Imagine this. You have a career you love, doing something you had set your heart on since you were young. And you are really, really good at it.
Then imagine it is making you so unwell you can no longer function properly and you find yourself unable to continue. It would be devastating right? It might even be enough to stop you trying anything. Or as Sarah Denholm did, you can turn it into a brand new career. This is a tale of finding opportunities where you least expect them.
Sarah started learning the piano when she was young and quickly found it was something she was very good at. Having been made painfully aware that she wasn’t as intelligent as her older siblings, the fact that she excelled at music college was her salvation. However, whilst the music was her saviour in so many ways, she also found it extremely stressful. “People think that music is a touchy, feely, friendly type thing. It is cut-throat. It’s highly competitive, particularly in the UK which is where I was. It’s desperately competitive and you are really only as good as your last performance,” says Sarah.
The more successful she became, the higher the pressure she felt. After winning a competition she found herself performing in The Festival Hall in London. “That was like, sort of the pinnacle. I was a student at that point but the pressure was absolutely enormous. People were always waiting to cut you down and jump over you.”
Then Sarah’s body started responding to the stress. With a pre-disposition to eczema, the pressure from performing, aided by a bad relationship she was in at the time, meant her whole body became the casualty. “It was a stress reaction that then became tied into my digestion. So it then gets triggered by certain things that you eat. You become incredibly sensitive and I suffered from stomach ache all the time. I think people hold stress in different places in their body and I would clench and it would be my stomach. Then I broke out in severe eczema and I ended up with it all over my body.”
Then everything ground to a halt. “I had been performing but while I had been in front of people still going out on stage, my skin was getting worse and worse until it reached the point where I couldn’t turn my neck, I couldn’t straighten my arms without bleeding and cracking, like your skin would just tear. So there was no way I could carry on functioning,” says Sarah.”I lost my nerve in every possible way.”
Sarah was hospitalised and pumped full of steroids, which made her look better but she didn’t feel it on the inside. She went back to performing but the pressure and stress she felt previously were still there. “To perform when I looked so awful, it had just gone into my psyche that people were looking at me in either horror or disgust or pity, probably a combination because you look appalling. I mean you can imagine, you’re peeling. It’s shocking.”
No matter how good she was at performing or how much she loved it, she could no longer continue. Up until them music was how she expressed herself but the idea of being in front of people, “all those eyes looking at me”, was more than she could handle.
Needing to still earn a living Sarah started teaching piano lessons which meant she was still involved in music but without the stress of performing. It was during a concert she decided to put on for her students when the issues started to rear up again. She had invited their parents and grandparents, around thirty five people in total. All was going well until she got up to introduce the students and the fear came back. It was then she realised that not only could she not perform music in front of an audience, she could not speak in public either. “I couldn’t look anybody in the eye, I forgot what I was saying, I shook.”
This was a pivotal moment for Sarah. “I thought, ‘that’s it, I’m going to learn how to do this because this is crazy’. I wanted to be able to express myself”.
Sarah decided there and then to do something about it. By that stage she had moved to Melbourne. Moving to a new country and city, it is easy to think that it could have made things worse but for Sarah. In fact it was a relief because, while she had good friends in the UK, she was not very close to her family so it was good to move on. Sarah joined a small group and began learning public speaking.
She eventually joined a bigger group after her confidence grew. She had got her nerve back and she started performing again. As she became more confident in public, musicians, as well as others, started asking her how she was able to overcome this fear. She found, somewhat surprisingly, that she loved helping others overcome their fears of public speaking. She was helping them get results. And so a new business was born, Improve Your Public Speaking. From a place of wanting to be heard herself, Sarah found she was able to help others in their quest to also be heard.”I think that came from childhood where I felt a lot of the time that it was hard for me to be heard. We had quite a dysfunctional family where we weren’t allowed necessarily to speak up and express opinions and argue. I was always shut down”. After a few years working purely on herself she was able to help others do the same.
Of course there are still obstacles. In particular Sarah finds the marketing to be a challenge. But she has made a decision to be a leader in her life, not a follower. The thing that kept her going was and is according to Sarah “…bloody mindedness. I just kept saying I have gone too far I am not giving up. I will not give up until I succeed.”
Being proactive is something Sarah says is a must, especially for someone like her who doesn’t like to be outside of their comfort zone. “If I can do it, trust me anybody can do it because it just was sheer grit. You just get a goal and you say ok, this is what I am going to focus on and you just keep going.”
This focus on her goals keeps Sarah moving forward. “I like to know what my next step is when I wake up in the morning. If I don’t know what my next action is I’ll just faff around. I’ve learned that I have to plan. I go big then I go tiny. I’ve also learned that if you start, you’ll eventually finish. You’ve just got to do it one step at a time. I used to leap ahead all the time and then I’d never do it. It’s about pulling back to the very next thing. I am really impatient and I want results.”
Sarah’s self awareness and the work she has done on herself is something she shares with her clients and it helps them. Being honest and real with her clients means they can relate to her.
While Sarah still enjoys playing music, the temptation to get back into it professionally is no longer there. The work involved and the toll it would take on her body is too great, not so much from the anxiety side these days, purely the physical demand that playing piano at that level involves.
Helping people to be heard and be able to speak in public is something Sarah doesn’t think she will tire of any time soon. And rather than seeing starting a new career in her forties as a hurdle, she sees it as an advantage. “My energy is still high about it and I’m so enthusiastic people go along with it. Whereas if had been doing it for twenty five years or so you are going to get tired, you just are”.
And those times when she is dealing with feelings of overwhelm? “Sometimes I just shut down and don’t do it. I just go ‘ok I’m going to switch off and do something else’.”
What is comes down to for Sarah is choice and perseverance. “While I did persist when things were difficult, I always asked myself if it was still worth it…and the answer is always yes. So I always had a sense of choice and control”.
You can find Sarah at Improve Your Public Speaking.