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The Sound of the Speed of Anxiety

A personal perspective: Remembering our power when anxiety alters our voice.

My partner and I are suckers for those talent shows where we get to root for the underdogs. Last night, we watched "American Idol," where contestants are regularly given feedback about how emotion and anxiety manifest in their auditions. Rushing through their songs, holding back their vocal power, sometimes barely audible. Anxiety can thin out the voice, decrease the range, throw off the key, and throttle the sense of control. The coaches say they can hear a lack of confidence.

These are moments of empathy because, as introverts, we can both relate. We've heard it thousands of times ourselves: we're speaking too soft or too fast. What? Huh? Can't you just speak up? My family used to get frustrated with my quiet mumbling. To this day our friends accuse us of whispering to one another, of having a secret language that only we can understand.

Our speech patterns aren't intentional secret communications. They are the result of anxiety and/or introversion. Those are two different things, sometimes intertwined, sometimes not; and they manifest within each of us in different ways. For my partner, speaking softly and quickly on business calls is not purely a matter of introversion, but also stemming from being an immigrant who learned English as a second language. It is his primary language now, but how his speech is perceived on the other end of the line is always in the back of his mind. Anxiety stems from fear of judgement.

For him, phone anxiety has had little effect on his professional success. Sure, like those "American Idol" contestants, he's received feedback about vocal projection. But he's reached a pinnacle of corporate leadership regardless. In fact, among many employees, it makes him more relatable. It's humanizing and inspiring when others see that traits like anxiety or introversion don't have to be viewed as impediments to overcome. Nowadays, he speaks up on behalf of the introverts and underdogs. He wants their unique strengths on his team. He is known as a champion for diversity, because he knows it's an organization's ultimate strength.

Speaking anxiety has had a completely different effect on my education and career. When it was my turn to speak aloud, I was always a mess! When I attempted speaking in class or within groups at work, my thoughts became disorganized and my throat clenched. I call it lemon juice throat, when the sourness of anxiety squeezes you down to a whisper.

I don't experience it at all on phone calls. In fact, for professional interactions, I'd much prefer talking by phone. When I discovered I could leverage my phone talents into a career of phone-based coaching, it was game-changing. I found great value in the connection I could develop by phone, listening deeply to the nuances of voice, and experiencing how people open up from the comfort of their own space. I'm now retired from coaching and utilizing my communication skills in writing. In my own space at my own pace, I can generate my very best work. Anxiety doesn't derail my words into gibberish. But if I had to present that work in a boardroom or read my writing in public, a paramedic rescue would ensue.

At the end of "American Idol" last night, a contestant named Sam Finelli took the stage. We heard his backstory of having a passion for music and struggling with autism. He nailed the performance and at the end of the song Lionel Richie gave him the coaching advice we all deserve to hear when we are nervous or scared: "You were born enough... You are enough."

Imagine hearing those words at work. Knowing that what you bring to the table has value and uniqueness by virtue of your very conception. That people want to hear your voice because the world would be lesser without it. What a different world we'd be living in if those around us perceived when we needed to hear just a little bit of kindness like that.

Sometimes when I hear someone speaking nervously or singing hesitantly, I have an urge, born of my lived experience, to tell them that the time is all theirs. The world is all theirs. That there isn't a single person more important, not a moment more important than them, here, now.

The human attention span has decreased in concert with the increase in technology and idolization of pop culture, and I believe that has been a major cause of interpersonal anxiety. We perceive that others don't have time for us. That our audience is at the ready to trade up to something more interesting than us. Swipe left. Dismissed. I'm so over this. Thank you, next. Just give me the elevator pitch. And guess what else may have been a contributing cultural factor? Those talent competitions! Can't you just hear Simon Cowell interrupting an anxious singer, smashing his red buzzer, yelling, "Next!"

This all leaves us unsure of how much time we have with one another. Afraid we're wearing out our welcome. Afraid our audience will judge us or turn on us. Thus, our speech is becoming transformed into bullet points and soundbites. Single-word sentences and mumbles. Vanilla instead of rainbow. What a loss. We have so much language, so much creative impulse, yet we throttle it out of fear of the other.

Maybe next time you catch your voice throttled to a mumble or traveling at the speed of anxiety, you can remember that there is time for you. There is space for you. That you have earned the right to say, "Excuse me, I'm speaking, even if I'm shaking." That you possess the power to make that so. And like Lionel Richie says, "You were born enough... You are enough."

I hope you can get outside today. And I hope you find a smile.

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