“Just don’t let them sense your fear,” the young man holding a clipboard told me, “Oh, and try not to touch the mic with your mouth either. It’s full of germs. You’re up in five.”
With that, the manager of the local comedy club took his clipboard and nonchalant manner and left me standing backstage, peeking out between velvet curtain panels at the garishly lit stage and the dark abyss beyond that. A dark abyss that held a couple dozen people expecting a stand-up comedian.
Just don’t let them sense your fear.
Easy for him to say. He wasn’t about to stand in front of a mass of strangers for the first time and make a fool of himself. My whole body radiated fear. It took on a physical form throughout my body. My cheeks were flushed. My ears were pink. My palms were sweaty. My foot couldn’t stop tapping, and my whole body felt like I was shaking. I was the literal embodiment of fear.
How did I get here? I had only myself to blame.
I was in the middle of grad school, earning my master’s in education and about to start student teaching. I realized (a little too late) that the school part of school (studying, taking tests, writing papers) was just fine for a studious introvert like myself. I had no problem observing the high school classroom I was assigned. It was the act of teaching that was an issue. I have felt shy and awkward my whole life. Why on earth did I choose a profession that required me to speak in public to a bunch of ruthless teenagers every single day?
As my student teaching days loomed before me, my anxiety grew. This was going to be horrible. And then I had a thought. What could be more horrible than this? That’s where stand-up came in.
I caught an ad pinned up at the student life center of my university advertising a stand-up competition. I took it as a sign. If I was going to make a fool of myself, better get it over with in front of a group of people I would never have to see again.
Psychologist Dr. Noam Shpancer asserts that “on the psychological level, confronting your fear instead of backing down brings about a sense of accomplishment and empowerment” and allows you to emotionally navigate anxiety-inducing scenarios in the future.
I didn’t realize this is what I was doing at the time. All I knew was that if the inevitable was coming, I wanted a little bit of control over it.
As I walked on stage that night, fear never left me. It remained for the entirety of my five-minute set. My stomach did flips but thankfully held onto its contents. My palms became even sweatier, but I managed to not drop the mic. I am sure the audience sensed my fear, but I did not let the fear overcome. And when I walked off stage leaving the surprising and intoxicating sounds of laughter and applause behind me, fear was still there beside me, just in a less threatening form.
Since then, fear and I have come a long way. I don’t remember the last time I got nervous addressing a classroom of high school students. Eight years of teaching will give you a great deal of practice, perspective, and thick skin. Fear is still there beside me, but instead of looking at it as an obstacle, I look upon it as a challenge. Throughout the decisions I have now as a parent, the choices I have to make as part of a married couple, and trying times I encounter as a person navigating her way through the world, fear isn’t there to block my path. It is present, with its eyebrows raised, its arms crossed, asking me, “So, what are you going to do?” And afterward, when the situation is resolved, it’s there with a knowing smile that says, “So, you did it.”
I still do stand-up occasionally, no longer because I am trying to get over something but because I am seeking something: that thrill of accomplishment that comes on the other side of the experience, the excitement of wondering whether a joke will land well, whether my timing is downright, whether my audience will get it. It’s exhilarating. Scary but exhilarating. That’s my relationship with fear. And the more I engage in it, like Dr. Shpancer states, the more I feel prepared for handling future situations.
Shortly before my last child was born, I waddled up to the stage of another DC comedy club. I was seven-months pregnant, facing an audience of mostly single, mostly male business types and my set was entirely based around diaper blowouts, dealing with toddlers, and labor stories. I thought back to that bit of advice I received eight years ago and smiled. My fear wasn’t the main worry now. It was sitting there, invisible but present, eyebrow raised, by my side. But I did take note of getting too close to the mic. Those things really are gross.