For just over 2 years now I’ve been building a skill that I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d participate in: rock climbing.
Reflecting on my experiences, I realize there’s been one particular insight that’s taken the full 2 years to come to fruition.
It’s the most important life lesson I’ve learned while stumbling ungracefully through this new skill set that terrifies me most days.
And that’s how to have a conversation with my fear.
Before climbing, if I was this scared of a physical activity, I just wouldn’t do it.
I could take risks mentally and emotionally with my career and relationships, but when the possibility of physical harm came into the picture I was out of there.
For some folks, it’s the opposite. They can deal with the consequences of physical harm, but not mental or emotional pain, so they close themselves off in other ways.
I told myself that my knee-jerk response to run away was my fear keeping me safe.
And it was. Kind of.
Was I inherently safer on the ground than hanging 30 feet in the air?
Just like we are inherently safer emotionally when we aren’t in a relationship than when we are in one.
This is where someone jumps in and says, “but you’re missing out on so much!!”
To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel like I was missing ANYTHING. I had absolutely no FOMO (fear of missing out).
I was perfectly happy ON. THE. GROUND. Living my life.
I probably would have continued that way if it hadn’t been for someone I really love and trust falling head over heels (thankfully, not literally) for this sport.
That’s how many of my big perspective shifts happen, and I think it's true for many of us.
We need someone to jostle us (nicely) out of our comfort zone.
To show us the value in what could be that we’ve told ourselves isn’t worth the risk.
So when Chris fell in love with climbing, I knew I was in for a major shake up of my beliefs. And I wasn’t super excited about it.
He was pumped to go to the gym and build his skill set every Saturday morning. So we went for 4 months straight, him practically running up walls and me begrudglingly infected by his enthusiasm.
In the end, I did not decide to climb FOR HIM.
But I did decide to climb WITH HIM, because I knew in my heart -- even during my meltdown-crying-out-of-abject-terror moments -- this experience would somehow be good for me.
Not all experiences are like that. Some are just plain off the table (ahem, bungee jumping), but this one *seemed* like a reasonable amount of risk with potentially a lot of reward for me. I wasn’t quite sure what that reward would be, but I had a feeling it would be there for me if I persisted.
Plus I’m fairly easily convinced to try new things if someone else is really excited. A very exploitable character flaw, I've found over the years.
Climbing came naturally to Chris because it is in his wheelhouse. A large part of the sport is about body mechanics, strategy, and problem solving.
These things are not in my wheelhouse.
- I didn’t trust my body.
- I didn’t believe I could ever get used to being off the ground.
- I didn’t believe the harness and rope would catch me (even though I’d seen it happen for others, somehow it would be different for me).
- I’m good at emotional problem solving, but not so much technical problem solving.
I felt under-equipped, exposed, and vulnerable when we started climbing.
And to be honest, I still do. Every. single. time.
Because I am not comfortable.
I am always running from fear.
A wonderful athletic coach and friend, Brittany, told me, “you know Liz, all climbers are afraid. If you’re not afraid, there’s a problem.”
Her words stayed with me.
I didn’t totally understand them for awhile because my fear was not just fear. It was all-consuming panic flooding my system, making it hard to think and breathe. Nothing rational remained.
“WHY OH WHY would you do something that makes you so afraid repeatedly??” I asked myself many times.
“Why not just curl up on the couch with a book and some tea and enjoy life?”
But Brittany’s idea of working with my fear while climbing has started to unfold for me in recent months as I’ve slowly become less panicky and more able to sit with my fear.
Emphasis on SLOWLY. Through repetition and practice.
Last week in Eastern Washington, fear and I had a two way conversation for the first time.
It let me know what it thought my limits should be and I listened to its concerns instead of being totally overwhelmed by them.
Then I kept going, listening to a deeper internal knowing of my skill set and strength that lay beyond the fear.
And I made it to the top of the tallest route I’ve ever climbed. About 70 feet.
This was in spite of the fact that the rock was very different from anything we’d been on before and that it was my least favorite type of wall to climb.
I took in the stunning views of the Wenatchee Valley and just hung out for a bit.
But the reward isn’t the view from the top (though it is nice sometimes).
It’s the knowledge of my strength and perseverance through something I didn’t believe I could achieve.
It’s the relief and feeling of accomplishment when I make it through a difficult move.
It’s the look on Chris’ face that tells me he knew I could do it, he was just waiting for me to step into my own.
Over the last few months, I’ve:
- become more trusting of my body’s abilities and strength while climbing 40 feet in the air
- reconciled that the harness will hold me and that if I fall it will only be a few inches
- found that I’m still not loving being off the ground, but I can focus on the wall in front of me instead of worrying about the ground below
- become more confident in my ability to problem solve on rock and continue to try out ideas rather than give up on a route
One key throughout this process is that my repetition and practice have been tailored TO ME, BY ME.
I spent way too many years listening to coaches and people who didn’t actually have my best interests in mind.
Chris supports me but he doesn't offer advice unless I explicitly ask him for help on a route.
We learned this the hard way when I kept snapping at him because I was so overwhelmed with fear I literally couldn’t process his words.
It took me 2 months to get to the top of a route in the gym (about 40 feet).
I would stop 3/4s of the way, not out of fatigue, but out of fear and panic.
But I kept going back to the gym, listening, and pushing myself a little each day, stopping when I got flooded with emotion.
My pattern in life has been to push too hard. This time I didn’t. I honored my feelings and limits.
I let others encourage me but not push me beyond what I was comfortable with.
Some days I climbed harder routes and did well. Others I sucked and stuck to easier routes.
My confidence was constantly (and still is) a rollercoaster.
But now those ups and downs are less severe.
Fear rides with me, a constant passenger, but I don’t let it decide how I feel.
I have enough of my own experience logged that I can see when my fear is rational and when it is irrational.
When it is truly helping me and when it’s limiting me.
I still and always will err on the side of caution because that’s who I am.
But I’ve realized there’s a lot more room to grow.
A lot more that I can tolerate instead of writing it off as too risky.
So what does this all mean, practically?
How do we have a conversation with our fear to help us grow?
Here’s what I’ve figured out:
All good conversations start with someone speaking and someone listening. Fear is a chatterbox, so it’s best to pull up a chair, start nodding your head, and hear what it’s trying to say.
Don’t push it away or tell yourself it’s silly. Your fear is a part of you and it deserves to be heard, respected, and validated.
Only then does it start to quiet.
If you suppress it or disregard it, it will yell louder.
#2 Is it rational or irrational?
Ask yourself if your fear is rational or irrational. For example, if you are worried because your shoe is untied and you don’t want it to get caught on a rock or you forgot to tighten your harness, that is rational fear. These are problems that need to be remedied for your safety and they are grounded in the real world.
Irrational fear is the stuff we make up in our heads so we don’t have to do what we set out to do. Irrational fear is: What if I can’t? I’ll look so stupid. What if I fall and die?? Oh my god I can’t move my arm to the next hold.
The theme of irrational fear is “what if…?”
Irrational fear shouldn’t be dismissed as silly. It is a sign you have reached a perceived limit.
You are trying desperately to protect yourself.
Now is the time to ask: what am I protecting myself from?
If there’s a good answer, like “I actually might hurt myself”, ok, it’s probably time to stop.
If there’s not a good, clear, rational answer, it could be time to push a little harder, just beyond that perceived limit. To show yourself that maybe you don’t need to freak out and that the protection isn’t actually protection but you getting in the way of yourself.
It’s always your decision and each choice you make is a learning process.
Some days I let panic run the show because that’s where I am. Other days I can challenge it.
#3 Persevere, don’t push
Strengthening ourselves to face our own fears doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in one big push.
It happens slowly, over the course of many small attempts and pushes.
Perseverance is so much more challenging than pushing.
It means that you have to stay committed to your fear and yourself at the same time.
You have to cultivate a relationship between you and your fear rather than the on-again, off-again world we (myself included) like to live in.
Big pushes look and feel dramatic, but then we end up closing ourselves off immediately, not wanting to engage or risk ourselves again.
Living in the extremes doesn’t help us progress. It holds us hostage.
When you stay consistent and committed, things organically open for you.
Suddenly you’re able to do something that would have previously sent you into a panic.
Your new skills don’t get conjured out of thin air (we really like to minimize our own accomplishments sometimes).
They are present because you built that skill set, slowly over time, with dedication and love for yourself and your own growth.
#4 Remember that vulnerability is courage
Vulnerability is how we grow and deepen ourselves.
Any new skill or relationship or dream we’re pursuing makes us vulnerable. To criticism, to self-sabotage, to judgment, to ridicule, to failure, to our hearts getting crushed.
To live with our vulnerability, we have to learn how to have a conversation with our fear.
Because vulnerability causes our fear to rise to our defense more than anything else.
And it can shut us down from having meaningful experiences and self-discovery in a split second.
I’m reminded of Brene Brown’s work, in which she says, “Vulnerability is not about winning or losing. It’s about having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.”
So remember that when your fear shows up, it’s most likely because you are feeling vulnerable.
Because you are being courageous with yourself.
And that’s a beautiful thing.
I’m cautiously looking forward to navigating my relationship with fear through climbing and other experiences, and I’m sure there will be as many low points as there are high points.
Right now I’m just happy to have found my way into conversation with it rather than being dominated by it.
PS -- if you’d like to work with a brilliant, holistic, forward-thinking athletic coach, reach out to Brittany. She’s the best.