It’s a secret shame, a “personal failure” C-suite executives seldom acknowledge: performance anxiety so crippling that they fantasize about an escape—changing careers, getting into an accident, disappearing—rather than public speaking.
Despite their success, these highly successful people live their lives playing defense; manipulating to avoid scenarios that can cause them to be noticeably nervous.
Physical symptoms such as verbally freezing, blushing, hyperhidrosis-sweating, and stammering create toxic levels of embarrassment, shame, and humiliation. For senior leaders with social anxiety, the pressure to build and maintain a reputation and interact with high-level colleagues while trying to conceal their panic is excruciating. Many become dependent on prescribed pharmaceuticals as well as other substances. Many develop an underlying depression.
Great Success, Paralyzing Fear
Success is no comfort, even at the multimillion-dollar income level. I have seen this again and again during almost 40 years of practice as a psychotherapist specializing in performance anxiety. For example, “Matthew,” age 45, sold his business for $85 million. The deal was done, yet he suffered panic episodes as he anticipated presenting to his buyer’s board of directors.
“Ronald,” age 50, supervised 200 people internationally for a medical equipment manufacturer. Yet his excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis), resulted in his avoidance of stressful situations that could induce this physiological response. He suffered from major public speaking anxiety.
“Barbara,” age 49, was an investment specialist for high net worth investors. She would forego group-based marketing opportunities in favor of less anxiety-producing one-on-one interactions with family contacts. This was her strategy until her job was on the line and she needed more productivity—only then did she seek treatment for her social anxiety.
Participating in his own $35 million company’s staff meetings caused “John,” 58, to freeze verbally. He placed numerous employees in positions where they would lead the meetings, compensating for his social anxiety. This status quo remained until his accruing stress and panic sent him to the ER with stroke-like symptoms. Not even his wife knew of his long-term anxiety struggle. It was a deep and dark secret.
Social anxiety becomes more entrenched with time. That means that for adults, a quick fix is usually not possible. A 50-year-old former NFL football player had secretly struggled with public speaking and performance anxiety for decades. He only sought clinical help after he was scheduled to give a presentation to his 10-year-old son’s class, telling me “I want to nip it in the bud.” His wish for an immediate result was beyond unrealistic: It was a cognitive (thinking) distortion. Social anxiety has ingrained roots and cannot be conquered without significant emotional work.
How Performance Anxiety Grows
A panic attack occurs seemingly out of nowhere, which stuns the individual. The physical experience of panic is so debilitating that the individual becomes obsessed with the possibility of a recurrence. The depth of the problem can be measured by the degree of avoidance, the intensity and pain of mind-body discomfort in the challenge scenario, and over-dependence on substances, prescribed and otherwise.
Usually the sufferer seeks help only once he or she feels desperate. One high-level executive explained to me after her first panic attack: “I can’t appear on on CNBC. The stock of my company would drop if I panicked!”
Though the panic attack seems to come out of the blue, in fact, the emotional content that gave rise to it has been building in the sufferer’s “reservoir” before the trauma of the first panic attack. The “reservoir” includes historical content—life experiences and responses to those experiences—at both a conscious and unconscious level.
Once embedded, the fear of the panic recycles, building on itself. It becomes an obsession. The longer the anxiety disorder persists untreated, the more hyper-vigilant and avoidant the sufferer becomes.
For top business leaders, seeking treatment means confronting a problem they fervently wish to hide. Let’s face it: Many successful people are perfectionists. The last thing a perfectionist is going to do is acknowledge imperfection. Most sufferers never get help because of their shame and humiliation. Social anxiety is the classic disease of resistance.
Barry, 53, is an atypical example of a senior exec with severe public speaking anxiety. He was head of sales for a media conglomerate responsible for billions of dollars in sales a year. He observed one of his managers struggling with public speaking. He said to this person: “Why don’t you come to Toastmasters with me?” Barry had come to me for therapy and then gone on to do the Toastmasters program, which gave him an openness with specific people in whom he saw himself. This characteristic was an important variable with his achieving a high degree of resolution to his anxiety challenge.
Over almost 40 years in practice, I have adapted and developed a treatment methodology for the specific needs of social and performance anxiety. Rather than trying to fit the problem into the narrow confines of existing therapies, the Berent Treatment Method for public speaking anxiety integrates the domains of FATE: Function = physiology: A = action (behavior): T = thinking (cognition): E = Emotion. Technique and core work are synergistic. Technique is based on the paradox of adrenaline acceptance. Core work is the deeper emotional work including “reservoir” analytics.
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Work Makes Me Nervous is a self-help book for performance anxiety in the workplace.
Jonathan Berent, L.C.S.W., A.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist who has been practicing since 1978. He has created the Berent Treatment Method for Social & Performance Anxiety, which is the result of his clinical work with thousands of individuals. He is the author of Work Makes Me Nervous: Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed (Wiley, 2010), and Beyond Shyness: How to Conquer Social Anxieties (Simon & Schuster, 1992). He is an experienced media source and public speaker. He has created www.socialanxiety.com.