I gave a workshop at the Women’s Wilderness Summit Sisters this past June in Allenspark, Colorado. “The Self-Confidence Formula” was meant to explore our “badassery” as women. We discussed why having flaws and feelings of failure are a part of our story, and why they add to our emotional development. We’re so quick to brush our failures underneath and often forget that the struggles we endure are what make each story unique and worth telling. I wanted to create a place to explore the perception of self and how that relates to the rest of the world, creates our success, and turns life’s challenges and setbacks into a fire to fuel us.
The workshop was built on a brief presentation I gave for Women’s Wilderness about a year ago about my big wall expedition to Africa. In May of 2016, I was asked to join an expedition, having absolutely no experience in establishing big wall first ascents whatsoever. I stupidly tend to have a “just say yes” attitude towards most things. My team partner assured me that he would show me everything I needed to know, that he “could teach anybody how to big wall climb, but you can’t teach attitude.”
I talked about São Tomé and how even the most basic tasks were very hard. Every day was a practice in problem-solving skills with very limited resources. I have always believed in “doing your best” no matter the situation, but even that fell short of everyone’s expectations, including my own. Being the only female member of the team was painfully apparent and I had never felt so disconnected from my teammates or climbing partners. I lived in isolation for four weeks, and the feeling of lonesomeness eventually created blame, all of which I pointed towards myself.
It’s important to mention I have six years experience under my belt. I’ve climbed both rock and ice multi-pitch, long sustained routes in Zion National Park, Squamish, Yosemite, the Black Canyon. But nothing would prepare me for living in the jungle for four weeks with an all-male climbing and production team. It was, to say the least, the most humbling epic failure of my life. It took a pretty severe panic attack to reach that “rock bottom” place and I really had to force myself to start looking up. It was more than just “looking up” though. In order to get out of the hole I’d somehow dug myself into, I had to examine how I’d gotten there in the first place.
My biggest goal of that year had been to become a wall climber. I’d dreamt about it for years. Upon my return home, I found myself sitting on a sidewalk curb with all of my dreams shattered around me. So, I wrote about it because it forced me to think about it, which eventually forced me to talk about it. I initially struggled to tell the story because I had a really hard time admitting that kind of defeat. I was ashamed. I felt like an imposter. I was so beat down morally, to the point that I was honestly ready to quit climbing altogether (and I’m glad I didn’t.)
Because in March of this past year, I used that failure to light a fire under my ass. I aid soloed my first big wall in Zion National Park. I definitely didn’t do it alone and had a lot of help from some really great people. But the actual solo of the wall—I was by myself the entire time. There was nobody to blame for my fuck ups or rescue me and fix my problems.
What I brought to the workshop was this:
– We all have feelings of failure
– We all have flaws
These are the things that add to our story in ways we can’t always see at the moment. It’s it’s important not to write them out (the tears, the fuck ups, the countless struggles), but we do. We do this for a couple of reasons:
– This is an understatement but—it’s easier to ignore bad feelings than it is to understand them
– We want to put our best features in the limelight
HOWEVER, this is what we lose when we do:
– The chance for emotional development
– The chance to acknowledge where we can do better and what we can improve upon
– That (really, truly, and honestly) the shitty stuff is what makes your story unique and worth telling
It’s a really wonderful story, you know, the one where the heroine grows up and has a perfect childhood, is always successful, and all of her dreams come true–but it’s also kind of boring.
Where does self-confidence come from? We aren’t born into the world with it. We definitely don’t have it all of the time. And having it isn’t like when you reach a summit or finish a book or graduate from college. You aren’t just…finished. Talking until you’re blue in the face about it won’t mean you’ve achieved it, either. So, where in the heck does it come from? Young girls aren’t necessarily encouraged to be passive, but we also aren’t encouraged to be too daring. This is something that’s changing, but change takes time. We’re used to praising boys for their accomplishments and telling little girls how “pretty” they look. So, sometimes, this is already so deeply rooted within us. Even when we know that it isn’t true, we’re conditioned to consider our self-worth in our looks and less our accomplishments.
Today, we don’t keep our heads down and we don’t play by traditional rules. But while we are making undeniable progress, the biggest gap of all is the confidence gap between men and women. In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. But the studies also say that: their performances do not differ in quality.
Overheard one year at Ouray Ice Festival from a pro-climber teaching a clinic:
“In the end, in regards to both men and women, while women will often pull as hard as the men do, they are still more hesitant.”
Personally, I agree. I’ve felt this hesitation myself, many times–in the middle of a crux pitch, in that no-fall zone. Sometimes, even before I’m tied into the rope. I hesitate because it’s scary as fuck to put ourselves in a situation where we could potentially fail. But in an outcome where we do not succeed, having the confidence to accept and admit those failures says two things about us:
– We’re human, goddamnit
– We’re willing to look at our own vulnerabilities. We can see where we can stretch our legs a little bit from there, how we can grow. Learn. Do better next time–and there is always a next time
I did an interview with Mary Harlan recently when I was writing about vulnerability. I called it “Do Not Go Outside To Cry” because I wanted to talk about the pressure to prove that, as women, we are as capable as our male counterparts and how it creates a tendency to internalize a message that says, “To be strong means to be unbreakable.”—that being strong and showing your feelings cannot coincide.
Mary talked about her first ten years of climbing. She often partnered with other women to do bigger things, but if they didn’t accomplish their goal, there was so much self-deprecating talk. In her experience climbing with both men and women, she felt as though female partners have had a much bigger tendency to be the harshest on themselves. You could keep a brave face and positive attitude, but internally feel shitty.
She concluded with: “We all say that failure gives us depth, but it’s hard to admit it.”
For me, gaining the confidence to admit defeat and reveal the true parts of who I was during my big wall expedition meant I could finally feel free to be vulnerable. And while being vulnerable is terrifying, being confident in accepting such a huge responsibility is a brave and necessary step. It’s how successful women create belief in self, which is required to push the limits of their abilities (even at risk of public failure and humiliation).
So my formula?
– TAKE THE RESPONSIBILITY. It’s the most important step.
– EXPERIMENT WITH LIFE. Trial and error. Lots of it. Try new things constantly. You can start small, taking one step at a time. Whatever it is: take a clinic to enhance your climbing skills, a writing course, or teach yourself how to repair something. It doesn’t matter what it is—just do things that continuously test your ability.
– MAKE A PLAN. Develop one and implement it. Initially, I was so unprepared for Africa. When I started thinking about getting ready for my aid solo wall, I knew I couldn’t just show up at the wall and expect somebody to teach me. I practiced for hours and for back-to-back days. I researched the crap out of aid soloing. I ate slept and breathed it. Most days, it felt like I had so far to go, but I knew that I had to start somewhere.
– STICK TO SAID PLAN. Confidence isn’t going to immediately come from every attempt. Try, fail, try, fail, try, succeed and feel a little bit good about that. Gain the downhill momentum and keep moving—confidence develops from the increasing belief that you can rely on yourself, no matter what the result (win or lose).
And additionally, finding supportive, like-minded people to help you is part of the quest for gaining confidence and experience. Surround yourself with those who make you feel the most you, who are tuned to your frequency, that connect with your vibration and support your passions. The ones who are willing to push you, challenge you, and ask you the hard questions, but also love you unconditionally, quirks and all. At the end of the day, your support system is your tribe.
Before my big expedition, the team leader told me that he couldn’t teach attitude. He was right–self-confidence ultimately will come down to our attitude, knowledge, and experiences.
Cover photograph courtesy of Tim Foote.