The anxiety gap – Thoughts (and feelings!) on public speaking

People often ask me how I manage to do things like lead seminars, or do stand-up comedy, given I have significant anxiety and Asperger’s.  They often describe it as their ‘worst nightmare’, and can’t seem to reconcile it with my apprehension and avoidance of generic social situations.  The only way I have been able to explain it is that my anxiety levels are pretty binary – they are low or they are high, and they are high most of the time.  Due to the fact that talking to just a few people pushes me almost to my limit, it is not much of a jump to go that little bit further.

For non-anxious neurotypical individuals, there appears to be a gradation in the amount of anxiety produced by different types of speaking.  They perceive a gap between talking to a group informally, such as at a gathering, and addressing them formally, like in a seminar.  This is a gap which just doesn’t register on my radar – if there is another person involved then my anxiety is automatically at maximum.

Ok, I may be exaggerating slightly for dramatic effect, but it really does feel like that (I suspect this is part of my Alexithymia).  Let’s think of it in terms of a graph of different activities against a scale of 0-10, where 0 is not anxious at all, and 10 is ‘about to run out of the room because it’s unbearable’ anxious.  I represent myself here as AS, and non-anxious social creatures as NT (again another broad binary grouping for illustrative purposes).

Anxiety graph

If your normal everyday anxiety levels are 5 or below, with the occasional peak above 5 when asked to talk in front of a large group, then I can see why you might not understand.  But if you know that I’m already at level 9 in most everyday social situations, and that it makes little difference what I am doing or who else is present, then my activities may make a bit more sense.

Discussion of this with my good friend S, made me realise that there are other issues at play here, for example perspective-taking.  If I am performing in front of a group of people but I can’t ‘read’ their body language, or imagine what they are thinking, then I might be less self-conscious than a person with good theory of mind.  I can’t feel the audience’s nerves and anticipation, so it doesn’t feed mine.

The other is that my anxiety is more around unpredictability than social contact per se.  Giving a presentation, or doing stand-up, is a performance; it is safe because it is scripted.  I can rehearse it and prepare until I am comfortable, then call upon it like any of my other social ‘scripts’ for given situations.  It is also a one-sided conversation that I can concentrate on without having to think about what the other person is going to say or do.

Part of what makes me so anxious about spontaneous social interaction (for example at a party), is that I don’t know who will try to talk to me, what they will want to talk about or what I should say.  When I was younger I used to try to practise how a conversation might go, acting out the various different permutations of what the other person might say, and what I could say back to still appear witty and interesting.  It never worked.  When I am ‘performing’, I am carrying out a prescribed activity where all parties know what is expected of them, there are specific rules and expectations governing the situation, and there is a definite finish point after which I can leave, no questions asked.

Weirdly, even when I am under great amounts of stress, people often tell me that I come across as calm and confident.  This probably doesn’t help people to understand my anxiety levels (“she’s so confident, and she does stand-up, what does she mean she has anxiety?”).  I put it down to not giving out exactly the right non-verbal cues – those who know me well, and others on the spectrum, can tell when I’m anxious.  However, if on the whole it serves to make me come across as composed, knowledgeable and believable, I’ll just consider it a perk!

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10 Responses to The anxiety gap – Thoughts (and feelings!) on public speaking

  1. gavinpandion says:

    Great illustration, I’d never thought about the way my social anxiety plateaus early and it’s relatively hard for a situation to freak me out much more than mundane social situations do. But I’m getting a handle on it lately, so my results differ now, but say 2-3 years ago, that graph would be me to a T.

    • catastraspie says:

      Thank you, I’m glad you like it 😀 Pleased that you have your anxiety more under control now – what’s the secret?! Do you still feel like you’re either anxious or not, or can you sense different levels of anxiety?

      • gavinpandion says:

        I’m not sure about having a “secret” for anxiety in social situations. I think over the last few years I’ve just been devoting a lot more time and energy to reflecting on social interaction, the skills involved, and which ones are my most important weaknesses. I just keep trying to incrementally change my own behaviors and become more observant and understanding about what other people around me are really thinking/doing in social situations. My interactions are pretty restricted overall, but I’m getting more confident in having control over the impression I make one-on-one with strangers, and that helps a good deal to make leaving the house and spending time in social venues less stressful than, say, public speaking.

      • catastraspie says:

        That sounds like an excellent strategy – small, comfortable increments that lead to progress without being overwhelming

  2. Mados says:

    Good post. I can very much relate to anxiety being binary rather than graduated, which is what people expect anxiety to be. That is why the aim of anxiety-therapy usually is to gradually overcome fear barriers triggered by specific situations by graded exposure…

    • catastraspie says:

      That’s a very good point, and probably explains why I have never thought or found graded exposure useful (for me) at all! I could never figure out why I was supposed to voluntarily put myself in my most hated situations during what was supposed to be a safe, supportive space…

  3. Quarries and Corridors says:

    Great post as usual! It rang true for my experiences in general conclusions but the actual detail doesn’t really fit me…

    I’m absolutely terrible in small groups, at my worse with two people both sat next to each other who are also talking between themselves (or maybe including me? I can never tell), pretty good one-to-one if I’m compatible with the other person, but absolutely brilliant when giving a talk to a room full of people or even an auditorium full. It turns out that I’m really good at talking *at* people about my interests (possibly due to a life time’s practice!).

    I’m not sure if this has anything to do with anxiety levels, I just know that I’m a lot more comfortable when I have a clear role of speaker and everyone else has a clear role of listener and there’s a point at the end when people might ask questions. I know this means I can just talk about the stuff I’m interested in and not worry that I’m monopolising the conversation, following a script or struggling to hear the other people, so I relax and get talking.

    If anything bigger audiences are better because then there’s greater social pressure on others to keep to their roles and not make comments at the wrong time, although I’m perfectly capable of telling people off for breaking the rules and explaining there’ll be time for comment at the end.

    And yes maybe your friend is right that it’s a lack of ability to spot what others thing, but for me it’s also a degree of not caring about what other people are thinking. I will have worked hard to give the best talk I can, but if someone there doesn’t enjoy it or get my jokes or whatever, I don’t really care enough to be bothered by it. I’d care if I’d said something bad that I’d be ashamed of saying, but not if someone else disagrees with or isn’t interested in my talk. (This may also represent my conversation style in microcosm).

    So yes, on your graph two people and a party would be huge spikes for me, everything else wouldn’t be a problem (oh wait, am I talking *to* a group like your labels say or talking *as part of* a group? That makes a big difference of course).

    • catastraspie says:

      Thanks! 🙂 Absolutely fair that the detail might be different. I relate to the small groups thing, I’m terrible at it, but it doesn’t make me as anxious because I am quite comfortable and used to just sitting there quietly observing people – the anxiety kicks in when I am required to speak and multiplies with increasing numbers of listeners (and as you say, if my role in the situation is unclear)! I am pretty thin-skinned and set myself the unattainable task of pleasing everybody present, which is what I’m trying to work on at the moment. It’s fab that you are comfortable talking to a large audience, that opens up lots of opportunities for you!

  4. ukuleletom says:

    I have been enjoying reading your posts very much!

    There are quite a few performers with Asperger’s (I’m a performer myself). I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in stating that a stage is a closed universe where everything is predictable, or at least lies within clearly defined parameters. Composing and performing intricate music is far easier for me than a cocktail party.

    • catastraspie says:

      Thank you, I’m glad 🙂 Yes there do seem to be quite a few performers with Asperger’s, I know musicians, singers, comedians, actors, magicians and dancers – mostly doing very well-rehearsed stuff and doing it beautifully. I would much rather dance with someone than talk to them!

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