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Free Soloing: The Mind's Drive for Perfection



Over the last couple of years, my husband and I have gotten into rock-climbing. Prior to the pandemic, in fact, we were getting to our local rock-climbing gym two to three times a week. It’s been a welcome and needed way for us to get in some physical activity, experience challenge and reward, and spend meaningful time together. I actually really love it! As such, it was natural that a few weeks ago, we decided to watch the documentary Free Solo.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Free Solo follows the story of rock-climbing star Alex Honnold’s journey up El Capitan, a 7569’ mountain in Yosemite National Park in California. What makes Alex’s journey so remarkable, and terrifying, is that he free solos the climb… meaning, he climbs it without ropes, a harness, or any protective gear. In case you’re wondering, the end result of a free solo climb up a mountain like El Cap is one of two options: 1) success or 2) falling, likely to one’s death. Thus, to say “the stakes are high” is an understatement.

I could likely debrief Free Solo the documentary and free solo climbing in general for pages. However, that’s not what has been striking me most as I have tried to process this concept in recent weeks. What has stayed with me specifically is a conversation I had with one of my clients in the days after I first saw the movie.

My client and I were talking about perfectionism: about the endless drive to do things “right” and to meet the often unrealistic demands of an often unrelenting mind. To get deeper still, we were exploring how difficult it can be to make important life decisions when a part of our mind is trying to tell us that the risks of choosing the “wrong” path are truly perilous.

That’s when I thought back to free soloing.

It dawned on me that our mind regularly tries to trick us into thinking that in life, we are free soloing... we are going it alone, without back-up, without protection. When actually free solo climbing, one wrong move, one misplaced step, can be the difference between life and death.

So, how does that perspective translate to every day life? I’ll tell you. Choose the wrong career? Meet your demise. Move to the wrong place? Plan to endure endless suffering. Date or even marry the wrong person? Your life is definitely over.

Whether we are trying to discern whether to go to this college or that college, see this doctor or that doctor, take guitar lessons or painting lessons, our minds can work to convince us that each and every decision has huge, lifelong consequences from which there is no return. The end result is often that we freeze. We feel stuck and panicked. We go nowhere and do nothing because the risk of moving forward is simply too big to chance.

The reality, however, is that more often than not, we actually do have ropes. More often than not, even if we slip, fall, and/or choose the wrong path, we will ultimately be okay. Very, very rarely are our decisions as humans actually life or death. Instead, we get to change course, mess up, experiment, take a few steps forward and another few steps back. All along the way, we have the opportunity to learn and grow and receive valuable information for the next step we choose to take. Most of us, most of the time, are not free soloing… we are just straight up, normal rock-climbing: ropes, harness, and all.

What’s even more interesting and reassuring to me is that when they took an MRI of Alex Honnold’s brain to scan for any peculiarities, what they found was astounding. When the control group’s amygdalae fired up in response to threat, Alex’s stayed calm, unresponsive. Our amygdala is the fear center of our brain; it’s what keeps us safe and warns us of danger. Our amygdala is made to warn us when we are getting desperately close to free soloing our way through life. When it doesn’t, that’s when we’re potentially in real danger.

That means that most of us can be thankful for well functioning fear centers that remind us we don’t need to go it alone. We get to have people, places, beliefs, and practices that support us, hold us, and uplift us through life. These “ropes”, whatever they are made up of, work to carry us when we fall and give us permission to try new things. They remind us that we aren’t meant to do life “perfectly” we are simply meant to put our best foot forward, step by step, as we slowly and intentionally climb, pause, recalibrate, and continue climbing through life on our own unique course.

We’ve got this. When needed, remind your relentless mind that you are not free soloing after-all. You instead prefer the traditional, challenging, yet, more forgiving, way.

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