Holding your nerve when facing a challenge takes practice

By Aine O’Neill, Toastmasters International

Have you ever had a moment when your talents and true inner potential shot to the fore? Where your ability defied all your preconceptions, and you surprised the people around you and even yourself?

There have been a few moments like this for me, when I stunned my boss, colleagues and teachers with what I achieved.

In secondary school. I landed a big part in the school play just one day before it was due to be showcased to the entire school (a cast member had to pull out unexpectedly). At that point I didn’t know any of the lines and would have to sing solo. I don’t know how but somehow I managed to pull it off.

It was a surprise to my teachers that someone they regarded as shy and timid could do this. It happened again, years later, when I landed on solid ground following a paraglide in the Austrian Alps. And again, when I came from behind to win a karaoke competition at work.

And each time the people around me said the exact same thing:
“I didn’t know you had it in you!”

What struck me is that I did know. The challenge had reached inside and pulled my ability out for all the world to see. But their genuine surprise got me thinking that so many of us could go through life without showing our inner talents simply because we either haven’t had the chance to shine through or weren’t brave enough to reveal them to the world.

But why hadn’t others seen this side of me before?

Reputation is perception-based and is grounded in social interaction. When judging others, we ask ourselves if they fit our version of normality – do they speak, act, dress and behave as we think they should? We make a split-second decision and categorise them accordingly. We can end up mirroring each other’s judgements, reflecting them back on each other. Our version of ourselves is made up of a mix of who we think we are and who others think we are (or who we think they think we are!). This can lead to us limiting what we put out into the world.

To have any chance at changing this perception and tapping into our inner potential we need two things: opportunity and bravery.

When opportunities present themselves unexpectantly, we may be caught on the hop or feel unprepared to take them on. The moment could pass by, leaving us with feelings of regret and frustration that we didn’t have the courage to go for it.

And the big obstacle most people face when deciding to take up an opportunity is self-doubt. How can you overcome this and allow your true potential to come to the fore? The solution lies in garnering inner strength so that you do take the plunge. And this means understanding the emotional pathway of seizing an opportunity.

When an opportunity strikes, hope and enthusiasm will be the your first emotional response. Self-doubt, however, is never far behind, stifling any courage that was beginning to surface. You need to hold your nerve until you find your equilibrium and confidence. Like the first flight of a fledgling bird that musters the strength to take off, only to dip sharply when they do… after a short time they learn to glide and eventually can begin to soar.

The following steps may help ease how daunting the whole experience can be and prevent us from shying away from potential opportunities;

Visualise a successful outcome of an opportunity in your life that you’ve perhaps been hiding from. Think of the benefits that this event or project will lead to. How will your self-perception change? How will your self-image improve as a result?

Ask yourself if it is fear of failure or success that is really playing on your mind. Are you comfortable in your self-image no matter how limiting it may be?

Be brave enough to at least give the opportunity a go. You are bound to learn something even if it doesn’t turn out quite as planned. You’ll feel better for trying, and others will admire you for your courage.

Keep a notebook of how you are feeling during the initial period of a new role or challenge. You will notice the pattern described above; enthusiasm, followed by the emergence of self-doubt and unease, gradually giving way to a more positive and steady experience. Use these notes as a reminder to stay positive when taking on future opportunities.

Look to someone you admire in the public eye. Think of any possible struggles they may have had. Read/watch/listen to interviews or read their blog or autobiography if one exists, and learn from their experiences and how they overcame challenges.

Learn from yourself. Build on any positive experiences you have had in the past, no matter how small. Write down how you mastered those tasks. List any struggles you had along the way and how you overcame them.

Start small when building confidence. You don’t have to set up a new company or take on the world to begin with. Volunteering at a charity or local event such as parkrun can help garner inner strength in a low-risk environment where you will get support and encouragement.

If you feel as though you have taken on a mountain, break your challenge down into smaller chunks and work on them, step by step.

Aine O’Neill is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit

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