By Barbara Toy
Due to space considerations – which I guess should be a lesson of some sort to me – the end of the last column had to be pruned. In case you got that far and thought the ending was a bit abrupt, I’ll begin here with a slightly modified version of the complete ending from last month (the entire unpruned column for April is posted on the club’s website):
The album mentioned near the beginning of the section in the April column on Lewis and Clark (which includes music from the early 1800’s) has two accounts of a sad incident in 1761, when young Timothy Myrick was mowing his father’s field and was bitten in the heel by “a p’zen serpent.” The second (music hall inspired) version ends with these immortal lines:
Now all you friends, a warning take,
Don’t ever be bit by a rattler snake.
For if you do, I’m telling you,
Lot’s of bad trouble you’ll get into.
So very true! Please remember that both Anza and Black Star Canyon are in rattlesnake country – and there are other troublesome beasties out there as well (Black Widow spiders and scorpions come to mind). No need to panic – just keep a weather eye out, don’t put any unprotected portion of your anatomy any place you can’t see into and haven’t checked first for inhabitants, don’t be shy about advertising your presence so snakes can get out of your way (especially if you’re moving through brush) and watch where you put your feet, and don’t leave sleeping bags, clothing, shoes or other inviting refuges out where the local critters can get into them. Basically, take reasonable precautions, so you can enjoy your time under the stars in safety and we as a club can continue our record of no poisonous bites at either viewing site.
Now that we have that timely warning out of the way, let’s talk about
The Astronomer’s Guide to Dealing With Shyness and Stage Fright
You may (especially after last month’s historical excursion) be wondering how this is relevant to amateur astronomers. One way and another, a lot of my club activities involve talking to people, club members and others, especially since I joined the Board in 2001. Over the last three years in particular, I’ve talked to a lot of people about doing a “What’s Up” when Chris Butler couldn’t, or giving us a talk as a featured speaker, and about less intimidating activities, such as going to star parties, RTMC, outreaches and other events. A surprising number of people have said that they couldn’t come to different events because they didn’t have anyone to go with them; they wouldn’t go alone because they were afraid they wouldn’t know anybody. Less surprising, but no less sad, were the people who went into panic mode at the idea of standing up in front of the group and giving a presentation of any type, even though they clearly had a lot to say that would be of great interest to us all. To my mind, anything that gets in the way of full enjoyment of our hobby deserves attention – and shyness and stage fright seem to stop a lot of people from participating in the local astronomy scene as much as they might like.
So why should you think I have anything useful to say on this topic? I’m not a credentialed expert, but I am an exceedingly shy person, to the point of panic attacks at times. If you had known me back in high school – well, the point is that you probably wouldn’t have, as I spent most of my free time propped against any handy wall, reading (though, I’m sorry to say, generally not anything that was particularly high-brow). Reading is a great way to avoid having to talk to people around you, and, at that point, talking to people I didn’t know made me acutely uncomfortable. In those years, just the idea of speaking in front of a group would be enough to paralyze both my brain and my vocal chords. The fact that I was able to get up in front of 200 or more members and guests at the general meetings every month during the two years I was president and the year I was vice president and produce – for the most part – reasonably intelligible statements concerning the topics at hand, and even enjoy the experience, shows that stage fright can be overcome. The same is true of shyness – fortunately for me, as otherwise I’d miss out on some of my favorite club activities, such as getting to know fellow members and sharing information with all those great people who come to our Outreaches.
So change is possible – how do you do it? In my particular case, I have to thank Prince Charles for an interview that I read when I was in high school. The major points that struck me were that all of the Windsors (including Queen Elizabeth) were afflicted with intense shyness, and that he decided a few years before that he was going to overcome this family problem. The idea that one could successfully overcome intense shyness was a revelation to me (as was the idea that a queen and her family could all suffer from that condition). He gave a kind of roadmap of what he was doing to combat this problem, which was a form of desensitization training – he started with situations that caused him milder discomfort, and deliberately put himself in those situations until he became reasonably comfortable handling them, then started the same process with situations that caused him a bit more discomfort. It was a continuing process, but the skills and confidence gained in learning to deal with the easier situations made it easier to deal with more difficult situations, as well. He also challenged himself periodically by putting himself in situations that were beyond his current comfort level, which often showed that he could handle them better than he expected, and, if not, showed him areas to work on more before trying another “test” at that level.
I figured, if this approach worked for a prince, why not for a commoner? I’ve generally tried to follow it ever since – and, along the way, discovered that there are a lot of nice people in this world who are great fun to talk to, and an incredible array of activities out there that can really enrich your life if you choose to participate. One of the “tests” I gave myself years ago was taking a comparative legal systems tour of China where I knew nobody at the start of the tour – I enjoyed it and learned so much that I took a similar trip to the Soviet Union a year later, with a lot fewer concerns about not knowing anybody on the tour in advance (I had a great time on that trip, too). Those and other “tests” over the years helped embolden me to come to my first OCA meeting five years ago – when I walked into Irvine Hall that first time (once I found the place), I didn’t know anyone in the club at all. If I’d waited until I could convince a friend or family member to go with me, most likely I’d never have made it to a meeting, or any of the other club events, and, to put it mildly, I’d have missed out on a lot.
Now, one test case (two, if you count Prince Charles) doth not a scientific study make – but at least it lets you know that the approach has had a successful field-test. I can’t say I’ve done a formal survey of research in the area, but I’ve done a lot of reading in the years since Prince Charles gave that interview, and one of the email groups I’ve been on for several years is the Harplist (for both folk and pedal harps), where dealing with stage fright in all its manifestations is a recurrent topic. These are issues for my profession, too, as we all have to deal with clients, colleagues, witnesses, etc., as well as (for litigators) periodically appearing in court. So the comments given below are drawn from a variety of sources in addition to my own experience.
Since both shyness and stage fright are expressions of insecurity in the form of extreme self-consciousness, tactics that increase self-confidence or refocus your attention to something outside yourself should help defeat them. The desensitizing process described earlier works by building self-confidence in at least a couple of ways. The more obvious one is that, whenever you make it through a particular situation successfully, that positive experience makes it easier to take on any similar situation you’re faced with after that. Another important aspect of the process is making it clear to yourself that you are choosing to do a particular activity – when you do it by choice, that means that you are in control of whether you do it or not. When you feel in control, you generally feel more self-confident, which makes any activity easier – which further builds self-confidence.
It’s also important to avoid feeling trapped whenever you’re pushing yourself beyond your particular comfort zone, as that can quickly undercut your confidence level. One way is to give yourself an easy escape in case you find the situation too hard to handle – such as sitting where you can make an unobtrusive exit when you go to a meeting for the first time, or parking where you can leave early without causing problems for other attendees when you first go to a star party. It’s a bit harder if the challenge you’ve set yourself means that other people are relying on you, such as a commitment to do a talk, or if it puts you physically in a position you realistically can’t get out of, such as a trip to a foreign country – the best response I’ve found when I’ve started to feel trapped in situations like that is to focus on the fact that I chose to do the activity, and on the positive reasons for making that choice.
Which gets us to the tactic of focusing outside yourself – if you’re like most of us, when you feel insecure in a situation, you tend to focus on yourself, becoming increasingly self-conscious as your discomfort level goes up. This can become a feedback loop that’s hard to overcome – but, if you can direct your attention to something other than your own reactions and internal concerns, you can stop the process, or at least minimize its effects. If you’re with a group of people, you can do this by making yourself really listen to what’s being said and focusing on a topic they’re discussing or on one or more of the other participants in whatever conversation is taking place, eventually perhaps contributing a question or a relevant anecdote of your own to the discussion. In situations where you’re the only one talking (maybe you’re speaking to a group, or you’re a member of the audience publicly asking a question of the speaker), you can do this by consciously focusing your attention on your topic, putting whatever discomfort you might be feeling to the side as much as possible (the stronger your interest in your topic, by the way, the easier it is to get this to work).
To give Steve Condrey a fair chance of fitting this into the May issue, I’ll hold off on how you can use club activities to help you overcome shyness and stage fright, as well as specific tips to help out in different situations, until next time. In the meantime – RTMC is at the end of May, so, if you haven’t been there before, give it a try as a way of pushing the boundaries of your personal comfort zone – as well as for the fun of it! (And, if you want more information about what RTMC is all about and what to expect, please see the President’s Message for May, 2003, and the article specifically on RTMC on Page 5 of the May, 2004, issue of the Sirius Astronomer, which should be updated and posted on the website by the time you see this).
In Closing – With Einstein…
As a complete change in topic, the club’s group excursion to the Einstein Exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center took place on April 16, and was a great success. The show ends on May 29 – it’s well worth seeing, and I strongly recommend that you go if you haven’t seen it yet. It makes a serious and pretty successful attempt to demonstrate Einstein’s theories and explain their significance, but it also shows his human and political sides in the context of his time, so you end with a much broader appreciation for him as an admirable person on many levels, but also as a human being with human weaknesses.
© Barbara Toy, April, 2005