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John Hodgman spoke recently about how Stephen Colbert overcame embarrassment by doing embarrassing things in public, until it no longer bothered him.

This makes perfect sense.

Whether he’s bobsledding in skintight Spandex, or telling George Bush to his face what a douche he is, Colbert’s commitment to character is unflinching.

But for some people, fear of embarrassment can be debilitating.

Katagelophobia, Anyone?

Katagelophobia is the fear of embarrassment, ridicule, or (ironically for comedians) of being laughed at.

I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s anxiety-ridden past. For years he suffered from daily panic attacks, cold sweats, vomiting, eczema, coughing, diarrhea…you name it. Finally in desperation, we went to a shrink.

The therapist, it turned out, had problems of his own. But he said two things that completely changed Cameron’s life – and mine, too.

First, he suggested Cameron take up improv. And second, he said that most anxiety comes from a fear of embarrassment.

We left the therapist after only a few sessions, but Cameron enrolled at Second City. And he did something else that helped him, in improv and in life: he started doing “embarrassing” things, like purposely tripping and stumbling in front of strangers.

At first he would blush and get cold sweats. But he kept on doing it, day after day, until he actually looked for excuses to do silly things in public.

Today he’s so happy, calm and confident that people who didn’t know the “old” Cameron are flabbergasted to learn he wasn’t born fearless.

Disapproval Starts With You

Fear of embarrassment often comes from wanting approval. (“I hope I don’t fuck up on stage tonight. I’ll never be able to show my face again!”)

I’ve seen wanting approval cripple a lot of funny people, especially at festivals, where they put extra pressure on themselves to be brilliant.

Worrying about what your audience thinks is a surefire way to get in your head. When you worry, you judge, and it’s a fast trip to Suckville from there.

Richard Burton used to stand backstage before performances and whisper, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” to the audience. If you can let go on needing approval, you’ll have a much better show. And a helluva lot more fun.

Some people say anxiety before a performance is good, even necessary. I say bullshit. I’ve done plenty of crappy shows where I was nervous beforehand, and just as many good ones where I wasn’t.

It’s natural for some adrenaline to kick in before going on stage, but if having your girlfriend in the audience makes you jittery, click here for some exercises that can help.

Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously

One of my favourite sketches of all time is the Ministry of Silly Walks. It’s so quintessentially British. And yet as John Cleese said, “The aim of any good English gentleman is to get safely to his grave without ever having been embarrassed.”

To err is human. And life’s too short to worry what other people think. Chances are, they’re busy worrying what you think of them.

So if anxiety about making the wrong move, or even just looking stupid in public is holding you back, try looking stupid on purpose. It works.

To hear Hodgman talk about Colbert, click here.

Photo © Laura Dickinson Turner / Second City

Photo © Laura Dickinson Turner / Second City

Colbert kissing David Razowsky while Steve Carell watches at Second City’s 50th anniversary.

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  1. Louis-Phil #
    March 31, 2013

    Will this work for me if I suffer from mild social anxiety?

    • March 31, 2013

      Hi Louis-Phil,

      Cameron was diagnosed with “generalised anxiety disorder,” which became worse over the first seven years of our relationship.

      Two things helped him overcome it: 1. Doing improv, and 2. practicising The Sedona Method, which is a very simple way of letting go of anxiety that you can do anywhere, anytime.

      “Doing embarrassing things on purpose” also helped.

      I can only tell you what worked for him, but I’d say try one, two, or all three approaches. You can read more about Sedona and ways to deal with anxiety in this post: https://peopleandchairs.com/2012/08/05/performance-anxiety-how-to-dissolve-pre-show-nerves/

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