“The truth may be out there,
but the lies are inside your head.”
— Terry Pratchett

Okay, here’s the deal:

  1. I’m scared of heights
  2. I’m scared absolutely f*cking terrified of falls
  3. I’m not physically stunted but I’m not athletically gifted either

So why on EARTH did I think I’d be able to do a purple overhang climb. WHY?

See, purple is the third out of eight grades on the Urban Climb Collingwood bouldering scale. It’s not impressive, but remember — I’m not athletically gifted.

As I scrambled about on the wall (graceful, no doubt 🙃), one of my friends started saying something about my fingernails. Something about scraping, grip and chalk. I’m not sure about you, but the words “fingernails”, “scrape” and “chalk” in combination always send a shiver through my spine. (I can’t find the exact word to describe it in English, but in Spanish it’s called grima.)

I internally shuddered at the whole idea of fingernails on a chalkboard, and started to feel my own fingers giving way. Grinding my teeth, I gripped tighter and forced myself to focus on the purple climbing holds above. Three more to go.

I’m not sure how I did it — I remember biting my teeth, praying for my fingers, and a lot of awkward reaching. But I managed to ‘flash’ the climb as the guys put it. After a couple of fist pumps, I became aware of my heart pounding loud and fast in my throat, and a tingling in my bones.

The sensation brought me back to earlier that day, when I was heading into a morning run with three other much fitter and much more athletic guys. But while the morning nervousness was a sickening tingling that chilled me to the bone, the afternoon’s sensation carried a certain buzzing energy with it.

Now that I think deeper about this, it’s more common for me to feel the former — heavy deadlifts, final exams… It accompanies virtually every situation where I feel like I need to perform well or ‘prove myself worthy’ (yes that is 100% my ego talking right there).

I once read about it in a book by Matt Fitzgerald called How Bad Do You Want It? (I highly recommend). He calls it ‘choking’, a poor performance that occurs in response to perceived stress of a situation, when the source of perceived stress is one’s sense of the importance of the performance in question — specifically, the importance of achieving a certain outcome from it. So basically it’s like self-sabotage.

He goes on to say that there might be another layer to it: sometimes it’s not pressure per se that causes people to choke. Rather it’s self-consciousness. It projects an internal attentional focus on perceived effort, hence distracting a person from the task at hand.

So maybe when I talked about needing to ‘prove myself worthy’, it’s my self-consciousness speaking. And when I was on that wall ‘clinging on for dear life’, I didn’t have the mental capacity to be self-conscious; all I knew was that I didn’t want to fall. And as a newbie, I didn’t have a benchmark to gauge my perceived effort; all I knew was that I had to be quick before my muscles fatigued. So yeah, my scramble wasn’t graceful, sure. But I was scrambling undistracted and in the moment.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is this:

Firstly, our frame of mind matters. Earlier that morning, the only thing keeping me from throwing up from nervousness was my friend’s reassurance and encouragement to just try. W, if you’re reading this, thank you, you have no idea how much it means to me 🙏🏼 And of course, the skipped breakfast and slower pace helped too 😂

Secondly — and this is slightly related — is that our words matter. One thing that has become increasingly apparent to me is how much I don’t believe in myself. (If you don’t believe me, just scroll up and re-read the first few paragraphs of this blog. The language I used was pretty rooted in self-deprecation.) And if words like ‘fingernails’ and ‘chalkboard’ can cause such a strong aversive reaction, imagine how self-defeating is it to say “I can’t run” right before a run 🤦🏻‍♀️

So if you’ve made it this far into the post, I invite you to pay attention to your frame of mind and your words. It doesn’t have to be limited to physical activities either. For example:

  • Do you find it hard to say thank you when someone compliments you or your work?
  • Do you think you can’t do something even before you’ve given yourself the chance to try?
  • Do you constantly make jokes at your own expense to break the ice?

The last one is tough because it’s easy to convince ourselves that our self-deprecation is just a means of socialising. In fact, all of them are tough habits to break.

But if we don’t, how can we ever see the lies that we tell ourselves?

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