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Drowning in a Sea of Faces

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

by Tom Broxham (As seen in the May issue of the APeeling Digital Magazine)

Walking into a room full of people can be quite intimidating. Every time I walk into a room full of strangers my heart starts racing. For me, the waves of panic feel like the water is coming over my head. This is a feeling I know quite well as I have drowned before. Since the day I drowned I had three other times I was nearly taken by the water.

I drowned when I was three and although I don’t remember it, I do remember the other three near drowning experiences including one a year ago. I remember these experiences every time I enter the water. I was nearly drowned, by my bullies at the age of eight and nearly drowned again at the age of 13. After a second near drowning experience at the age of 13, I didn’t go in the water much anymore.

In my late 20’s I started travelling. After travelling for years and missing out on opportunities I decided to take swimming lessons when I was 33. The first time I took lessons I thought I was going to drown in a pool three feet deep. Walking down towards the pool I was nervous my heart was racing, and my breathing was heavy. I was convinced that the water would take me. We were told we needed to submerge ourselves. After hearing this my heart really started racing. I was standing in the pool trying to build up the nerve.

As I stood there, I slowly built up the courage and my heart starts to beat faster and faster, I am dealing with waves of panic hitting me. I am trying to fight all the emotions in my body and my mind is telling me to run but something deep down inside of me is fighting to break out. There is a part of me telling me it is going to be ok and it gets stronger and stronger inside of me. My breath starts to settle, and my heart slows down and then I take one final breath before submerging into water. When I finally submerged myself and came back up it felt like an eternity, but I was ok. After a few weeks of lessons, I was getting more comfortable in the water and was able to accomplish more than I ever thought possible.

While not a great swimmer I am now at least comfortable in the water, and that was a massive accomplishment. A few years later as I stand in the water with a snorkel on my face and I am nervous. I stand there thinking and waiting to catch the right breath. I then go and submerge and start to swim with every movement and every breath I settle down. It is in these moments I remember to breathe and remember this is the only thing I can focus on. All there is in these moments are a brand-new world of discovery. As I swim, I see a world of colourful fish, sea cucumbers and corals beneath me it is like nothing else exists in the world. All the years of being scared have disappeared. The fear has gone, and I realize I can do anything. The next time I step into the water it gets easier but every time I must fight with the emotions inside of me. Every time I just need to take that one breath.

It takes a lot of hard work to get over a fear. You must want to do it. You need to learn to breathe and push yourself through it. You must start small and learn to ask for help. Over time you might not need as much help, but you understand there is nothing wrong with asking for it. I needed to do this myself, just last year in Thailand. I was swimming and a wave of panic overtook me. I could not find that breath. I needed help, and help came to me by my wife. She took my hand, helped to keep me afloat and reminded me that all I needed to do was breathe, breathe and swim back to the shore. We swam together back to the shore, where I sat on the beach, trying to catch that breath and within a few minutes I found my strength and went back out there.

When I went back into the water there was no fear just one breath and one movement at a time. When it comes to the fear of networking while you have a little chance of dying it is remarkably similar in overcoming a fear of drowning. For me just before I enter a room full of strangers, I have a hard time. For me, this room full of strangers is like being at the edge of the pool fighting the same emotions. It is like I am drowning in a sea full of strange faces. I look around the room for the edge of the pool for my lifeline. For me, the edge of the pool is people I know. As I walk around the room, I am just trying to catch that right breath. I am looking around for an opening. There I see it that familiar face. My connection then introduces me to the people they are there with. Now that I have caught my breath, I am slowing my breathing and the fear slips away as I begin to talk to the new friends I am making. Afterwards as I get more confidence, I look for a new opening and go deeper within the room just like I would with swimming by getting further in the pool away from my safety net. For me this is what it means to network in large rooms. While this is not as terrifying as learning to swim after drowning a lot of the same skills are there and the lessons are the same.

When you learn to swim you start with the basics. You start in the shallow waters and learn the skills needed to stay afloat. How does that relate to networking? This is the same as networking with your friends and people close to you. Maybe this is as far in the pool as you get and there is nothing wrong with that. For me, I want to venture a little further into the depths of the pool. Once you are comfortable talking to your friends about what you are networking for you can take that and talk to new people. With swimming it is one breath and one movement at a time and with networking it is one breath and connection at a time.

One of the challenges is people see how others network and think that is how they should be networking. The reality is you need to network how you are most comfortable. I might not be comfortable in the middle of the ocean, but I am comfortable off the beach. You might not be comfortable in a room of 300 people, but you are in a café with one other connection. You can learn new skills that can help you. I swim with people I trust who can help me and you can find people to help you with your networking. A lot of networking I do is one on one, I go where I know someone can introduce connections for me or it is with one of my hobbies such as hiking or public speaking at Toastmasters.

Much like getting over my fear of water, with networking or any other time of panic it is a matter of catching that right breath.

Once you catch that breath you dive in and realize it is one breath and one movement at a time.


Tom Broxham helps people get over their fear of networking to improve their careers.

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