Did you ever have to give a presentation on a day like this? I wrote here about an experience years ago where I had no choice but to show up for a presentation when I had the flu, including fever and chills. I went, I dug deep, I made it through the day, and then I crashed.
On American Idol this week, one of the contestants was hospitalized for complications from her diabetes. This led to two examples of this kind of "sucking it up."
First, the guys had to perform in place of the women because of Crystal Bowersox' health issue, meaning they lost a day of rehearsal time. They were told in the morning they would be performing.
This must have led to even more stress and anxiety than they would typically have on performance night, but they didn't have a choice, so they all pulled it together (even Alex Lambert, who normally vomits before a performance).
The other example, of course, is Crystal herself, whose reprieve from performing only lasted a day. She had to get back on that stage and perform, regardless of how she felt. Amazingly, hers was the strongest performance of the night.
How do we do this? How is it that we are able, when every fiber of our being is telling us, "Go lie down," "Take care of yourself," "Tear your hair out," "Scream and pound on something," or "Have a good cry," to go on and do what we have to do?
It's called compartmentalization, and it's a good tool to have in your public speaking toolkit.
Compartmentalization is an emotional coping mechanism where we suppress or "put away" certain thoughts and feelings so we don't have to deal with them in the moment. It's a good tool when it allows you to do what you have to do, even when you don't feel up to doing it.
Another personal example: Last Friday, my 20-year-old kitty was very sick. Her health had been declining rapidly and on that morning, she looked like she might not survive the day. However, I had a three-hour training to facilitate and there was no way I could stay with her or even take her to the vet myself. A part of me knew that we might lose her that day, whether by her choice or by ours, but I could not allow myself to dwell on those thoughts, because I could not let down my client, especially at that late notice.
My husband took Kitty to our vet, where we knew she would be in good hands until I was done with my training.
On the verge of emotional overload, I went to UCSB and, for the next three hours, delivered a top-notch training in my usual style with humor, fun and audience engagement.
Luckily, I had had some snuggle time in bed that morning with Kitty, because when I came home, I discovered she had not made it. At which point I was completely free to let out my emotions and deal with my sadness and grief.
Compartmentalizing is a necessary coping technique; without it, we would be swallowed up by our emotions and unable to function in the world whenever anything was going wrong. But it may be easier said than done.
For example, elite athletes are well-known for their ability to play through pain of injury; whether it's a good idea or not is another story.
Soldiers are skilled at compartmentalizing their fears, guilt, anger or sadness when they are at war, and put all their intellectual and emotional energy into the necessary tasks of warfare. However, sometimes a soldier who is good at compartmentalizing is later unable to access those emotions or, worse, becomes overwhelmed by them.
Don't think of compartmentalizing as forgetting or trying to get over something quicker than you are able. Think of it as, literally, putting your thoughts or feelings into a compartment or box for later. You will come back to it if you need to. You will deal with it later. Just for right now, let it go. Don't dwell on it, don't think about it, and focus on the task at hand.
Keep in mind, if you always compartmentalize and then never come back to address the issue (if it needs addressing), you might not be dealing effectively with your emotions.
But as a temporary solution to a problem that can't be solved at that moment, compartmentalizing is a useful and healthy way to get through a hard time and one way that you will survive a presentation even if you are overwhelmed with anxiety.
Notice how you use this tool in your daily life and think about how you might use it more effectively when you have stand up in front of an audience on a day when things aren't going your way.
Share your examples of compartmentalizing in the comments below!