More than a Climber

This week, after a not-so-minor breakdown at the gym and the inevitable self-analyzing that followed, I had a bit of an epiphany.

I was climbing with my lovely fiancè. Seth has climbed a bit, but he mostly races bicycles for his physical activity of choice. We have decided to climb Devil’s Tower together before the wedding, so he’s been joining me a lot more lately. It’s great. I love being able to spend that time with him and share something that I love doing.

It turns out that he’s really good at it.I shouldn’t be surprised. Seth is a natural athlete; I’ve never seen him not excel at a physical sport. But, between the two of us, climbing’s always been my ‘thing.’ I discovered it on my own, and although I’ve only been climbing for 2.5 years, it’s held a powerful presence in my life. I’m the climber, he’s the cyclist. So when he was climbing the same routes that I was, and sometimes more difficult grades, within the span of a few months, it was hard to swallow. I found myself being pouty and grumpy about it. Really pouty, and really grumpy. If it were a cartoon, I’d be standing in the corner with my arms crossed in front of me, saying “harumph.”

Seth and I enjoying a hike in Montana

Obviously, this is not the most mature reaction I could be having. This man whom I adore and with whom I love spending my time, is spending his time with me doing something that I love. Yay! He’s finding success and having fun. Hooray! He’s going to be just fine on the tower. Awesome! There’s no competition here, we’re just having fun and cheering each other on.

So what, exactly, is my problem? It’s definitely a mindset thing. I thought about it for a while, sat with it, and then it hit me.

Climbing is something that I love to do. It’s not who I am.

This was a major “A-ha!” moment for me. What differentiates the two is the language, and the mindset that results. There’s a huge difference between declaring: “I am a climber” vs. “I love to climb.” Here’s why:

I am a climber. When I think myself in this way, it takes the many facets of who I am and squeezes them into a single, tiny little box.There are a lot of things that I enjoy doing that don’t have to do with climbing at all, but declaring myself as “a climber” ties my identity to my climbing, at least in my head. There’s a lot of expectation and pressure rolled into that statement as well. If I declare that I am a climber, then I put pressure on myself to perform at a level at which I could be legitimately considered… a climber. A bad day at the gym therefore has a huge ripple-effect into the rest of my life. What’s the fun in that?

I love to climb. Just typing that feels so much freer. There’s no subtext there of how well I climb, just that I love it! Suddenly, the door is open for me to have other things I like to do in my life. I’m not defined by a single thing. Speaking those words says that climbing plays a big part in my life, but that it’s one facet of my life. And the implication is that there are many other facets as well. Suddenly, the pressure is taken off, and climbing is not something I have to do because it defines me… it’s something I do because I love to do it.

What a difference.

I ran into this same phenomenon a few years ago. I spent more than a decade of my life training as a classical musician. It was a big part of my life for a long time. When my interests and life goals began to shift, the process was painful, difficult, and drawn out, because my identity was wrapped up in being a bassoonist. Instead of saying “I’m studying to play professionally,” or “I love playing the bassoon,” I declared “I am a bassoonist.” The end. That small shift in language created a mindset for me that dwarfed all of the other facets of who I was. The shift away from that era of my life would have been much easier if I had allowed myself the flexibility of being multi-faceted.

So then, who am I? How do I describe myself?

I don’t know what the right answer is here, but it seems that personal qualities such as kindness, generosity, creativity, etc. describe a person in a very fundamental way, and the things that they enjoy doing are more of a reflection of who they are.

So, next time I climb with my sweetie, or climb at all…  I will remind myself that climbing does not define me. It’s something I love to do, it’s fun, it’s exciting. Climbing teaches me, and helps me to grow as a person. I am so fortunate to have found it and to be able to have it in my life, and to have people to share it with.

21 thoughts on “More than a Climber

  1. Lydia

    Eliz! I love this! It's so true. Language can make a big difference. And I'm glad you've shared your epiphany because I've had my share of the harumphs and I think it's for the very same reason. It's nice to know I'm not alone.

    Thank you for writing this and thank you for being you, however you choose to describe you.


  2. Whitney

    Thank you for sharing! I have these moments as well (with my boyfriend) he's really good, he's not afraid at lead climbing and I've had my pouty moments as well.
    Good reminder of why we climb 🙂

  3. Nicola Underdown

    Great post, though I envy your equilibrium – my significant other and I are still at the 'climbing is mine, every other sport in the world is yours' stage. His very occasional trips with me to the climbing wall led to him being a bit too good for my liking and so marital harmony reigns at present – though I so wish we could share a hobby (while I crush and he is impressed)! 🙂

  4. Julie

    Thanks for the great insight: reframing what you are versus what you do changes your attitude toward it. I could definitely apply this to my own life, as what I "am" professionally might undergo some (big?) changes, but it won't change what I love to do.

    Great blog, by the way. I can't wait to read about Devil's Tower! Definitely a place I want to visit/climb.

  5. Paukku

    Great post. Very insightful. I am uncomfortable with labels – for myself and others – just for that reason.

    Really enjoyed the read! Thanks!

  6. Elizabeth

    Thanks, all, for the comments. Glad to know that it strikes a chord with you. I have a feeling I'll be coming back to this for a long time to come.

  7. Brendan

    Good thoughts. Climbing definitely influences how I deal with other things in life, and is a huge part of who I am, but I look at this year, and I've spent more days writing about climbing than actually climbing (2 days on rock, 2 days on ice). But I'm still a climber — I know when I get done with all this work, I need to get back out there and do what I love.

  8. TerROAR

    Lovely and insightful post! I think it's really productive and important to unwrap the ways in which language pushes and pulls us like this.

    This got tricky for me during a conversation I had three years ago, when I first started climbing. I was out on a long trad trip in the backcountry with a mentor and another climber who was slightly more experienced than me. I was trying to explain to these folks that climbing was my non-competitive sport, that when I wanted to compete I looked to my other sport, sailing, and when I wanted to zone out I climbed. But I felt like no less of a climber for it. But my mentor vehemently disagreed and proceeded to explain to me that I did not deserve the mantel of "climber", that I was an amateur, and that, since I had this attitude about climbing, I probably also had it about sailing and my job and everything else I did in life. So, here I was, explaining in what ways I felt that I owned the term and what my limitations were, and bam! it's being taken away from me. (This was an adversarial mentorship at its outset, which is fodder for another story…)

    Point being, you can choose to call yourself a "climber" or "one who loves climbing" depending on what empowers you at any given moment. At that time I desperately needed acknowledgment and support for the time and effort I was putting into it. I wanted, I was trying my damndest, to be a climber! In some situations, you'll be challenged over you choice. It's OK. What's important — and now I'm reiterating what you said — is the way in which that characterization is productive for you, not how it matches up with others' assessment. In my humble opinion, of course 🙂

  9. Tali

    Love this. I have an issue of not having a reliable climbing partner and have begun to feel that I am no longer a climber.

    I realized that not climbing frequently doesn't change that I love climbing nor doe it change who I am.

    Good stuff.

  10. SueBear

    Thanks for this post! I really enjoyed reading it. Often, I get so frustrated with myself in climbing. It is something that I love doing and could not imagine life w/o it…however, I get so frustrated at times that I'm not performing as well as I should be considering I've been climbing now since summer of 2007. Feeling that way puts pressure on me (defining that I'm a "climber"), and then I begin to hate climbing. It starts becoming a chore. Life is all about perception! If we can change our language, we can change the way we perceive certain things, then our feelings for something we love to do will change.

  11. Laura

    Agree with all of those above! I met my husband at the climbing gym. . . I'm a competitive person (insert "Div 1 hurdler" for "Bassoonist" and you've nailed it. I find that I sometimes take a bit too much joy in his struggle with a route. It isn't that I like to see him fail, I just like to know that EVERYTHING (i.e Every Route) isn't a flash for him. I think that we can use our s/o's successes (and they can use ours) to make us all better climbers. . .instead of becoming complacent with the status quo (something that my s/o and I are both guilty of).
    My advice (for what it's worth) – Look at it as a challenge. . . he's just going to make you better :). And what better way to spend the rest of your life than with someone who challenges you in what you love? Best wishes with your upcoming wedding!

  12. Elizabeth

    Wow, thanks for all the love! I'm blown away. It sounds like this resonates with a lot of you. There are some great things to think about in these comments! I am more and more convinced that the words we use in our self-talk affect our world in a profound way. This is just one example of that.

    I can learn a lot from climbing with my fiance, and I think he can learn a lot from me, too. 🙂 I like the idea of looking at it as a challenge. We can push each other to climb harder, and what's not to like about that?

  13. Erica Lineberry

    This resonates with me too. I went through the same sort of thing when I tore my rotator cuff a couple of years ago. It was more than just not being able to climb (although that sucked…). It was that all of a sudden I felt like I didn't have an identity anymore without climbing in my life. I'm actually glad that the injury happened b/c it made me think about a lot of that sort of stuff and I think my life is a lot more balanced now b/c of it.

    Anyway, great post – thanks for being so open with your thoughts 🙂

  14. She's Changing Her Name

    Haha, when I first read this I immediately thought of my partner-in-climb's boyfriend who is great at everything too. He will not climb for weeks and then onsite a 5.10c me and Ashley have been working on.

    But like Seth, he's a great guy so we laugh it off, because really, we just want to climb stuff like you.

  15. @womenoutdoors

    I had the same experience when I brought my twin brother climbing for the first time. Within a couple of hours, he was tackling the overhanging routes and doing alright… within about six days of climbing, he was completing every route.

    I was excited at first about how well he took to it and then started feeling a little pang of jealousy. I was the one who had moved from Florida to Utah and learned all these things (like climbing & skiing) I had never really known much about growing up. But here was my best friend & twin brother excelling in a fraction of the time at things that had taken me so long.

    I think your self-analysis is right on, Elizabeth! If I looked at it as "I love to climb" then I allow others to love to climb as well- we're all just doing it to have a good time. However, if I label myself, then I label others and it becomes a competition or vying for positions as what climber is better.

    Thanks for the reality check and good luck to you and your fiance with training for your pre-wedding climb! Love it!

  16. MountainEnthusiast

    Great post! I think that climbing is about having FUN. Yes, be in competition with yourself but not others. At the end of the day it's not about who climbed the hardest route, its who had the most fun!

    "…climbing is not something I have to do because it defines me… it's something I do because I love to do it."
    Couldn't have said it better myself.

  17. SuzRocks

    I've thought about this SOO much. I moved to CO b/c I wanted to climb- I met a bunch of people and climbed, learned how to be a better climber, then I met my husband- who already WAS a bad-ass climber.

    And all the sudden, I went from wanting to climb all the time to not really wanting to. I got some sort of complex about our climbing relationship. Somewhat pouty, if you will….I was upset that I now wasn't learning how to climb 'all on my own', now it seemed like I climbed just b/c my boyfriend did.

    It took leaving CO for grad school to realize that I really DO love to climb- but climbing doesn't define me. I often think about all my 'twitter friends' and how I have my climbing/writing/blogging/skiing/nursing/humanitarian/travel/etc 'friends' -everyone is in this certain subset and while I fit in ALL of those subsets, I don't want to be defined by any one of them alone.

    Anyway- that was a very long and somewhat convoluted way of saying, I totally get what you're saying. 🙂

  18. shawnreeder

    Having the realization that I love to climb and that I'm not just a climber was one of the most freeing realizations ever. It is amazing what a difference it makes.

  19. Elizabeth

    Dang, I love all of the comments here. Thank you everyone for sharing your stories, experiences, and thoughts. Great to know that this rang true with a lot of you.

    Thanks for reading!!!

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