseverance, many have become poised and polished communicators.