Anxiety, Facilitation, Imposter Syndrome, Practitioner, Thought


August 30, 2020

The Facilitator’s Nightmare

Participants are entering the room, there’s murmuring and chatting as people settle into the space. Newcomers arrive and they greet each other with hugs and sit down. The atmosphere is warm and friendly and I’m settling myself into the space, notebook by my side. It’s a large session, about twenty participants. I have a busy mind. I want to make sure I remember how I’m going to introduce the session. I want to be clear. I’m worried I wont be clear. We’re going to talk about how practitioners feel about beginnings and endings in the work that they are doing with vulnerable communities. We’re going to use Nancy Kline’s thinking environment as a structure. I need to ensure I set up the structure of the session carefully so everyone’s clear how things will work.

I’m about to facilitate a workshop for freelancers who work for a small mental health charity. These freelancers work in a range of settings with vulnerable children and young people – in hospitals, with asylum and refugees, and in pupil referral units. The work can be challenging and the organisation is concerned to support the mental health wellbeing of its employees, mainly freelancers. 

I start to speak but then I freeze

The session is introduced by the manager who then hands over to me. I start to speak but my brain has gone into freeze. I feel the urge to look at my notes. I look down, the notes are a blur. There’s silence as people wait. Im thinking ‘everyone is looking at me, looking at my notes … I can’t remember what to say’. I start speaking but I’m not clear. I hesitate. I stumble over words. I experience a rush of panic. My thoughts are jumbled. I feel hot and sweaty. I look across the room. Everyone is still looking, waiting. I push through trying to ignore my thinking ‘whats happening to me? … Im not being clear at all … Oh no this is a complete disaster’. Imposter syndrome now has a firm hold ‘Why do I put myself into these situations? … I’m not cut-out for group work … maybe I should just work one-to-one, or perhap over skype … yep that feels safer’

Feelings of shame flood through my body

Feelings of shame flood through my body along with more thinking, like, ‘I’ve ruined the session and no-one will hire me again’. I start to imagine other people’s pity for me.

However despite feeling hijacked I get the words out. I explain the session and the focus, and set the first task – a pairs listening exercise. In that moment I’m feeling really unhappy with the way I have set this up. I feel ill at ease and the feeling of presence and connection I love to feel when facilitating seems absent. I feel clinical, going through the moments and i’m thinking “this is not how I want to be in the space at all”.

Setting the task, with the attention away from me as participants are now deeply focused on each other, buys me some time to breathe. I take some deep breaths. I wonder, what on earth happened then? I breathe. I feel cold and shivery now. I breathe in and out, in and out. Ok I’m getting a grip. I’m coming back to reality. I know this will pass.

People are animated, getting on with the task.

I focus on my senses – what can I see around me?  People animated getting on with the task and not talking about me. What can I hear? People murmuring. A distant outside noise. What can I feel? I feel my feet on the floor, grounding me, I put my hands on my knees and feel my hands press into the fabric of my trousers.  What can I taste? Nothing except my own saliva. I notice I feel calmer. 

So whats next? My brain is in action now. I think through how I need to segue way this exercise into the next part of the workshop. My professional mode has kicked in. Task over. I bring everyone back to the circle, ask questions and elicit some feedback: “How was it for you?” “How did it feel being listened to so deeply?”  “Did some of you feel like you had to speak and a little bit under pressure?”

There are nods and affirmations and thoughtful responses to my questions. We’re connecting. I’ve shown the group that I ‘see’ them and understand them, and I can see they recognise me for this. I relax. The group and I are connecting. Im in my flow now. This is why I like doing this work.

These are interesting people fully engaged, listening and respectful

These are interesting people fully engaged with the topic. They are listening, they’re respectful; they are open and honestly reflecting, appreciating the opportunity. I continue. “The circle allows us to slow everything down, to breathe, and to think. So pausing, and taking time is good. That way we can access our best thinking – our insights and our wisdom”. I think ‘oh how ironic’. I wonder to myself, ‘should I share something about what I’ve just experienced to illustrate the point? No. Not now, I’m still a little wobbled, it wouldn’t be useful learning just yet.’ I continue “So this is how this the circle will work … “

The workshop that follows after this feels beautiful – facilitators sharing openly and honestly their experiences and feelings about beginnings and endings.  We finish with a round where everyone shares an insight they’ve had, either had for themselves, or one that they had heard from another member. Such wonderful insights and generosity. I feel satisfied and complete. The process and group learning has been meaningful and helpful for their practice as facilitators. 

So what happened?

I expect it’s obvious, but in first few minutes of the workshop, which seemed to last for hours, I was having a panic attack. In other words, I experienced a hijacking of my nervous system triggering a version of the flight, fight, freeze response (in my case I felt I had gone into freeze). In the moment of this happening I found it difficult to form words and to think clearly. I felt physically flooded with bodily sensations, churning, cold and hot washing over me and a perceived difficulty in forming thoughts.

The knock-on effect was a series of negative and critical thoughts that latched onto this physical experience. This then set up a chain reaction of further thoughts and feelings of shame and self-blame. But the moment I took a second to pause and take a breath I realised really quickly, what was happening. I realised that for, a moment (and it was a brief moment), I had metaphorically left the room, and I had got caught up in my own thought-generated anxiety bubble. In other words, I’d got caught up in my egoic self. When I realised this, I knew I needed to get back in the room, to get present – I needed to connect with the people I was with.

What do you do when you have a panic attack in front of lots of people?

I know now, what I didn’t know for many years of experiencing anxiety, that there’s no point trying to stop anxiety whether its anxious thinking or a full blown panic attack. Trying to manage one’s way out of an experience like this can make things a whole lot worse. I’ve learned, for a while now, to sit with these uncomfortable feelings. I know that, if I lean into feelings of anxiety and panic and let them flow through me, they dissipate. Nowadays I’m less scared of this physical experience but occasionally I can still get hijacked by thoughts that spiral from a physical feeling. But I know now that this is my brain attempting, rather randomly, to assign meaning to my experience.  

In this example, becoming aware that I’d stepped on a train of thinking was the first step towards me realising that I had a choice to step off it.

Previously, I would have let moments like this affect me for days, I would let thoughts upon thoughts gather, eat into me, criticise and undermine me. And I’d have let them affect my self belief about who I am and my capability to do what I do.

I am not anxiety & I do not ‘have’ anxiety

We are used to wearing anxiety like a badge, a label that identifies who we are. Like the phrase, I am an anxious person, I realise now that I’m not an anxious person. Anxiety is not ‘me.’ I do experience anxious feelings from time to time, and I also experience joy, calm, anger, frustration and the whole spectrum of emotions but that is not who I am. 

I don’t need to fix myself because I am not broken

When we try to fix ourselves we are subtly saying that we are broken; that there is something wrong with us. I believe that many of us secretly harbouring beliefs that we are a little bit broken, lacking, or deficit in various ways. The self-help and personal development culture colludes with this along with the propensity for labelling ourselves.

Returning to the situation – when I realised that I’d allowed myself to get hijacked by my thinking I dismissed it and got to work. Connecting with participants was the thing that got me straight into the here-and-now, and from that point on I got busy serving them. The question about whether I was competent or capable became irrelevant. This wasn’t about me.

I also felt joy, curiosity, warmth and generosity.

Slowing down and pausing for a moment enabled me to realise what was happening. I could then reconnect with my breath and come into the ‘now’. When I slowed down and connected with what was happening in my body I was also allowing my wisdom to know what to do next. How ironic, that I was teaching this very same idea in the room!

So, I’m learning nowadays that I don’t need to analyse and worry about every experience I have. I know that in this workshop, as well as a brief moment of anxiety and stress, I also felt joy, curiosity, intrigue, warmth, generosity and connection.

If we unduly focus on the moments of anxiety and stress we run the risk of missing the full spectrum of the human experience including more pleasurable, joyful experiences. In fact looking back at this, its actually quite funny to me now that I (nearly) let one or two minutes of a session define my experience.

Im passionate about helping heart-centred practitioners understand their human experience

So, I’m wondering, how often do you focus on the experiences you are uncomfortable with and ignore the full spectrum of other experiences you had such as the times where you had clarity, felt competent, and peaceful?  How aware are you of the full range of emotions you can you feel – in a day, an hour, even a minute?

Writing this blog felt vulnerable but I wrote it because I’m passionate about helping heart-centred practitioners who often work in challenging settings. Practitioners often don’t talk about the insecure thinking they are having when they are facilitating. Instead they isolate themselves and dwell on anxious thoughts in private, often after the event, which, in my view, can be detrimental. In my experience, freedom comes from accepting that thoughts and feelings exist but knowing they are not offering any particular truth about who we are. You are not broken or damaged. We each experience insecure thinking from time to time. Coming into connection with others, whether thats coming into the now, serving others, or gaining support through collective reflection, can help us find peace of mind.

If you would like to find out about the work of Thriving Facilitators then i’d love to talk to you. You can contact me here.

About the author 

Sheila Preston

I am Dr Sheila Preston, a transformative practitioner with over 23 years’ experience in education, community settings. I have trained and supported hundreds of socially engaged artists and practitioners. Now I help brilliantly courageous practitioners who are working with communities who are experiencing difficulties in their lives and/or who work in challenging settings* These practitioners are committed to working in a heart-centred, relational way with vulnerable or hard to reach communities. I help these amazing practitioners get out of survival mode and THRIVE so they can lean into their heart-centred practice, and lead social change without burning out! I am committed to finding affordable solutions for on-going coaching or support for practitioners which is why I developed the Thriving Facilitators Membership. *settings such as, prison and probation, schools and universities, pupil referral, day centres, SEN settings, mental health, health care, social services, neighbourhoods.

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