“Be Not Afraid of Falling”: How Fear Makes Us Powerful
I’m almost at the top of an outdoor climb, agonisingly close to the anchors. Maybe two or three moves to go. I look up; that next good hand hold is a long way away. I’m not sure if I can make it. I don’t look down; I don’t need to. I know that if I don’t make this move, I’m going to swing off the wall, and take a big fall, bigger than any I’ve ever taken before. My breathing starts to shallow. I’m hyperaware of everything; my palms are sweating, my forearms are pumping. I can feel my heart fluttering, rabbit-fast, in my chest, like it’s about to burst out through my skin.
I focus, breathe, inhaling and exhaling slowly, as more experienced climbers have told me to do. I talk aloud to myself: ‘You can do it.’
I go for the move…and it happens.
There’s this strange, quiet evolution from the fraught moments of anticipation prior to a scary experience, to the experience itself. Something in your brain clicks, and transitions, from an act of continuous tension, to surrender. You’re no longer resisting the inevitable…and the fear just falls away.
I fell six times in a row on that move (apologies to my long-suffering belayer). And don’t get me wrong, every time, it was scary…but because I knew that, ultimately, I was safe, the fear reshaped itself in my head. Instead of holding me back, stalling me from committing to the climb, it had the opposite effect. I just wanted to get that damn move! Because every time I missed it, I’d have to haul myself back up to that same spot on the wall, expending precious energy. I stopped thinking about everything that would go wrong when I took the fall, and started thinking about what I could do to get the move right, so I wouldn’t come off. I was able to channel the pulse-pounding, palm-prickling panic I felt at crunch time, into power. And finally, finally, I made it to the top.
The thing you’re dreading is rarely as anxiety-inducing as the moments before - that lead-up to a fearful experience, when tendrils of dread envelop your rational thought. Most of us over-think at the best of times; and the cogs whir into overdrive in a perilous situation. But with enough exposure to the thing that scares you, you begin to realise it really isn’t that scary after all.
“Fear invokes the flight or fight syndrome; and our first reaction is always to flee back to our comfort zone.”
That’s a quote by author Robert Wilson Jr. He says fear is the most powerful human motivator. It motivates us, primarily, to survive. But what happens when we ignore that initial, innate reaction to flee, to return to our comfort zone? What if we face fear head-on? If we say, in the words of the ever-fierce Arya Stark “not today”?
Well, sometimes we fail. Hard.
But sometimes we don’t.
Sometimes, what happens when we ignore the urge to squirm and shy away from the discomfort of being afraid, is that we get better. Maybe even just a little.
Since I began climbing, this remarkable thing has happened; I’ve been able to quell stress in other areas of my life, far more effectively than I ever could beforehand. And it’s definitely not because I’m any less neurotic. It’s because I’m learning to master myself. I’m learning to compare my everyday worries with the immensity of being metres up on the exposed face of a cliff, about to plummet.
Facing fear head-on does not make us smarter, or stronger, or more capable. What it does is lay those qualities bare before us, and make us realise that we have them, often in greater measure than we presume. It chips away at our self-doubt, the biggest destroyer of motivation, clearing our path of the obstacles we unintentionally set for ourselves. Suddenly, the things we want, whether physical pursuits, professional, or personal ones, don’t seem so far out of reach.
And then, we rise.