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Self-Consciousness in Climbing: How to Liberate yourself from its negative impacts and find improved fulfillment and performance. 

Have you ever felt self-conscious while climbing? Do you ever think about how skilled, strong, talented, or accomplished other people think you are? I know in the past that I have let self-consciousness prevent me from doing many things, such as trying certain climbs, performing to my maximal potential, enjoying my time to the fullest, feeling proud of myself, and finding true fulfillment in our sport. I let my anxiety about what others thought about me detract from my experience in a sport that I fell in love with for the purest of reasons. I started climbing because it was fun to do, I had autonomy in choosing my climbs, could be as creative as I wanted in many ways, and felt happy when I mentally solved and physically completed the puzzle in front of me and felt a new level of mastery.

For years as a teenager, I let these be my only intrinsic motivators and felt nothing but bliss when I would think of or participate in climbing. But, at some point in my early twenties, I began to struggle with self-consciousness and learned that I was not alone. Once I became aware of it in myself, I started seeing it in many of the athletes I coached and friends I climbed with. I felt how much it held me back in my performance and decreased my levels of fulfillment. Seeing it happen to those around me, I jumped at the opportunity to learn how to help them overcome it. In studying the subject and learning how to treat this “illness” that affects our minds, I learned it myself and have been able to set myself and others free from the endless loop of chasing happiness where it can never truly be found.

Our Brains are naturally designed to be Self-Conscious

People tend to be self-conscious about how others perceive them due to a variety of reasons, including evolutionary, social, and psychological factors. Here are a few key reasons:

  1. Evolutionary reasons: Throughout human evolution, being part of a social group has been crucial for survival. In order to maintain social bonds and avoid being ostracized from the group, individuals have developed sensitivity to social cues and judgments from others. Being aware of how others perceive us helped our ancestors navigate social hierarchies and form alliances.

  2. Social acceptance: Humans are inherently social beings, and social acceptance is important for our well-being. We seek approval and validation from others because being accepted by our peers provides a sense of belonging and security. Fear of rejection or disapproval can lead to anxiety about how we're perceived.

  3. Cultural norms and expectations: Society imposes certain standards and expectations regarding behavior, appearance, and achievements. People often internalize these norms and fear judgment or criticism if they deviate from them. 

  4. Self-esteem and identity: How others perceive us can influence our self-esteem and sense of identity. Positive feedback from others can bolster our self-confidence, while negative feedback or perceived judgment can undermine it. Therefore, people may be self-conscious about how they are perceived in order to protect their self-esteem and preserve their sense of self-worth.

  5. Comparative thinking: Humans have a tendency to compare themselves to others, whether consciously or unconsciously. This can lead to self-consciousness as people worry about how they measure up to others in terms of appearance, achievements, or social status.

How Self-Consciousness Can Affect Your Climbing

While it's natural to care about the opinions of others to some extent, excessive self-consciousness can be detrimental to one's mental health and well-being. Self-consciousness can have a significant impact on climbing performance in several ways:

  1. Increased anxiety: When climbers are self-conscious, they may become overly focused on how they appear to others or how they are being judged. This can lead to heightened anxiety and self-doubt, which in turn can impair concentration and decision-making on the wall.

  2. Distracted focus: Self-consciousness can shift a climber's focus away from the task at hand, such as executing skills or making split-second decisions. Instead, they may become preoccupied with thoughts about how they look, what others are thinking about them, or fear of making mistakes.

  3. Impaired confidence: Self-consciousness can erode a climber’s confidence in their abilities. They may second-guess themselves, hesitate during critical moments, or avoid taking risks for fear of failure or embarrassment in front of others. 

  4. Tension and stiffness: Physical manifestations of self-consciousness, such as tension in the body or stiffness in movements, can negatively impact performance. Climbers may experience decreased fluidity in their movements, reduced power output, or increased susceptibility to injury.

  5. Negative self-talk: Self-consciousness often leads to negative self-talk, where athletes criticize themselves internally or engage in self-sabotaging thoughts. This negative mindset can undermine motivation and resilience, making it harder to bounce back from setbacks or challenges.

  6. Social comparison: Climbers who are overly self-conscious may constantly compare themselves to their peers or opponents, leading to feelings of inadequacy or inferiority. This can create a sense of pressure to perform at a certain level or meet unrealistic standards set by others. (For years, I felt obligated to climb a V13 and truly felt that I was inferior to the climbers that I knew that had climbed that grade. It wasn’t until I had let go of my self-consciousness that I actually began sending V13s; what a paradox!)

  7. Fear of failure: Self-conscious climbers may fear failure more acutely than their counterparts, as they worry about how mistakes or setbacks will reflect on them in the eyes of others. This fear can be paralyzing and prevent athletes from taking risks or fully committing to their performance. (In my twenties, I used to avoid trying very crimpy climbs a few grades below what I normally send because I was afraid of falling on lower grades in front of people around me. This limited my practice on my weaknesses and hindered my improvement significantly.)

10 Strategies to Manage Negative Self Talk

coach charlie schreiber making a funny face on a bouldering pad

Overall, self-consciousness can create a mental and emotional burden that interferes with a climber's ability to perform at their best. If affected climbers do not develop strategies to manage self-consciousness, it will plague them for the rest of their climbing careers. Working on not caring what other people think of you can be a liberating journey towards greater self-confidence and authenticity.

These are the strategies that I employed for myself and have used to help many climbers break free from this negative frame of mind:

  1. Self-awareness: Start by becoming more aware of your thoughts and feelings about yourself and others. Notice when you're seeking approval or validation from others and reflect on why you feel that way. Understanding your underlying motivations can help you address them more effectively. The best way that I found of doing this was by journaling. I journaled about my sessions and all of my thoughts (during warm-up, during drills and immediately after the session). I then would re-read my journal entries and analyze what aspects of and types of sessions would make me feel fulfilled, accomplished and was the most fun! 

  2. Focus on your values: with more awareness of your thoughts and feelings, you can begin to clarify your own values and priorities in life. When you have a strong sense of self and know what matters most to you, external opinions become less influential. Focus on living in alignment with your values rather than seeking approval from others. I thought about the happiest, most fulfilled and successful I ever am in life outside of climbing and why I felt that way in those moments. I then drew the parallels to my climbing life and was able to understand exactly where my TRUE joy spawned from. 

  3. Challenge negative beliefs: Identify and challenge any negative beliefs you have about yourself or your worth based on others' opinions. Remind yourself that everyone has their own subjective perspectives and judgments, which may not always be accurate or fair. I once overheard someone say “Charlie Schreiber just sent that one, so you’ll probably flash it!” I could have let that get in my head that day, but I barely knew that person and knew that they knew very little about me and thus, their statement held no validity to me. I knew I was a strong and talented climber, regardless of what this person believed!  

  4. Practice self-compassion: Treat yourself with kindness and compassion, especially when facing criticism or rejection from others. Remember that it's normal to make mistakes and have flaws, and these do not define your worth as a person. Everyone falls. Everyone can move better, be stronger, solve faster. The best in the world fall 1000 times on their projects before they send them. “Failure” is inevitable; so don’t freak out when it happens; it always will! So learn to celebrate the successes in these moments, not dwell on the failures! I find it therapeutic and enjoy my sessions far more when I let myself get excited and state an out-loud optimistic statement when I fall or even just say, “that's ok!” 

  5. Set healthy boundaries: Establishing boundaries is crucial for protecting your mental and emotional well-being. Learn to say no to things that don't align with your values or priorities, and don't feel obligated to please everyone at the expense of your own needs. This may sound silly, but on trips to destinations around the world; I don’t get on certain boulders that I know are very much in my style, yet don’t excite me. People told me I should go do “Trojan War,” while in Fontainebleau, a V11 compression line that is the definition of what I am good at. I wasn’t inspired by the line, but was told by about 10 different people that I need to go send it because it will be such an easy 11-points for me. The problem was, there were many other climbs that looked far more inspiring to me and would offer me a better experience in learning new movements and advancing my skills. 

  6. Focus on internal validation: Instead of seeking validation from others, cultivate self-validation by recognizing your own achievements, strengths, and growth. Celebrate your progress and accomplishments, regardless of whether others acknowledge them. I constantly look back at my journals and reflect on how much I have improved in many different areas of my climbing and life! I find that the more I reflect on my successes, the happier I feel and more tolerant of obstacles I am! I still can’t do my hard crimp project; but man oh man, how much progress I have made in my leg work and tension! 

  7. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, can help you stay grounded in the present moment and reduce anxiety about what others think. Focus on being fully present and accepting of yourself without judgment. I also believe that using mood-boosting techniques are a stellar way to turn a session around! When I have a hard day or get upset during my sessions, I watch the same funny video (the magic happens at :50) that has made me laugh for as long as I can remember. It puts a smile on my face and improves the quality of my session, without fail! 

  8. Surround yourself with supportive people: Surround yourself with friends and loved ones who accept you for who you are and support your personal growth. Having a strong support network can boost your confidence and provide encouragement during challenging times. I have always been so lucky to have amazing friends in climbing, who I hangout with outside of the gym and who love me for me and don’t judge me based on my climbing. Find yourself company that makes any type of session fun, no matter the quality of the climbing.

  9. No one is thinking about you: Most individuals, just like you, are primarily focused on their own experiences, goals, and challenges. Stop and think about how YOU think of other climbers and how much time you spend thinking about other people when you are at the crag/gym. Let me guess, not very much and nowhere near the amount of time you spend thinking about yourself? It's important to recognize that people's thoughts about you are often fleeting and don’t occupy a significant portion of their mental energy. Unless you're directly involved in their current activities or conversations, others are unlikely to spend time dwelling on you specifically. Basically, you may be stressing over something that doesn’t even exist! 

  10. Seek professional help if needed: If self-consciousness or concern about others' opinions significantly impacts your daily life or self-esteem, consider seeking support from a therapist or counselor. They can help you explore underlying issues and develop coping strategies to build resilience. During the early stages of my transformative journey, I visited a therapist weekly to discuss my progress and help me manage my thoughts and feelings. I did everything they recommended and stayed consistent in all of these practices and went down to bi-weekly meetings, then monthly meetings and then within 6-months felt ready to go the rest of the way by myself. 

Remember that overcoming the fear of judgment is a gradual process that takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and celebrate each step forward towards greater self-acceptance and authenticity. 

In conclusion...

Overcoming self-consciousness in climbing isn't just about improving performance—it's about reclaiming the joy and fulfillment that drew us to the sport in the first place. It's easy to let self-consciousness hold us back from reaching our fullest potential, from trying new routes to relishing the simple pleasure of movement on the wall. I fell in love with climbing because it offered freedom, creativity, and the thrill of conquering challenges. I unfortunately let self-doubt creep in and cast a shadow over my passion. Determined to break free from this cycle, I embarked on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment. By cultivating self-awareness, focusing on my values, and challenging negative beliefs, I began to liberate myself from the grip of self-consciousness. I learned to celebrate my progress and embrace my unique journey, regardless of others' opinions. Surrounding myself with supportive friends and seeking professional guidance were crucial steps in this transformative process. And through it all, I came to a profound realization: while it's natural to care about the opinions of others, the truth is, most people are too wrapped up in their own lives to dwell on us for long. By letting go of the fear of judgment and embracing our true selves, we can rediscover the pure joy and fulfillment that drew us to climbing in the first place. So, fellow climbers, let us cast aside the shackles of self-consciousness and soar to new heights, both on and off the wall!

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