I normally start to count under my breath. Really fast. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. I guess it’s some sort of control thing. Then my stomach will cramp up. I’ll dig my nails into my palms. I’ll avoid all eye contact. When I stop counting, I’ll clench my teeth and roll up my tongue. It’s as if my whole body is saying, “Nope, not today!”. Sometimes, the night before, they’ll be classic anxiety dreams; I’m late, I’m driving except I don’t know how to drive, I’ve forgotten what I’m meant to be saying in front of a sea of people.
This is what happens when I’m nervous; nervous before a big interview, nervous before a speaking engagement, nervous before an important or difficult meeting.
I always thought nerves would evaporate with experience. I thought nerves were about the unknown – that they signified you were entering a territory you couldn’t plan for. I thought nerves were something you had when you didn’t know if you could actually do something. Like my friend, a journalist, who’s first ever celebrity interview to camera was none other than Ryan Gosling (Ryan Gosling!) and she drank a whole bottle of Rescue Remedy out of sheer terror. Nerves are for the uninitiated with an audience. People – and sometimes really handsome people – will watch you as you wobble about on Bambi legs.
I apologise for sounding like an Instagram meme at this point, but truly, you need to feel fear to feel like you're actually doing something
But I’m doing things I’ve done numerous times before and I still get nervous. I’m still counting in a really strange way, which I think is louder than I realise. I’m still having the bat-shit dreams. (In my most recent dream, I was late to Hay Festival because I was eating a Kit Kat. A spectacular dream where anxiety meets food guilt meets body-loathing issues). I still go oddly silent and try and slide out of sight, down my own throat, if only it was possible. I still feel like Bambi, legs in all different directions, but as the years go on, I just have further to fall. I still open my mouth and have little control of what does or does not come out. Words fall out in a chaotic fashion, like a child tipping up a box of Lego, they're heavy, clumpy, clashing against each other.
And then I’m fine. Once I’m in the middle of it all, once I’ve figured out what is what, had a good look around, found my stride, my rhythm, the nerves completely evaporate. Like freak weather: one moment’s there’s a hail storm of my anxiety and the next the sun is out and all is calm. And then I wonder why I was so nervous. Until the next time.
So why am I nervous about doing something that I know how to do, if nerves are about the unknown? Well, because I’ve learned that nerves aren’t about the unknown, they are about failure. They are the physical manifestation of the voice that says: “I can’t do this. I’m going to humiliate myself. I’m not smart enough” and they are much louder than rational, memory or reason that might tell you otherwise.
But after being nervous so many times, I’m starting to learn that nerves aren’t my enemy but actually the sign that something is going right. Because if I’m nervous, it’s because I care, and if I care then I think what I’m doing, in some tiny way, matters. And not only that, I’m being challenged – pushed way out of my comfort zone and into another space that makes me better in some way. Now, for me, nerves are about caring and learning and trying to get better at something.
And suddenly, they are not a voice of self-doubt, but one of encouragement. They are like a physical pep talk: “Right, this is it! showtime!” they seem to tingle through me. I’ve still got to practise speaking coherently in moments of great nerves (and perhaps stop the counting), and there’s not much I can do about the dreams, but remembering the feeling of my body shutting down is actually a flag that I’m doing something exciting and challenging and meaningful might make the nail-digging, teeth-clenching, breath-holding more bearable.
And then you do the thing that has been making you nervous. And then it’s over. And you’ve tried something new or you got better at asking tricker questions or you said the thing that’s been on your mind, and you feel incredible. Revitalised, relieved and full of confidence. But you can only feel that way because you felt nervous; because you recognised the stakes and were in awe of them. I apologise for sounding like an Instagram meme at this point, but truly, you need to feel fear to feel like you're actually doing something.
So the next time you feel nervous, feel grateful. Something amazing might be about to happen.