It makes sense to be scared. We are hard-wired to be scared of heights, exposed places and falling through the air. Why? You’re body and mind are trying to protect you from injury and death. This is likely so obvious you missed it. Our ancestors who weren’t scared of heights will have perished in a nasty up-a-tree-in-the-jungle incident and never got the chance to pass on their reckless genes. Natural selection kept the ones who didn’t run around willy nilly along cliff tops.
I FEEL scared. What is this feeling? A feeling is a judgement or a reaction in response to the world around you. You can have a sensation in your body and also some (language based) thoughts such as ‘I don’t want to fall’ or ‘this is scary’. Should we trust these feelings? If they are true we should trust them right? What do we mean by true in this context? True means that they say something true about the world, that they give a clear representation of reality. For example ‘I feel good about the guy sat at the end of the bar’ so if that feeling is true then the guy really is a nice guy and he’ll buy me a drink.
Some people get so scared they need to wear super hero tights whilst they climb
It might have been that at one point our feelings and judgements about certain things were useful. But our environment has changed considerably. We live in the same bodies and are hard-wired in the same ways but we no longer live in the jungle. So what does this mean?
It means that we are hard-wired in ways that aren’t useful. Not only because our environment has changed but also because natural selection doesn’t care if we’re unhappy or whether we lead empty lives avoiding adventure sports and heights. Evolution and a lot of our hardwiring mostly cares about us surviving and passing on our genes. This means that a lot of our feelings aren’t telling us true things about the world and in a lot of ways aren’t beneficial to us at all.
For example I’m hard-wired to find a mate and hold on to him so that he can father my children. Even though my modern mind doesn’t want that, biology does. So what do I do when I see a man I like talking to another girl? I feel jealous. Does this jealousy say anything true about the world? Does it help me at all? The answer is no. Being weird and jealous only serves to push my modern man away, where as in the jungle maybe my jealousy would have useful because maybe I would have driven the other girl away and secured my mate.
Another scenario: road rage. A car bumps in to yours and you fly into a mad rage. Does this rage help you at all? Does it say anything true about the world? No. Why then do you feel that rage. It’s likely that in the jungle if another man had invaded your territory and damaged your property it would be useful to get angry, fly in to a rage and beat him up, he certainly wouldn’t do it again. In the modern world if you did that, you’d get sent to prison.
How does this relate to climbing?
We get scared of heights or of falling through the air because it’s in our make-up. Responding to scary situations in climbing with stress is normal and natural. However, in many circumstances we can make it safe to be up high or fall through the air and therefore our feelings of fear don’t represent reality and are not useful.
Cedar Wright pic of me on Book of Hate in the valley
What can we do to change these feelings? Just like someone can train themselves in anger management we can also train our minds to be less scared in these naturally scary situations. As teenagers we react with anger to many situations - we slam doors and call our parents horrible names. Eventually most of us realise that this never helps the situation and we train ourselves to distance ourselves from that anger and control our behaviour.
Distance is the important word here. These useless feelings of anger, or jealousy or fear; we don’t have to be consumed by them. They arise in our bodies and minds but they will fall again and if we can be aware of them without getting consumed by them, then most of the time that’s good enough not to react. We can be curious about them and learn from them, but they don’t have to control our whole psyche.
Runout in Morocco. Kris Erikson photo
The problem we have as climbers is that we think there is something wrong with us, that fear of falling was handed to us on a plate at birth and we can’t do anything about it. Of course some people don’t have to think about it so much, for them it seems easy to rationalise the fear and get on with it. Comparing yourself to those climbers doesn’t help you. Just because they can take massive whips it might be the case that they find other areas of their hard-wiring harder to over-come. They might have horrible jealousy issues, or anger management problems; everyone has their weaknesses. If your weakness is fear of heights or fear of falling - don’t worry - you can train yourself to distance yourself from those feelings.
Thanks for putting in words (bad english sorry I’m french) something i’ve recently experienced every single day during a trip where as as a photographer i was shooting world class mixte climbers from my fixed rope. Routes were so hard i was almost never touching the cliff, most of the time surrounded by hanging icicles.
it’s hard to belive you’re the only only feeling that irrational fear even when you’re technically safe, just so scared, so it helps a little to hear an athlete like you talking about that
I enjoy the way you Layout your points. Questions and answers, like philosophical text.
Lol I wish I Could like your comment under the second picture. thanks for the insight, a fear of falling is something I definitely struggle with climbing, manic irrationality is the phrase. hope that shoulder is treating you well. You are very inspiring. peace.
Great blog post. I’ve been grappling with FEAR for some time now and its really HOLDING me back. What are your training tips? I hear pros and cons about fall practice
Great post, THANK YOU FOR THAT. i AM LOOKING FORWARD TO “iRRATIONAL FEAR? pART ii - HOW TO DISTANCE YOURSELF FROM THE FEELINGS OF FEAR.” I’m a v5 boulderer and although I live in Bishop, Ca I have not been able to conquer my fear of the v1 problem heavenly path. ive been working on my head game, and after about 2 years of walking past it - i’m going to give it a go this weekend. Thanks for all your inspiration - always.
I feel as though the same can be true for big mountain skiing. I am having a huge problem with my head getting in the way of lines I want to ski, and I’m wondering if you have further reading you suggest.
sorry, cannot get rid of caps… Fear is a thought. A thought that imposes something from the past onto the current moment. Thus distorting the current moment, taking us away from it. What past? it could be either something that happened to us before (we fell before, we injured ourselves, etc.) or to someone else we know, or to someone else we do not know, but we saw it on TV or read in a book. Somehow we know “that thinG” is possible to happen, so we think it’s going to happen here and now.
we cannot stop thoughts, but we can change how we relate to them. we can be so focused on what the body is doing (breath, touch, color, sounds, movement) that the fear thought does not have room to arrive. if it does, We can observe that the thought has arrived. Observing the thought is different that running with it. that is the distance we want.
Lovely analogy! thanks for sharing
Have you ever thought about writing a book? Seriously! I love your writing style and I feel like there is so much you can bring to the table for others… on many different subjects! Keep up the good work, you are an inspiration. Thanks for sharing!