“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I was just watching a clip from a Brene Brown speech. She was talking about formulating her speech and she mentioned that people want to hear 99% perspiration, not inspiration. People would rather hear the how-to’s than the airy-fairy, this is how it could be inspirational speeches. I feel like that’s why a lot of times we feel super motivated after watching a great speech, but if there’s no real life application, the excitement dissipates rather quickly. However, when a speaker gives tools and tangible action steps, the inspiration and motivation often carry us much further.
I’ve found this to be the case for a topic that I see play out again and again, fear of other people. It’s all well and good to tell someone to love other people, to be open-minded and compassionate, and to follow the golden rule. We’ve been told these things since childhood, yet how often do we see just the opposite occur. We go through life fearing people and in turn, end up missing out on countless opportunities. The #1 fear in the world is public speaking. That means that with all the scary things in the world; nuclear war, sharks, plane crashes, etc., nothing scares people more than other people. The fear of judgment, the fear of not measuring up, and the fear of looking stupid leave many people paralyzed in a small bubble of familiarity.
I spent a great deal of my life in this bubble. I remember being the “shy girl” as early as sixth grade. I had tons of friends that I was comfortable around, but I felt anxious in many social situations. I always excelled at school and sports and was friends with the “popular kids,” so I didn’t really realize how much of a problem my fear was until I left high school. I had told myself a story about how people liked me once they got to know me, but that I needed someone to vouch for me for this to be the case. I had always had the love and protection of my best friend, but when I left for college I was totally on my own and it wasn’t pretty. Over the next several years, in situation after situation, I experienced the same painful pattern. I would come into a new environment and feel fearful. My fear would cause me to behave in a shy manner, which was oftentimes interpreted by people as me being stuck up, weird, or some other undesirable adjective. As I grew into myself, I started feeling more and more eyes on me, the scariest thing imaginable for a shy person. Speaking in class gave me anxiety and I dreaded even having to say my name aloud at the beginning of the semester. I avoided the dining hall 99% of the time and I held back from speaking my truth in many relationships. Unable to forge new bonds, I held onto certain friendships that dimmed my light immeasurably. After college I moved from city to city, and my fear followed me to each new destination.
When I was living in San Diego a few years ago, I read Jay-Z’s book Decoded. At the end of the book, Jay talks about his first time meeting Oprah. He said they connected speaking about one of their favorite books, Seat of the Soul, by Gary Zukav. Highly respecting both of their opinions, I immediately ordered Seat of the Soul. In it, Zukav speaks about the evolution of the soul and aligning our souls with our personalities. He explains that we have versions of the same event/circumstance happen over and over again until we decide to made a decision to change our part in it, the “role” we continually play. I decided to test this theory out. For years when I would see people, I would either smile meekly or quietly say hi, if I spoke at all. There was a member of management at my job that I often had this weird interaction with. I would quietly say hi and she would do the same, then we would awkwardly be in each other’s presence for the next ten minutes or so, before other co-workers arrived. While meditating on the words in Seat of the Soul, I recognized the huge potential for growth in this situation. I recognized my pattern of feeling shy, the action I was taking (meekly speaking or smiling, the same thing I’d done time and time again), and the stifled feeling I would feel after the interaction. I decided that if I could make one small change, as Zukav suggested, that I could change this pattern forever. The mere consciousness around the situation brought light to it. The decision to act differently had implications far beyond the realm of what I thought was possible at the time and led to me cutting chains that had entangled me for the majority of my life. The one small action I decided to change is what I call, “say one more thing.” I decided that I would apply this with every person I came in contact with. If I came across a person I would normally not speak to, I would say “hi.” Simple, right? If it was someone I would normally just awkwardly mumble “hi” to, I added something along the lines of, how’s your day going?” Things started changing immediately. I began feeling much more comfortable being myself and my relationships got deeper and stronger. “How’s your day going?” turned into conversations and my genuine interest in others led to connections and bonds I never thought possible.
A year later, while living in LA, I read the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. The title sounds corny but the book is incredible. Carnegie talks about gaining influence in ethical, soul-serving ways. He talks about the power of smiling at people, learning people’s names, and appealing to their interests and desires. I decided to once again experiment with the material I was learning. I wondered what would happen in my life if I smiled at every person I walked by. Once again, simple but magical. I didn’t realize the true power of a smile until one day when I was walking to the gym with my best friend who was visiting from Hawaii. She was on the phone and was lagging about ten feet behind me. When she got off, she asked me what I had been doing while I was walking. She said, “It’s incredible. Every person who walked by you looked totally different before and after they passed by you. They all had huge smiles on their faces. What were you doing?” I told her that I had smiled at each one of them. In that moment, I truly began comprehending my power. If my smile can make so many people smile, what else can I do? I developed this new confidence and began speaking and saying good morning to several people on my morning walk to the gym. I became cool with several homeless people, parking attendants, coffee baristas, and street acts. When I walked down the block then and to this day, I feel nothing but love. The way I felt when I approached a group of men changed as well. Endowed with this newfound confidence, I no longer avoided eye contact with potential male admirers. I began looking them in the eye and smiling or saying good morning. The way people treated me started to change and I no longer felt like a target. I felt a newfound level of respect that I hadn’t experienced before.
The principles I learned and applied from these books have changed my life in countless ways. These, along with several other experiments I have taken on over the last few years have assisted me in becoming a calm, happy person that can live out my passions and purpose without the usual turmoil associated with the intense fear of other people and their judgments. I have a deeper understanding of why people act the way they do and how their fears manifest. I can now stand in a room and have several people look and whisper about me (which has happened on several occasions) and be absolutely fine. I was at a hotel lounge last month and several middle-aged women were staring at me while putting their hand up to their friends ear and whispering. So awkward, right? It didn’t even faze me. I looked at them, smiled, then politely received it as a compliment. I was on the elevator the other day for eight floors with three other people. Not one word was uttered. Two of the men got off and I looked at the man remaining and said, “how’s your day going?” Within seconds, we exchanged names and stories. He was actually quite friendly once I broke the ice. The next day he greeted me with a warm, “Hi Laura!” and we’ve been friendly ever since. What I’ve learned is that is it so important to live life offensively. If you are always on the defensive, being affected by every man that leers at you, every cashier that’s rude to you, every driver that cuts you off, you are living a life way below your potential. Once you begin to live offensively, you realize how much control you have over your life. Sure, there are always going to be some people who don’t smile back or speak to you, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. Repeating these behaviors until they become habits propels you into such a positive space. Consistent communication dissolves fear and fosters connection. When you feel connected to everyone around you, whether through a smile, a kind word, or simply an understanding, you are endowed with a power that is beyond words. What areas of your life would benefit from small changes or experiments? What scares you? Where do you want to feel more confident? Whatever comes up for you, make a decision to make one small change, stay consistent in your pursuit, and prepare to be amazed.
“Remind yourself. Nobody built like you. You design yourself.” -Hov