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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Flying Earrings: The Lesson

It happened again. I watched my earring bounce across the floor and land under the chair of the workshop participant sitting in the front row. There was really no way to understand how often my earrings had fallen out while speaking.

I felt the hot wave of what I believed was embarrassment wash over me as I made some self-deprecating comment and the participant and I retrieved the earring. Where was I? What had I been saying? Somehow my notes had gotten shuffled in my distress and precious time was being wasted while I searched for the answers.

Last weekend I attended a conference led by clinicians and therapists. I am a long way from that day when my earring fell out and bounced across the floor, and I now understand what happened wasn’t normal embarrassment, but shame. Part of me never quite believed in myself when I spoke in public. When something went wrong, it was a clear indication that my beliefs were true. It wasn’t about my earring falling out; it was what I believed about myself when it did.

During the conference, I watched the presenters almost drop computers, lose their trains of thought, mess up technology, and in one case have a text messages appear on the screen for everyone to read.

She said, “I don’t know how to turn that off, so you are welcome to read it.”

We all laughed and she moved on. Anyone would be embarrassed—she was, but she did not dysregulate (an emotional response that is poorly modulated, and does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive response—thank you Google). I saw the difference. Unlike my previous experiences, she did not slide into that place of being unable to remain emotionally balanced. I slowly began to realize the extent to which my trauma had effected my public speaking—and how determined I was to walk through it.

In one session, the presenter distinguished between a temper tantrum and dysregulation. A temper tantrum is a normal small human reaction to not having a perceived need/want met. Giving into what the child wants will stop the emotional outburst immediately. A dysregulated meltdown takes the child somewhere that nothing helps and leaves them disoriented and emotionally spent. It is an experience of drowning in shame and terror and while there, the child’s psyche believes his or her very life is in danger. It is the result of being triggered by something and shame is always part of the equation.

As I watched the presenters, I realized internalized shame during earring episodes dissolved me into working out of the most primitive part of my brain—where fight, flight, or freeze emanate. I had learned to control the response outwardly since having a presenter dissolve into dysregulation was not something with which anyone was comfortable. In hindsight, I understand how I employed every possible strategy to prevent and walk through the triggers. The flying earrings always caught me off guard.

This made me think about all the students who had been so fearful of speaking in my classes. Avoiding public speaking was right up there with avoiding math. Did they also experience shame, fear, and dysregulation? I took speech and learned about stage fright, but this was something so much more. It was terror. I once had a student whose lesson went south and she almost fainted right in front of us. She dropped out of the program. I wish I could go back and help her with what I now understand. I am sure she had some form of trauma in her background.

I can’t be positive that none of the presenters I watched experienced shame, but it was clear they never fell into dysregulation. It was simply about what happened (sliding computers, texts popping up on the screen, or in my case flying earrings). It was not about who they were (incompetent, unskilled, maybe a fake). With a healthy acceptance of self, what happened was simply that—what happened. Without shame interfering, they could stay regulated, problem solve, and keep moving. Without acceptance of self, despite being a great public speaker, I was subconsciously living out of a shame-based belief system and would collapse into fear and dysregulation.

When my earrings fell out and bounced across the floor, I was suddenly about six years old in an adult presenter’s body. I could do nothing right at that age, and my earring was shouting this truth from the floor where it lay. I wanted to run from the room, but I was trapped in my presenter’s body. I froze and then had to dig myself out. Self-deprecating humor was my best defense. I learned how to be very funny.

I wonder how many walk through this debilitating shame while speaking and think it is normal? I wonder how many, who could be great speakers, never speak publicly because of this? One year, while helping a presenter change rooms at a conference, I saw her freeze. Right there in front of me, she froze. I needed to get her to the next room and ready to begin. I don’t know what triggered her, but we were in trouble.

“I know something is bothering you. I don’t know what the crowds in the hallway remind you of, but I understand you are frightened. Look at me. I am here to keep you safe and get you to the next room. I know this building and I have ways to do that without going out into the crowd.”

Her eyes were locked on mine. I wonder how old she was in that moment. I intuitively knew what she needed.

She followed me like a child and when she was safe in the next room, she became an adult again and seemed to forget how I had helped her. I understood.

It was interesting to watch presenters who knew the difference between embarrassment and shame and how to regulate themselves in moments when what occurred could have unbalanced them. Mistakes and awkward moments are part of being human. I now know it is not necessary to live out of the most primitive part of my brain when my earring flies across the room. I can recognize the trigger and walk myself back to my strong sense of self worth. That is simply the coolest thing ever!

If I would have had access to the some of the therapy approaches and therapists I met, listened to, and observed in videos while at the conference, my life would have been so different—maybe not externally, but definitely internally. I could have learned what normal emotions felt like, healed from the trauma, and understood how to calm myself instead of merely controlling my reactions to triggers. I am never too old to learn, but getting help as a child would have been so much better.

We need to do all we can to help children who have experienced trauma. When they melt down, it is not a temper tantrum; it is terror. Learn to recognize the difference. They need professional help so they do not live life believing that being human is a shameful, terrifying experience. Without help, many will never know that it didn’t have to be that way. I never knew. I just figured out how to live through it.

Having an earring fall out while speaking should never have been a debilitating experience!

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