You’re Brave, Mel: 5 Tips For Overcoming Fear That I Learned The Hard Way

5 Tips For Overcoming Fear - Lil Miss Mel applying lipstick

If you’ve ever pulled out of an opportunity due to fear, this article might give you confidence to push on next time. It captures five ways I’ve dealt with fear in my journey on stage, sometimes through naivety, sometimes by accident, and maybe deliberately.

“You’re brave, Mel.”

I heard this so often as I planned my first solo Cabaret show, I wondered if I should perhaps be more worried.

It lead me to wonder – What does it mean to be brave? Why did people think I was brave? And was I actually brave, or just incredibly naive? Or stubborn?

It’s true that, in my life, I have tended to say, ‘that looks like fun, I’d really like to try that’, without really considering what’s involved.

Lessons from stand up comedy

During my first experiences doing stand-up comedy, I launched myself into the space without really thinking it through. I didn’t think about the fact that on a great night, with a generous audience, getting up there with the intent of making people laugh – and succeeding –  can leave you feeling on top of the world.

On a bad night however, as I soon discovered, when you don’t quite nail it, and your jokes fall flat, and you haven’t yet learned the craft of comedy, of knowing how to ‘recover’ from a dud gag, or find your level of comfort in the discomfort – you can absolutely die a thousand deaths, in front of many, yet oh so alone.

I didn’t even worry about these possibilities, because I just hadn’t thought about it. People had often said to me ‘you’re funny Mel,’ so I believed I was, and, I just jumped in.

Was that brave? Or was I just incredibly naïve?

Likewise, people called me ‘brave’ due to the fact that, once I had completed my law degree – a good 5 years spent prostrate to the higher education gods – I bid farewell to the hallowed halls, took my knowledge of largely useless Latin phrases, and enormous HECS debt, and went off in search of other areas of work where I felt that I could do more good in the world.

Part way through my degree, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I was not cut out to be a lawyer. I stuck it out, dragged myself across the finish line, and then, I turned my back on “all that money” as others marveled at, frequently, and wandered in the vocational wilderness until my true calling became clear.

Was that brave? Or was I just ridiculously idealistic? Stupidly privileged? Ungrateful, even?

What does it really mean to be brave?

Does it mean doing things others would do, but are too afraid to do? Does it mean persevering  with a bad idea, to the very end?

Does it mean fighting on, even when the battle is clearly lost, for just cause?

Or does it mean risking things others would not risk? Because surely that starts to lean towards stupid…?

When I googled it, as one does these days, I found Brave (Adj) ready to face and endure danger or pain.

Nope. That’s not it. I wasn’t likely to find mortal peril in transferring my career options from a legal path to the community services. I might not be wildly wealthy as a Youth Worker but that was never my aim. So that didn’t really answer my question.

Other synonyms included Dare-devil, which made me laugh, since I get nervous in elevators. Similarly,  Intrepid – for me, that synonym only applies to describe megoing into my 9 year old’s room without slippers, knowing full well the floor Lego that lurks within.

Fearless? Hardly. I often feel immense fear before performing. In fact, the worst case of stage fright I have ever experienced was the few endless minutes backstage before I stepped out from the wings to premiere Crowded Blouse. I was not entirely sure whether I would actually make it onto the stage, such was the enormity of the panic, fear and utter dread. I wondered if I would remain, seated on the stairs backstage, cradling my scotch, until I was forcibly removed.

Where does ‘Fear’ become ‘Bravery’?

One of my favorite singer/songwriters is Megan Washington, an Australian Indie songstress who can name 3 studio albums, and a swag of awards including 3 Arias and worldwide recognition, among her many accomplishments.

She also has a pronounced terror of public speaking, because she stutters. Painfully. In her TED talk ‘The Thing Is, I Stutter’, ahe divulges the mortal dread in which she lives at the idea of speaking on stage.

I once heard her on Triple J explain that, on the precipice of some of the most rewarding and enriching things she has done, she has felt immense fear.

And I related.

When does fear become bravery? I think for me, it simply comes down to a simple question; what lies on the other side of this fear, and how badly do I want it?

I was afraid, once I realized stand-up comedy was oh-so-much-harder than it looks, that I didn’t have what it takes. But I was more afraid of trying to deny that deep drive I have to use laughter to heal. I was more scared, if you will, of how living with that unexpressed, unfulfilled need would feel, than the temporary embarrassment of a dud gig.

I was certainly afraid of ‘starting all over again’ after my degree, going back to the beginning in a new career path. But I was MORE afraid of the feeling of not using my life in a way that I could be proud of. There are people within law who fight the good fight and I admire them. But it wasn’t my path, and I did not want to live with the feeling I was being untrue to myself. I was more afraid of that.

So is that it? You just substitute your biggest fear for your ‘least biggest fear’? Maybe. Maybe bravery just lies in the simple doing – of feeling that fear, and doing it anyway.

My 5 Tips For Overcoming Fear

In the end, I look at what I’m risking compared to what I could gain. The gains for me are never material but always in the realm of emotional and, dare I say it – spiritual – fulfilment.

Am I brave? I don’t know. Am I fearful? Yes, often. So, if you’re reading this and looking for courage, I will end this with 5 things that work to help muster my courage when it is flagging, in the sincere hope that it helps you to do whatever it is you may be afraid to do.

  1. Affirm. I personally cannot go past a good, solid affirmation. It commands your subconscious. As I stood trembling in the wings, my accompanist (the fabulous Deborah Brennan) was empathic, and related to me her own similar experience at Edinburgh Fringe where her guitarist turned to her and said “We ARE doing this.” Sometimes, simply taking charge and affirming  – I AM a performer, This is what I do, This IS going to be FUN – gives you focus. Try it.
  2. Visualise. Actively imagine yourself doing the thing – talking to your boss, booking that adventure, taking the plunge – with a positive outcome. Again, this can really mobilise your internal cheer squad and get those butterflies lined up and flying in formation.
  3. Ask yourself the tough questions. For example, ‘how will I feel if I don’t do this?’ For me, always, the response is an almost volcanic reaction, that propels me toward to ‘I have to do this!’ Ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen? And then really think about what you would do in the face of that. You’ll be surprised how resourceful you can be!
  4. Defeat fear with love. Instead of listening to the fear loop that may be playing 24/7 in your head, take a moment to ask ‘how can I use love in this situation’? Can I imagine that I am sending out and receiving love during my performance? Can I use my love of the subject matter to write this damn essay/novel/blog, instead of telling myself I can’t do it? Fear trumps love. Always.
  5. Listen to what your cheer squad tell you. Like many of us, I am really gifted in discounting the positive. “They’re only saying that because (insert discounting reason here.” Or “Yes, I did it but I didn’t do as well as I could have”, and my personal go-to: “I messed up that bit” which in my mind equates to “the whole thing was rubbish”.

When my cheer squad tells me “you’re brave Mel”, instead of discounting it – or even worse, looking for a negative connotation, next time I’m going to take my own advice, and listen, and choose to believe it, and affirm it to my subconscious. “I’m Brave” and then keep setting out to prove myself and my cheer squad right.

Photo credit: Alice Healy

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