The Formidable Force of Fear and Failure, and How to Overcome It

For the past month on my extended rock climbing trip, I’ve been struggling with failure, lack of confidence, and an overwhelming sense of negativity, punctuated by brief moments of triumph and poise.

I love rock climbing. Sometimes I wonder why, though, in those moments when all of my muscles ache, the skin on my fingers is chafed raw, my heart is racing, and every cell in my body is saying, “What the hell are you doing, you dummy? This is so dangerous, and so, so hard!” I love rock climbing because it makes me feel like I’ve done something with my body and my mind. It stops me from thinking about the busy world around me, and I love the taste of success.

The goal in climbing is to get to the top of the climb without falling off (onto the safety of your rope, of course). I’ve achieved some awesome things in my 16-year climbing career, my high points being a handful of 5.13a’s and b’s and a stroke of luck with a 5.13c. That doesn’t mean anything to non-climbers, but suffice it to say that when I’m in shape, I’m not half bad at the sport.

Me on one of my successful rock climbs

After having spent all these years climbing, I have certain expectations of myself, which have recently been backfiring in a big way. Maybe you’ve felt the same with your sport of choice? You get out of shape because life takes over for a while, and then you get back to it and you’re not the athlete you used to be. Your strength is less than what it was, your form is off, and your confidence is shaken. All of this even makes you question your identity. Sad but true.

That’s where I am.

By the way, a word of advice to people taking off on a year-long climbing trip: don’t stop training for 3 months before you leave. Your ego will pay dearly.

Today I had a battle with a rock climb. It was a 5.12b that once upon a time I would maybe have completed on my first try. At the very least, a year ago it would not have seemed as hard as it seemed today. It beat me, though. I was in tears a few times, my voice quivering, the all-too-common words as of late coming out of my mouth: “I. Suck.” I tried to get to the top without falling, but I was too scared, too filled with anti-confident mantras, i.e. “I can’t. I’m not strong enough. Why bother trying…”

That's me with a bruised ego after failing on a rock climb.
That’s me with a bruised ego after failing on a rock climb.

And then I got really pissed off.

Pissed at myself for letting the wall win. Pissed for letting myself get beat down by anything, for that matter. I geared up for my third attempt of the day, my husband quoting from The Game of Thrones books to help boost my confidence – “Calm as still water… Fierce as a wolverine… Fear cuts deeper than swords…” and on and on. I ignored him because those placations weren’t getting me anywhere. But in my own head, I was stoking a fire.

It sounds cheesy, and it sort of was. But I stood there at the base of this stupid climb, shoes on, hands chalked up, rope tied into my harness, on the verge of tears, and started talking to myself silently: “What are you doing?! What are you scared of? If you fall, he will catch you – you’re totally safe. You can’t let this stupid climb beat you – you’re stronger and better than that. Take this thing one move at a time, breathe, and stay positive. Believing that you can not do this is not doing you any good. You can do this. You can do this… You can do this…. God, why is Seth still talking about wolverines and swords?”

And I stepped onto the climb and I crushed it. I wasn’t afraid (well, not as much), and I kept assuring myself I COULD do it through even the hard moves. I breathed loudly and evenly through it (except for the really scary parts), and I got to the top without falling.


Here's me after sucking it up and doing the climb.
Here’s me after sucking it up and doing the climb.

I was really proud of myself. Not necessarily for doing the climb – I still believe it shouldn’t have taken me that long in the first place – but because I turned my overwhelming negativity around in a matter of about 25 seconds and channeled it into a fierce desire to overcome and win. Even if it was just my own self-defeating thoughts I was winning against.

It doesn’t really matter if you’re talking about climbing, CrossFit, or overcoming binge eating. We all face the same inner demons sometimes that tell us, “You can’t do this. You suck and you’ll always suck. Why bother even trying?”

I have to go through the roller coaster process I went through today pretty often in my climbing life, whether it’s a 5.12b or a 5.13b I’m trying. Climbs get hard and I feel like giving up. I’m a taurus after all; I like to be comfortable. And then I talk myself down from the ledge of self defeat, get a little bit pissed off and a little cocky, and everything works out. Then I get to savor my victory and relive it over and over in my mind. “I did that.”

It’s emotionally draining sometimes for sure, but it’s worth it to me. After all, what would life be if we weren’t constantly facing challenges to overcome? It’d be boring – that’s what it’d be.


  1. Neely…

    This is awesome…really it is.

    So much of our suffering and frustrations in life are really just the stories that we’re telling ourselves in our heads. And they’re just that….stories. They’re not real. It’s just a story.

    Now, I’m not saying that these stories that we tell ourselves don’t have an influence over our lives, because it’s quite obvious that they do, but what’s incredible is that we can change them. And almost instantly!

    Once we give up that old story, what remains is a bunch of energy, charged up & ready to use. Enough energy to get you through a climb that was giving you trouble, enough energy to say no to the pizza, enough energy to do another set of burpees.

    Of course, making this tranzposing of energy & mindset is a heckuva lot easier when we’ve had good food and good rest!

    Here’s to more climbing & slaying of demons in the future, whether with swords or with chalk!!

  2. WOW! So vulnerable and inspiring. I intend to read it again, and check out the Seth-blog..and comment
    further. You two RULE!!

  3. Great post Neely. I love reading posts like this! Ive been thinking of taking up rock climbing recently, not because I want to get fit or anything but just because it puts you in situations like you’ve described! Ive added your Shevanigans to my “inspiring blogs list” and i’ll definitely be checking it out regularly! Thanks again.

    1. Sam – Thanks so much! I appreciate you spreading the word about our blog :) I hope you do take up rock climbing – it’s the most challenging and rewarding thing ever!

  4. Oh my Gosh!!! That throw away line ‘Even if it was just my own self-defeating thoughts I was winning against.’ To triumph over our own self-defeating thoughts is to beat our WORST critic, the epitome of nay-sayers, the one who can defeat us with ‘a glance’. You are so brave, so strong, so amazing….and this is so what I need to hear right now. You will triumph because you have defeated your ‘dark’ side, the negative you who likes to keep her head down and not stand out from the crowd – not win. Once you have beaten her, convinced her that she has no durisdiction in your world, made her part of your ‘team’ you will be unstoppable. You GO girl! Love your website btw (and obviously your blog). Have fun on your adventure, looking forward to hearing lots more about it.

    <3 Liz xx

  5. Nice post Neely! I check out Paleoplan for the recipes and Paleo know-how, but I’m really enjoying reading your posts! As a rock-climber and mountain-person myself, I’m right there with you on the roadblocks we create with negative self-talk. Your honesty about self-doubt and failure, even with all your accomplishments, and how you overcome those feelings really spoke to me today.

    I’m personally dealing with the biggest unforeseen challenge in my life- simply trying to find decent, steady work after finishing graduate school. It’s been going on for a couple years now and has left me in a mire of doubt with feelings of failure worse than any un-climbable 5.13 ever did. I don’t even want to get into how my climbing has suffered, it’s been 3 years since I’ve been on-the-rock! :/

    But, I did want to say that even though my current situation is not ideal, I started a Paleo diet a couple months ago and have been losing some unwanted weight and generally feeling better. Even though the big picture of my life is not what I want it to be, eating well and feeling healthier now gives me a feeling of accomplishment that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

    Thanks for your interesting updates and good luck on the trip!

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