I don’t see myself as a “typical” risk taker — I don’t think I’d ever like to climb on the side of a jutted cliff or swim with sharks (yikes!). But sometimes something gets into me that pushes me to take a giant step outside of my comfort zone and push myself to my very limits. I recently engaged in one of the biggest challenges I have ever come across in my career: PUBLIC SPEAKING.
I was very fortunate to be chosen in April to be a presenter for the Association for Contextual Behavioral Sciences Rocky Mountain Chapter’s Regional Conference held on September 20-21, 2013. This association brings together professionals who utilize Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Relational Frame Theory with clients in many different capacities to help reduce suffering and facilitate healing. I put together a presentation entitled: Embracing Our Bodies, Allowing Our Experience: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Approach to Treating Body Image and Disordered Eating Issues. This topic is near to my heart and I am always excited to explore the ways that ACT is effective in helping clients from this population.
In April, this sounded awesome! As the days, weeks, and months crept by, I found myself engaging in several anxiety-related activities that let me know that I was feeling quite nervous about presenting in front of so many national and international peers who have a vested interest and skills in ACT. Looking through the ACT lens, I was definitely utilizing experiential avoidance. I procrastinated by doing ANYTHING but work on my presentation (including cleaning and organizing), I filled up my schedule with other activities so I ‘wouldn’t have time to work on the presentation’, and I began having anxiety dreams, one of which included me standing naked in front of all of the mentors and people who have been meaningful to me on my professional path and not having a word to say. All of these techniques did not help to reduce my anxiety, but just delayed it and actually helped it grow.
When it finally came time to present at the conference, I felt the anxiety shivering up and down my body. I knew deep down that I was not nervous about my competency, as I have had training and lots of experience with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but more about being vulnerable and speaking in front of so many peers that I deeply respect.
Having “survived” this experience, I wanted to share a few things I learned from it, as it has opened up my eyes to the courage, vulnerability, and strength that clients embody every day:
- By being real and opening up to my audience about how nervous I was, I was able to find more space and acceptance for the feelings of anxiety and still go on with my presentation even though they were there the whole time. In ACT terms, this would be called “acceptance”.
- Beginning with a mindfulness exercise helped me reconnect with my breath and check in with my body and notice any tension, sensations, emotions it was holding. This also aided my audience to reconnect with themselves as well. In ACT, this would be called “contacting the present moment”.
- All morning before it was my turn to present, I went to several other workshops that I found very engaging and inspiring. I wasn’t able to be truly present, however, because I had intrusive thoughts such as “your presentation isn’t as expert as theirs is”, or “your nervousness is going to get in the way of effectively relaying your presentation”, and other annoying, damaging thoughts. I actively tried to notice those thoughts and pin them as JUST THOUGHTS. They don’t have to mean anything unless I believe them. In ACT, distancing from unhelpful thoughts is called “defusion”.
- I realized that I have had this experience before. I sometimes get caught up in an anxious mindset that is almost paralyzing. At the time of this newest challenge, I made a big effort to notice that I was going into that all-too-familiar frame of mind I could call “my anxious self” and then observe it. I didn’t have to believe that this self was all of who I was or that it really has much relevance. In ACT, this awareness and attention to my ‘anxious self’ is called “Self-As-Context”.
- Much energy and effort had been expended to get myself to the conference and prepare my presentation, so was I really going to let the anxiety keep me from doing what I originally intended? Why was I truly there? I reminded myself that I was there to help offer tools to others about treating eating disorder populations with ACT, and this was important to me because it helps to advocate and spread the word about how this can help those in recovery. By defining my “values”, I was able to keep them in my mind and move forward even though I was still anxious.
- Finally, I did it. I presented my workshop and got through it, and it went quite well. I felt great! By taking an action that is guided by my values, I am engaging in “committed action”.
Little did I know, I was utilizing all of the components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help me get through my nerves and present my workshop on the very same topic!
This experience deepened my awareness of and empathy for the struggles that my clients engage with every day. Those in recovery from eating disorders, body image struggles, anxiety, or self esteem issues can seem paralyzed by the challenge of recovery — much like I was before my presentation. But I know from personal experience that it is possible to recover from an eating disorder and to face your fears and prove to yourself how strong you are!
It still will be quite some time before I submit a proposal to present at a national conference again, though