Attending a national conference in 2003 where I was scheduled to speak later in the program, there just happened to be a slot just before a break for me to get up and give a pitch on the subject I was going to present on. But there was a big problem: not that I knew it when I agreed to get up and speak, but I was completely unprepared to make a pitch (to sell what I had to say in a thumbnail sketch).
Immediately I got up before my peers, as if intimidated suddenly by their presence in a way that confused me at the time, I became uncharacteristically flustered and bumbled my way through a short presentation which ended up being a complete disaster. If you’ve ever sat down after one of these sorts of performances and been in immediate mental and emotional turmoil, you’ll know what it feels like to have failed in a traumatising way.
Some failures hit that hard that we question our purpose, our place, our presence, even our existence.
But I wasn’t just traumatised for the rest of the day, feelings of ineptness, embarrassment from shame, and guilt, not to mention anger that I had harmed my reputation, and disappointment that I’d let down not only myself but others who were counting on me, continued to swirl around in my mind and haunt me for weeks afterwards.
Whatever I did I couldn’t seem to escape the intensity of the complicated anxiety borne in my body, mind, and soul. I know it affected my home life as well as my work life. I was unable to be present in my interactions with my peers, customers, wife or children. I was easily angered because I was angry with myself, and I unconsciously transferred that onto others.
All because of one brutal failure.
Why did one failure strike so hard?
This one failure didn’t just harangue me for two or three weeks, it shifted my confidence to speak professionally for a year or more. (Then, of all things, I had my world completely turned upside down, and in the process became a preacher!) There was something about that experience of completely failing that shook me to my core, shattering what confidence I had.
I know I’ll have plenty of friends here in raising my fears and concerns regarding public speaking. Getting up to speak to people has been one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, but it isn’t anymore. I used to wonder, ‘Why do I do this?’
There are times in all our lives when we face the humiliation of failure in a context that bloats intrigue to the point that the experience traumatises us. And trauma changes us. It challenges our thinking to such an extent that we’ll do almost anything not to have a repeat of such a distressing experience.
In some ways, trauma creates fears in us, logically for our protection, but illogically in a way that we become hypersensitive to anything even remotely re-traumatising. At the outer extremes trauma completely interrupts our lives, and what was can never truly be again. Unless we can somehow miraculously reinvent ourselves.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from events that elicit trauma is to drop my perfectionism. Also, to understand that certain events are the destiny of us all (not excusing traumas of abuse). And the value of honesty, which attends to the top two issues.
Some events that involve trauma can actually be good for us, in that we’re given the opportunity to learn how to cope. Again, however, this is not about trauma we’re afflicted with from chronic or acute abuse, though I do believe there is hope for a semblance of recovery. (Remember the title of this article; it’s not about the unrelenting trauma experienced by sufferers of abuse, especially child abuse.)
Life is as much about learning how to survive trauma as it is about learning how to thrive successfully.
We’re all susceptible to being shocked by many things: failure, betrayal, disappointment, rejection, inadequacy, sudden change, and loss.
One thing trauma has taught me is how quickly I allow fear to control me in certain situations. Awareness is a miracle; to become actively attentive to that which ought not to frighten me but does. The invitation then is to follow the fear with curiosity.
Fear copes well with the safety of gentle curiosity.
If curiosity remains gently interested it can help fear to trust in hope again.