Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 7

The 14 metre auto belayer at High Sports, Brighton

In part 6 of the Mind games blog post series, I came up with a challenge for myself: to climb three times a week, with or without partners, which means using the auto belayers when there’s no-one available to climb with; I wanted to see whether climbing more often would dampen my climbing anxiety. Whilst carrying out this experiment I became acutely aware of the effect of other people’s presence on my expectations and fears, so I decided to research pack/group psychology. I felt a huge relief to read about the power of unconscious fear and how to disarm it, and I’m very happy to share that in this post.

Avoiding the crowds and enjoying the auto belayers

I arranged to arrive at High Sports, Brighton1, at 14:30 to avoid the crowds and climb in peace and quiet. However, four other Vertigirls2 turned up and I hadn’t climbed with most of them before. I found myself shrinking inside, a feeling so uncomfortable that when asked, “what would you like to climb?” my mind would go blank and I’d stare at the wall, hoping it would do something to make me feel better. It didn’t, of course.

As there were five of us, I took the opportunity to quietly try out the auto belayers – I hadn’t used them in a while and I wondered whether I’d scream after letting go at the top (even though it was only 10 metres high). I didn’t scream. It was a tiny bit scary on the first go, but by the third go I was loving it and feeling freer than expected. The auto belayer had no expectations of me and I couldn’t project my own expectations onto it. This meant I could come back to High Sports by myself to use the auto belayers when no-one else was available to climb with, and there is an auto belayer on the 14 metre wall with routes ranging from 5 to 6b, which means I can work on progressing my climbing.

Auto belayers are incredibly safe. I knew this because I read an article some weeks ago on the braking systems inside them3; knowing how something works can create a feeling of safety. After working with the auto belayers, a sixth Vertigirl arrived and I was asked if I’d like to be belayed on a route. Again, the unsettling feeling arose in me and I chose routes that I knew I could climb. Eventually, Christine (founder of the Vertigirls) asked me what I wanted to climb and I pointed at the blue 4, which flows so beautifully and I enjoy climbing so much. I’d just climbed it with someone else and belayed them on it; Christine reminded me that if I only climb routes I know I can do I won’t progress. That statement went in and connected with my ‘truthometer’; I decided to try the white 5 that I previously got stuck on at the overhang.

Already anxious, I got a little bit stuck before the overhang and Christine encouraged me to twist my body so that my right hip, rather than my left, was against the wall. Suddenly the next move became obvious and I made it, got to the overhang and pushed through to the next move, one more than I’d accomplished last time. Flushed with surprise and elation, I asked to be lowered down. At the bottom I stated I’d learnt how important small moves are when you feel stuck. The small move doesn’t need to be up; it can be a twist or a climb down to the last move to get into a different position, or match feet… anything. One of the things I love about climbing is there isn’t only one way to approach a route or solve a problem; the solution can be as unique as your creative thinking allows.

Although I was pleased that I’d climbed part of the 5 after all that fearful climbing routes I already knew, I felt a different kind of uncomfortable; here is an excerpt from my diary that I wrote the next day:

Expectations are the biggest cause of suffering, I found at High Sports yesterday. By using the auto belayers I had no expectations of myself and no projected expectations onto my belayer. This is the main thing. My anxiety was worse with a bunch of people, some of whom were climbing at an advanced level to me, than when I was climbing on my own or with people who climb at my level or below. There’s some kind of reluctance to climb when with people who climb harder than me. Fear kicks in. What is that? Need to research pack/group [psychology] stuff. How to make it okay to climb in a group?

Research: pack/group psychology stuff

In Vertical Mind, the authors state:

We don’t recognize fear of failure because we don’t feel [embarrassment, shame] all that often on account of avoiding the risk of looking bad in front of other people and feeling those emotions.4

It’s not just looking bad in the minds of others that we might fear – it’s also the negative judgement by ourselves when others are present5. So, my free feeling whilst using the auto belayer makes sense – I couldn’t project my expectations of myself onto the machine and everyone else was busy (no-one was watching me) so I couldn’t project onto anybody else either. The authors of Vertical Mind talk about this fear of looking bad in front of others as a mammalian part of our brain that evolved thousands of years ago to keep us from being isolated by the tribe; if the tribe banished you because of behaviour that didn’t fit within the social norms it would have been more difficult to find food and stay alive on your own6, hence fear of abandonment. This may be true. However, I think there’s more to it than that.

On top of evolutionary brain design, we each have unique stuff from our past that we may or may not have dealt with; for example, I associate being watched with judgement of me at identity level (rather than behavioural level) as wrong/bad/naughty, and a strong possibility of violence, or at least verbal attack, to follow. In addition, as women, we have had the male gaze to deal with in the form of pressure from our culture to look and behave in certain (‘feminine’) ways7. Whilst we may consciously choose to think and talk about that stuff as bullshit, and look and behave in ways that are right for us regardless of what anyone thinks, I think it does have a subconscious affect. All these things create unhelpful beliefs that we can dig out and question to drain their power over us.

How do we know when an unhelpful belief is controlling us? For me, I feel crap and avoid taking action. I don’t know how to label the crap feeling that I get, but it certainly encourages me to avoid doing stuff in front of other people. Vertical Mind talks about coping strategies for dealing with these feelings; they come from a psychological model called “the compass of shame”, whereby ‘shame’ could be “a whole family of emotions: embarrassment, humiliation, hurt feelings, self-disappointment.”8 In this model, there are 4 ways of reacting to the feelings we don’t want: avoidance, attack self, attack other, or withdraw. These coping strategies are scripts – they run automatically, unless we do something about them. This, obviously, relates to all life situations as well as climbing. If we work on this at the wall, we can make changes in our life situations too.

So, how do we make changes?

  1. We notice that we’re running a script.
  2. We identify the underpinning beliefs.
  3. We question those beliefs.
  4. We take action based on curiosity.

With this process in mind, I thought back to my visit to High Sports and asked myself what belief was underpinning why I felt I couldn’t climb anything higher than a 4. “Other people’s opinions of me might lower if I can’t climb it,” was the answer. I challenged that: “will they? No. They might admire me for giving it a go.” That felt better. I admire people for trying things regardless of whether they succeed and I’m sure I’m not the only one who does. As it says in Vertical Mind, “when we shy away from challenges because of what other people may think, we really limit our progress.”9

An unexpected opportunity to try new beliefs

 My next visit to High Sports was solo and I used the 10 metre auto belayers several times, before moving onto the 14 metre one, where I ‘rainbowed’10 up to a point past where I felt comfortable. Letting go, I swung into space clutching the auto belay tape. I did it again, this time higher. My body was trembling all over when I landed on the ground so I decided to rest for a while. A couple of Vertigirls arrived and offered to climb with me. We did the lovely, flow-ey blue 4 route and then we did the white 5 that I was stuck on. We tried it several times, and couldn’t get past the overhang but got further than we had before, which felt satisfying. During that visit I felt relaxed, and curious and my uncomfortable feelings that previously made me avoid climbs were absent.

The third time I went to High Sports that week, was “surprisingly good”, according to my diary. I tried a purple 5 on the 14 metre auto belayer; I got past the 10 metre mark and felt scared but kept going. After giving it another go I went and found another Vertigirl and her partners and climbed with them. I decided to attempt the green 5 route that felt unattainable to me 2 visits ago, when I watched others doing it. I found the start a bit tricky but I managed it. I had to think carefully about each move and I felt scared several times but it took less effort to keep going – it seemed more natural to keep going than to stop. The last move near the top, was a little tricky and I almost used a different colour as an aid but my self-talk said, “you don’t need to do that,” and my foot moved higher to the green hold. And then I was at the top, which was a bit of a surprise because I’d been so in the moment.

I belayed my partner on a pink 5 (another one that seemed unattainable to me a few days before). At the bottom there’s a move where you’re in a left lay back and you have to pull yourself diagonally to the right and then push with your left hand to keep going right until you can stretch and reach a right hand hold. When my partner approached that move I wondered, internally, whether I’d be able to do it and she turned to me and said, “when you get here, this is how you do it,” and showed me how. How thoughtful! She climbed it beautifully and then I had a go. I actually could do the lay back move. Again, the route had lots of moves that I needed to think about and I got to one move before the top, felt stuck and decided to come down. At the bottom, I told my partner I had no idea how to do the last move and she gave me advice for next time.

In summary, I’m not sure what the effect of climbing 3 times a week had on me; it could have helped normalise climbing as an activity. By the end of the week I had surpassed what I thought I was capable of and had enjoyed myself. Often, when I surpass myself a little bit, I stop in case I jinx it but I didn’t do that this time. I kept going. It felt good even when I was scared. The movement of my body felt good. Something happened for me when I questioned my beliefs in connection with others watching me. That is significant. The feelings I’d had that made me avoid taking action didn’t have verbal thoughts connected to them so the process of noticing the feeling then looking for the belief and questioning it was really helpful.

Does this resonate with you? What’s your ‘go to’ method of handling uncomfortable feelings? What could you do differently?

1High Sports, Brighton’s website is here.

2Vertigirls is a climbing club in Brighton that supports all women, especially those with additional needs, to learn and progress in rock climbing.

3This is not the article but it does describe how 3 different auto belay systems work.

4Vertical Mind Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing, McGrath, D. & Elison, J., 2014, Sharp End Publishing, LLC, Boulder, p.136.

5Ibid., p.135.

6Ibid., pp.124-126.

7I noticed an extreme example of the affect of the male gaze when I saw Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) recently. Despite her amazing intelligence (she co-created a patent for encoding wireless communication that we use today in our wireless technology, but did not receive payment at all, and only recently received recognition for it) she was praised for her beauty and, as she aged, and her looks were seen as less beautiful by a society that values youth, she had loads of plastic surgery and eventually became a recluse to avoid being looked at. If only she’d had access to sports psychology!

8Vertical Mind Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing, McGrath, D. & Elison, J., 2014, Sharp End Publishing, LLC, Boulder, p.141.

9Ibid., p.157.

10‘Rainbowing’ is using any colour holds to get up the wall.

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