Imagine if you could face the fears that hold you back in your career head-on, whether it’s the daunting prospect of public speaking, conquering social anxiety, or tackling any obstacle that’s been holding you back. This article’ will explore the transformative power of exposure therapy—a proven psychological technique—that can be customised to propel your career forward.
In the realm of success, confidence plays an undeniable role. The tendency to avoid, procrastinate, or sidestep challenges often stems from a lack of confidence, preventing the development of crucial skills. This article unveils the key to breaking free from this self-reinforcing cycle: exposure therapy, the second pillar of the Dynamic Trio, designed to empower you and cultivate proficiency in areas where confidence may be lacking. Throughout this article, I’ll be using the example of public speaking—a common obstacle that frequently emerges in my coaching sessions.
It’s essential to clarify that while exposure therapy originates from psychology, our focus here is solely on its application for self-development. This article does not delve into deep-seated fears related to public speaking, social anxiety, or outright phobias. For such complex issues, professional help may be necessary, and I’ll provide further insights on this at the conclusion of our exploration.
Understanding Exposure Therapy:
Exposure therapy, a fundamental tool in psychology, involves gradually exposing a client to a situation that causes them so much fear or anxiety that they will avoid such situations, even if the avoidance is detrimental. Through regular and incremental exposure, clients can acclimatize to the anxiety-inducing situation, ultimately reducing fear and discomfort.
In the context of professional skill development, exposure therapy principles can be applied effectively through the following steps:
Identification of the Fear or Challenge:
The first step is identifying the specific aspects of a skill that trigger discomfort or anxiety. The more specific the better. Let’s consider public speaking as an example. You might fear speaking in front of large audiences, stumbling over words, being boring, or forgetting your content.
Exposure Therapy Plan:
Next, create a hierarchy of exposure scenarios, starting with the least anxiety-inducing and gradually progressing to more challenging situations. Start with small, manageable steps. Begin by practicing in comfortable settings, like speaking to a trusted colleague or in front of a mirror. Incrementally increase the challenge level as confidence grows but set yourself a series of deadlines. For example, for one week, practice in front of a mirror with the goal of speaking to a small group of friends or colleagues the second week, and then a larger group the third week.
Think about what might be the most uncomfortable situation for you and work backward from that, scheduling incremental goals from where you are now, slowly working towards that event. A client of mine said her most feared event would be presenting to her peers at an external professional forum. We started working towards her journey to that forum by getting her to start presenting regularly to her own team. Gradual exposure gradually desensitizes you to the anxiety associated with the feared activity. Through repeated exposure, the intensity of fear diminishes, leading to increased confidence.
While you incrementally increase the challenge, it is imperative always to ensure you still feel safe. It can feel like a precarious balancing act – to sufficiently challenge yourself further each time while also maintaining a sense of safety and low risk. Like exercise, if you push a particular muscle too hard, the strain could cause you to go backward, if not cause you to give up permanently.
Plan to celebrate even small victories. Think about how you will reward yourself every time you do the thing that causes anxiety. Be kind to yourself, give yourself positive feedback, and ask for positive reinforcement from your friends, family, or colleagues. You need to gang up on the negative voices in your head that have said your entire life that you aren’t good enough at this.
While you are asking for positive reinforcement, remember you are on a learning journey and want to improve. Ask for specific feedback on specific areas to focus on skills you want to develop. Don’t ask generic questions like “How do you think I’m going”. Be specific, and ask questions ahead of time like “I’m trying to focus on fluctuating my tone of voice to maintain engagement in my presentations. Could you give me some feedback afterward?”. Generic questions lead to generic, if not unhelpful, feedback. Constructive criticism will help you to fine-tune your exposure therapy plan. Watch out for my next article about Feedback Loops, the third element of the Dynamic Trio.
Embrace a growth mindset. See each event in your exposure therapy plan, such as every speaking opportunity, regardless of the outcome, as your own curriculum that you have designed. Your class is now in session!
This might seem a bit “wishy-washy”, but visualisation works. Olympic athletes, professional actors, performers, and many c-suite executives are taught visualisation techniques to help them prepare for competitions and important events. Find time before your “exposure event” to quietly visualise yourself being confident and successful. Pay close attention to the details of your words and actions.
Like any skill, practice makes perfect. Presenting to others once per month is unlikely to be helpful. You may need to proactively manufacture situations to allow you to implement your exposure therapy plan on a weekly basis. Are there external organisations like Toastmasters that might be able to help you? Can you ask to present at your regular team meetings for 5 minutes? Are there formal courses that will provide you with new skills, knowledge, and opportunities to practice?
Acknowledging the Limits of Self-Administered Exposure Therapy
Is important for me to note that while self-administered exposure therapy can be beneficial for many, there are limitations, especially for individuals grappling with profound psychological fears, resulting from phobia, deep-seated anxiety, or past trauma. Persistent anxiety or panic responses are a likely sign that professional help is needed for a more comprehensive and tailored approach to address these deeper anxieties and phobias effectively. Self-administered exposure lacks the guidance and expertise of a trained professional who can tailor the exposure process, provide appropriate support, and navigate potential emotional hurdles. Seeking support from a trained therapist, coach or counselor can make a significant difference in addressing and managing these profound fears.
By leveraging these simple exposure therapy techniques, you can effectively develop any skill where fear or anxiety may have held you back. The journey to self-mastery involves consistent, planned exposure to the feared activity, complemented by the supportive practices listed here and a growth-oriented mindset. As you engage in deliberate, focused practice in areas where you have feared to tread, the gradual reduction of anxiety and increased competence becomes not just achievable but self-affirming which will positively impact you in many other ways as you learn to master your fears.