Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mixed Messages: What’s a Woman Rock Climber to Do?

I’ve always been amazed at how social dynamics in the climbing world reflect and often exaggerate the rest of my world. Should be no surprise really. We recreate social dynamics in every facet of our lives so climbing should be no different. The funny thing is that I tend to overlook the dynamic when it’s happening outside of climbing, or maybe just accept it as status quo, and then look more closely at it when I see it repeated in my climbing life.

One of those social dynamics I see recreated in the climbing world are the mixed messages I get as a woman rock climber.

One social dynamic tells me that as a heterosexual woman that men will find me attractive if I appear vulnerable and needing their protection or support (yes, I’m broadly generalizing to make a point). While the feminist social dynamic tells me I have to be strong and independent regardless of who finds me attractive. So in the climbing world does that mean that if I am a strong and independent female climber then men won’t find me attractive? I see strong women rock climbers hooking up with male rock climbers all the time, so obviously some men find a strong female rock climber attractive.

Or maybe they find me attractive but the relationship is a disaster because of the opposing expectations? In a relationship it’s very hard to be both vulnerable and strong and independent.

My own personal dating history can be boiled down to this: man finds me attractive as a strong independent rock climber and then doesn’t know what to do with me when I’m vulnerable and needing emotional support. Relationship eventually crumbles because they expect me to be strong all the time. Or I dated non rock climbers who were attracted to me for my vulnerable feminine side and then didn’t know what to do with me when they saw that I was a strong rock climber. They were intimidated by it.

From another perspective you could also say my dating history can be boiled down to this: I was trying to figure out for myself what mix of vulnerable vs. independent worked for me as a modern western woman and had a difficult time attracting a man with a balance of those expectations because I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it. I’m sure I too was sending out contradicting messages of vulnerable vs. independent and those men had a hard time understanding what was expected of them. What about the men? Are they aware of what mix of vulnerable vs. independent they want in a partner? When you have two partners unconsciously trying to find a balance between levels of vulnerable vs. independent it’s going to create friction eventually either on or off the rock.

As a therapist, I see this vulnerable vs. independent dynamic playing out all the time in couples who seek therapy trying to save their relationship. The way I see it, you can’t fix anything that you aren’t aware of doing in the first place.

If you are a woman rock climber and you are having conflict with your partner (same sex couples apply here too!) either when you climb together or outside of climbing, take an honest look at this dynamic of vulnerable vs. independent and see if it is affecting your relationship. Are you giving out the same mixed messages to your partner that you receive from society?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Are Rock Climbers Control Freaks?

A control freak is usually seen as something bad. But a climber with excellent emotional and physical self-control is considered enviable and it’s a skill set most climbers want to have. So really what’s the difference?

By definition a control freak is someone who tries to control the people and environments around them, usually by over controlling and micromanaging in order to get some sense of control in their lives. Being a control freak usually develops from not having much control in your environment when growing up (strict or abusive parents, multiple unexpected changes, or experiencing some other kind of disempowered state). Many of us take that feeling of insecurity and transform it into something more manageable. Some people do that by becoming control freaks. I argue that some of us became rock climbers.

Regardless of where our need to control came from, as rock climbers, what’s more important is how we harness that need for control.

You’ll remember that when I wrote about Flow in July (Addicted to Finding Flow) that I said I would revisit it, and this is one of those times. On the list of requirements needed in order to obtain Flow, #5 is: “You have a sense of control over the activity.” The question becomes though, what are you exactly controlling in the first place?

The way I see it, you have two things you can control: your environment and your response to your environment.

If we try too hard to control our environment we start leaning more towards the control freak side of the spectrum. In doing so we are depending on external variables to tell us whether or not we feel in control. Controlling variables is ok up to a point. For example, we can choose what route to get on, how hard the rating is, whether we lead it or not. We can also control other common external variables like sleep, diet, and how many drinks we have with the group around the campfire the night before. When kept in check, controlling our environment looks more like smart preparation. And enough preparation can leave you with increased mental energy to cope with unexpected challenges (Jackson p. 133).

If a climber spends too much energy trying to control the environment, then they can also start blaming the environment for their lack of success: I couldn’t reach the hold, the music playing in the gym sucked, this route setter sucks, my belayer sucked, etc. Focusing too much on our environment actually takes away from the focus needed to get absorbed into the climb (#4 on the list of Flow requirements). The more we try to externally control, the less we actually feel in control.

If we can accept that controlling the environment has limits then we can begin focusing on what is really important: our emotional and physical responses to the challenge. With this acceptance comes responsibility. A climber needs to be responsible for their own thoughts and actions in response to a challenge instead of blaming variables in their environment. Susan Jackson in her book, “Flow in Sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances,” notes that the key to flow is preparing the “controllables” and then letting go of consciously controlling. She adds, “…releasing the desire to be in control can paradoxically result in more control (p. 129).”