I've Lived Your Nightmare: Surviving Humiliation on Stage©

by Melissa Lewis

In my 20+ years as a presentation skills coach, I’ve heard my students speak with dread about all kinds of horrific “what if” scenarios. What if my neck turns red? What if I don’t know the answers to their questions? What if completely freeze up and go blank? Several years ago I myself lived through an experience that I bet would beat any public speaking nightmare you could imagine. On stage, under bright lights, in front of hundreds of audience members, I lost consciousness.

Happily, I’m still here to tell the tale. . .

I was hired by a large global organization to teach two sessions for a conference of their administrative support staff. I had taught other programs there which were well received, but in the planning stages for this project I had an uneasy feeling. It seemed to me that the issues they wanted me to cover would be better addressed by their internal Human Resources staff. When I asked about this I got a vague answer that didn’t really satisfy me, but I needed the money so I dismissed my intuition and agreed to do the programs anyway. (Tip: Any decision you justify with "But I need the money” will ALWAYS come back to haunt you.)

On the day of the conference there were other troubles to contend with: 1) my mother was in the hospital with what turned out to be encephalitis, although at the time the doctors were stumped as to why she didn’t recognize us and whether she would ever recover and 2) I wasn’t able to eat breakfast so my blood sugar was unusually low.

Soon after the program began, the natives got restless, so to speak. The participants began challenging the material and complaining bitterly about how they felt victimized by the organization. It dawned on me on stage that the organization had hired me--an outsider--to do the dirty work they were not willing to do themselves. The HR organizers assumed that the employees wouldn’t vent their anger as openly with an outsider as they would with an internal HR speaker. They assumed wrong. The audience had come in loaded for bear and I had unwittingly been sent on stage with a bull’s-eye on my chest.

As the tension grew I was unraveling on all levels. Intellectually, I was flummoxed by the complicated dynamics at play. Emotionally, I was a basket case with anxiety about my mother and the humiliation of the moment. Physically, I was shaky and weak--literally running on empty. Spiritually, I was in turmoil because I knew that I had betrayed myself by being there in the first place. In other words, I was going down in flames, and everybody knew it.

As I stood on stage, a woman in the back of the room was asking a question of me. As she spoke into the microphone, I was aware of sound coming out of her mouth, but it sounded like the grown-ups in a Charlie Brown cartoon--“whah whah whah-whah whah”--but nothing distinguishable as words. Then I began to see stars. I summoned every ounce of strength I had, willing myself to stay conscious. “Do NOT pass out. Do NOT pass out.” The next thing I knew I was still on stage, still standing, but surrounded by a crowd of people waving their hands in my face and asking, “Are you all right? Are you all right?” I don’t know how long I was out or what exactly happened. I suspect it was what doctors call an absent seizure.

I gathered my wits somewhat, apologized, and briefly explained to the audience that, not having eaten, low blood sugar was the culprit. My client, in an attempt at damage control, stepped in and announced to the audience that she was ending the session and suggested that we start fresh after lunch.

After a quick, awkward debrief with my client, I gathered my things to get some lunch by myself. I needed some solitude to recover, and I suspected that my client (equally humiliated since she had hired me) didn’t want to be seen with me. As I was leaving the auditorium I experienced a tiny moment of grace when I noticed on the front edge of the stage a little shrine of snacks. Participants had dug into their purses to share granola bars, peanut butter crackers, trail mix, Tic Tacs. I was touched that at least some of the participants felt compassion in my moment of humiliation.

As I sat alone in their cafeteria, sensing all eyes were on me, I struggled with the shame of such a public stripping of my dignity. I wondered, “What am I going to do with this experience?” I knew that if I took on the staggering weight of this debacle it would crush me. It was the kind of catastrophic public humiliation that could cripple a person. But what to do? I make my living on stage; I couldn’t just up and quit. I decided to look at the facts. I acknowledged that I shared in the responsibility for what happened, but also acknowledged that I wasn’t entirely to blame. I concluded that it was one third my fault (for not trusting my instincts and selling out my integrity for a check), one third the client’s fault (for not telling me the whole story of the volatile situation I’d be walking into) and one third nobody’s fault (just a bizarre confluence of random circumstances that happened to occur on the same day). I decided that although I could not undo the past, I could determine the future. I chose to forgive myself. I put the burden down, for to carry it would kill me.

To my amazement, the participants returned for the afternoon session, perhaps out of sympathy, perhaps hoping for another spectacle. I apologized again for what had happened but didn’t dwell on it. The session went fairly well, considering. At the end of the day, my client and I, with mutual chagrin (knowing we had co-created the disaster) thanked each other but knew we would not be working together again.

I was staying with family that night. I briefly alluded to how my day had gone, but didn’t go into detail as it was still too raw. That evening, I went upstairs to comfort their fussy baby girl who couldn’t get to sleep. I sat in a rocker with little Kelly on my shoulder. As I rocked, I was replaying the events of the day in my mind when I was suddenly struck by the transcendence of the present moment. I realized that that moment, with tiny puffs of breath on my neck from the precious bundle on my shoulder, was 1,000 times more important than any humiliation I had suffered that day. The humiliation had lasted a few hours; this moment was eternal. I felt a whoosh of relief that flushed the last remnants of shame from my heart and filled me with wordless awe and gratitude for what is really important in life.

What I have learned from this and other, lesser instances of being laid bare in front of an audience, is the absolute necessity of quick self-forgiveness. When I am cracked wide open in public (and that comes with the territory when you make your living in front of an audience) if I haven’t forgiven myself, my spirit seems to spill out of me, depleting me utterly. I feel exposed and vulnerable and lose my connection to my listeners. But when I quickly forgive myself and get back to serving my audience, a mysterious grace-of-the-moment from my students (and I susupect from the Divine as well) rushes in to fill the void. The quality of your life isn’t determined by what happens to you; it’s determined by what you DO with what happens to you. When it comes to public humiliation, the thing to DO is forgive yourself and move on.

Plus there’s another unexpected benefit. Once the worst has happened--once you’ve survived the nightmare come true--you are liberated. That awful, dreaded "what if" scenario came true and yet, there you stand. The world didn't come to an end. What you thought would kill you, didn't and that's tremendously freeing. You’ve been forged in the furnace of shame and emerged stronger than before. When you know deep down that nothing can destroy you, that’s when you have the freedom to be truly authentic, truly present, truly powerful.

That’s a nightmare with a happy ending.  

Copyright © 2017, Melissa Lewis

Melissa Lewis turns traditional thinking about public speaking upside down to give people more comfort, confidence, and charisma in front of groups. She travels nationally as a highly-rated conference speaker, trainer and coach. She is a former comic actress, a Past President of a chapter of the National Speakers Association and has trained as facilitator of SPEAKING CIRCLES ©, a revolutionary new approach for building speaking skill and confidence. For more information, call (828) 658-4211 or visit www.melissalewis.com.

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