Know and face your fears – in Part 2 of Peter’s post we see him facing his fears and learn whether or not he was able to realise his dream of standing on top of a mountain for his birthday. If you missed Part 1 you can read it here.
The next afternoon I kept my promise to myself and set off back across the bridge. Walking across a bridge and back may not seem like a huge goal but it stood large in my mind that afternoon. I walked to the bridge knowing that I would be afraid but wanting to understand the drivers of my fear rather than just overcome it enough to climb. It was also a chance to recognise the psychological and physiological reactions I would go through as my fear surfaced so that I could better manage them the next time it occurred.
I was aware of my fear this time, which gave me the chance to go through the 5 steps of learning about my fear.
- Experience it
- Get to know it
- Begin to understand it
- Start to accept it, and
- Decide whether it is useful to keep around.
The point here is not just to get rid of the fear, though that may occur over time, but rather to get to know all about it. The final step of deciding whether to keep it around is a very powerful step. In this decision we either truly own the fear as a part of ourselves and see the benefits it brings, or acknowledge that it is not a part of us and therefore can move away from it without a sense of loss.
How does knowing your fears help you to enjoy your life more?
I believe that sometimes the difference between enjoying and enduring is our level of preparation and our attitude. I always prefer to enjoy life rather than just enduring it and by getting to know my fear I had the opportunity to help myself enjoy life even more. Right or wrong, my fears have helped me become the person I am and will shape my future self. By getting to know them intimately and accepting or discarding them I can improve my ability to live my life my preferred way. I may accept them as a part of my past or as a part of my future but I can’t accept them or free them until I know all about them.
What followed with my bridge experiment was an hour or so of experiencing fear. Feeling my fear rise to the surface, not trying to control it but rather allow it to be present and run its normal course so I could learn about it. My biggest battle was trying not to “logic the hell out of it” but rather to experience it and learn from it. I deliberately stood over gaps in the bridge and looked down and allowed trams to pass me to experience the movement and noise. I approached the railings looking up and then quickly looked down over the side to increase the effect. All of this left me in a constant state of fear and shakiness and left me feeling a little weak but also content that I had done what I needed to do.
Here is what I learned about my fear
- I have a fear of heights brought on, funnily enough, by being high up on things.
- My triggers are being over a large drop, being able to see through a solid structure and movement in the structure I’m on.
- The physical manifestations of my fear are increased heart rate, light headedness, tingly legs to mid-thigh, weak legs and a loss of balance.
- The mental manifestation of my fear is the belief that the structure is about to fall and the desire to run. I get irritable and quiet as I deal with the fear. I need things to be simple, my focus narrows to immediate issues (I certainly don’t make long-term plans or engage in complex conversations at this stage).
Regardless of the reason for the birth of this fear I think it actually makes sense to me. As a climber, a number of the dangers I face come in the form of falling off something, through something or being hit by something. Falling from a rock climb or down an ice covered slope are common dangers found in climbing. When I travel over glaciers or through crevasse fields if I can see through the snow I’m walking on (called an ice bridge) this is a sign that the snow is not very strong and I’m in danger of falling into a crevasse. Movement in the snow and ice while climbing indicates an avalanche.
The other thing I realised is that how I respond to my fear triggers is very much decided by what I am doing at the time. While walking across the bridge in ideal conditions and safety, my response was to be very scared and want to run. There was no real danger but my fear response was quite strong. When presented with these dangers when I’m climbing my response is very different. At that stage I am focussed on my safety and the safety of my climbing partners. Think, act, overcome, get safe! Since I accept that danger is an inherent part of climbing, I evaluate it and then make a decision on which way to progress or go back. In this case where there is actual danger I am not generally scared but rather focussed on getting safe and continuing to climb.
Will you defeat your fear or is it useful in your life?
In this case, having experienced my fear in a safe place, getting to know it a little more and then understanding how I react to it in different circumstance, I decided it is actually a fairly useful fear to have around. Over time I will control my reactions to it when I am safe but I don’t want to get rid of it entirely. At its most basic this fear keeps me safe. It also has the added bonus of giving me an adrenaline rush when I am doing things like rock climbing, bungy jumping and skydiving and so it plays a part in me enjoying my life as well. Having undertaken my bridge experiment I believe that I am on my way to being able to step out of my well worn fear response and be better prepared next time I find myself unexpectedly up high.
So did I get to summit on my Birthday?
Happily enough, a few days later my increased self-awareness and an exceptional local guide all came together to help me summit Mt Mulhacen. We did so in unseasonal snow, and extreme cold and blizzard conditions on the summit. My guide took me off the beaten track and showed me things on the mountain that I wouldn’t have had a chance to see if I went on the usual course. In summiting that day I fulfilled a long held dream of standing on top of a summit on my birthday – something that has me smiling still – and learning about my fear played a major part in reaching the summit.
Do you have a goal that one of your fears is keeping you from fulfilling?
What would knowing your fears allow you to do?
Now is the time to discover something new about yourself and enjoy the new opportunities it brings.
“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi.