Anxiety in Speaking in Sacrament Meeting
Years ago, in preparing for a Young Women “Values” themed sacrament meeting, I mentioned to a member of the Young Women presidency that I was not sure what to speak about. “It doesn’t really matter,” she assured me. You know what the value is that you’ve been assigned to present, so just tell us a story about it. You’ll do great anyway. We start children giving talks in primary, so by the time you are a (14 year old) Mia Maid, you’ve been speaking in public for a decade! This is why Mormons are great public speakers. You’ll do fine!”
At the time, her words did calm me. I thought, “I can do this! I’ve been giving talks for 10 years!” I had not been afraid of giving speeches on the debate team or in English class, and as a rule, wasn’t nervous but for that last burst of excited anticipation that strikes me just before the words came out. But church talks were and are different. To be clear, I could do them. But they made me more nervous than addressing almost every other kind of audience.
As the years passed, and even to this day, when I speak in public- (the thing that is listed as the greatest fear, even over death) I remind myself that I can do this because “I learned to not be afraid of speaking when I was in primary.” I’ve presented at conferences and meetings and even been disappointed at the smallness of the audience upon occasion; I am a good public speaker and I know it. But. When church speaking assignments came…. the butterflies and anxiety started. I became cranky and argue with my family. I fret and fast and pray for calm. No matter the topic, no matter how well I know it or how many hours I spent in preparation, I became anxiety-ridden. So why is that?
As a Young Woman, I felt confident and good in that “Values” sacrament meeting and the handful of other Sacrament Meetings where I was asked to speak. I did the research and prayed. I felt good about my topic and how it applied to those in the meeting. I knew I was ready to speak and I did it well. I was confident enough that I even spoke without telling my parents that I was among the sacrament meeting speakers. But that started to melt away when I was a YSA. But as the years passed, things seemed to change….I can recall small words of gentle correction from a bishop when I went slightly under time in a sacrament meeting talk. I recall another YSA sister who said that a talk I gave was so filled with the spirit for her, and another who asked for a copy of my talk because it meant so much to her, but my male leaders said nothing. I supposed it was just their personality, but was hurt when I was later laughingly told that a consolation for any talk is that the bishop “always thanks everyone” after they speak… everyone, it seemed, but me.
But then there was the meeting that I started in Spanish. I am not a Spanish speaker, but had a friend from Spain staying with me. Because we had a number of Spanish speaking YSAs in the ward, my friend taught me, and I began the meeting by welcoming everyone and introducing my topic in Spanish. The native Spanish speakers thanked me with grins as wide far and wide as the horizon on a clear and sunny day. But a week afterwards, I was privately, but sternly corrected b y a member of the bishopric for this horrific faux pas.
As a newlywed in a new country and a new ward, I gave a talk that I felt good about. Two women thanked me afterward and I felt happy. But my husband felt inspired to remind me of an analogy I had made that he didn’t think was very good: in this, I felt highly critiqued and hurt. I gave another talk a while later, and a woman said that it made a great discussion in her home with her husband, thanking me for the talk. But again, my husband pointed out what he felt were mistakes.
I gave another talk years later, one that inspired a visiting member of the Stake Relief Society to give the same talk again in a Stake Relief Society meeting. Interestingly, neither my husband nor my bishop critiqued. Surprised by this, I asked, and my husband mused that the bishop probably zoned out. At the later Stake Relief Society meeting, a member of the stake presidency asked for a copy of my talk so he could verify sources my resources. I immediately acquiesced, as a grad school habit of including references in all speaking assignments resides with me. But heard nothing from him again. A dozen other women asked for copies of the talk, which I also sent to them, and they thanked me profusely.
As the years have gone on, my anxiety of speaking in public has remained the same, but my anxiety about speaking in church has increased exponentially. In time, it seemed like my husband felt directed to increase his critiquing of my church speeches, partnered with the idea that random male members of the church would occasionally feel inspired to also critique me and my talks…the critiques were small and digging, but increased. Finally, a few years ago, after one particular talk that my husband hated, I decided to never speak in church again. He “corrected” me about something he thought I implied, but to me my speech was absent of the implication he had such an issue with. His correction was quick and felt spiteful, and was loud enough that the Relief Society president contacted me after to see if I was okay. I wasn’t. That dig and the thousand others after church talks– the nips and glaring teeth that greeted me after speaking at church– a place where I was trying to do my very best and what the spirit directed — well, that last experience triggered suicidal thoughts. I called a helpline, and in the end, decided to never speak at church again in order to avoid the triggering experience. I had had enough.
It’s been a few years since that time now, and I am still sacrament-talk free. University lectures? No worries, I can give ‘um with panache. Do a radio interview? Sure! Exciting! Speak in a community meeting or in front of all the parents, students and teachers at my child’s school? No worries. But church? I feel a little nauseous even as I type because the idea is so very repulsive. Just thinking about speaking at church in front of my husband, a branch president or bishop, or any male church member…. and my eyes blur from spinning anxiety (not tears), and I become almost uncontrollably frightened. It is ironic that quite possibly the organization that led me to become a good public speaker is also the place where I have felt most attacked, and therefore, am most terrified of speaking.
Am I alone? Because I am not sure the men I know can see that in my experience, they “correct” me and other women so much more than they do male speakers. I cannot imagine most of these men cornering superiors or co-workers after board meetings, union speeches staff meetings and critiquing them in the workplace. I also have grown to believe that male speakers are tolerated no matter how odd the doctrine whereas female speakers are cornered and “corrected” sometimes even in minuscule detail. My husband has mused that because I appear confident in speaking, my manner might make Mormon men feel compelled to knock me down privately in ways that hurt. Compared to the women who stumble nervously through their talks, and are treated with kindness and patience. But when I point to him that he has been the source of some of my anxiety, he says I am being too sensitive. He says I “can take it,” that the “nervous Nellies” can’t, and besides, that’s “just the way” he is.
I don’t know. And I don’t know why I detest and fear speaking at church so much more than any other speaking assignment I am given. All I do know is that speaking in public does not come with the personal criticism or back-alley digs that church speaking does for me. So for now, for me, church speaking is off limits.