Perfectionism and the Art of Rock Climbing

I don’t want every day to be a fight. I spend a lot of time worried that I’m going to slip — like no matter how strongly I start the day, something is going to go sideways and I will fall off. That’s not a real way to be here, is it?

I want to just experience things.

Rock climbing reentered my life about a month after I put all that down in my journal. I say “reentered” because my first experience came in childhood, courtesy of my older sister’s desire to try it and my dad’s desire to consolidate our schedules. Climbing fit snugly into a universe that otherwise consisted of basketball, video games, Xena, and general mischief. I loved the climbing gym. A quick Google confirms I still remember its layout.

The air in the gym near my current apartment smells exactly the same as that one. Gross, maybe — but I’d know it anywhere.

dividerroundtable

I arrived in DC without many expectations for the place but with a ton of them for myself. Somehow I would become the most professionally successful, politically astute, and most plugged-in me while simultaneously conjuring a social life, deepening my relationship, surviving my first even-remotely-real winter, and embracing a new city while not flaming out. I’d prepped for this moment in public ways (the liberal arts education, easy command of career trajectory, a strong community profile) and private ones (constant evaluation and revision of work habits, the podcast feed stuffed with productivity shows, a perpetual stomachache that eventually stopped registering). Honestly, by all appearances, it worked. No one can argue with the resume I’ve built here. I’m smarter than when I arrived and clearer about my desires. But that’s all due to unlearning, to everything I’ve had to unravel.

Perfectionism tops the list for sure. Its benefits are many and its costs are usually personal, the kinds of things we’ve sort of normalized by now as the price of admission to a meaningful life. If you’re a compulsively responsible do-gooder like me, of course you’ll pay, even if it hurts a little more each time. That’s just how it goes — especially when you’re in the continuous boss fight that is advocacy, activism, or social justice. Plus, every community has its grid of fine lines not to be crossed or even brushed against, so it helps if you’re already used to watching your step.

I always trusted my perfectionist instincts because let’s be real: they got me what I wanted. External validation, sure, but also an internal sense of goodness I had trouble mustering up any other way. I didn’t have to worry as long as I was always right. But of course, I did worry — constantly, about everything — because any new undertaking represented a chance to go wrong, to fail my community and myself. Getting meta about it for a minute, that’s why I’ve historically curdled with fear when writing. I’m an edit-as-I-go, one-and-done type who almost never produces second drafts. I understand their importance in the abstract, as a thing other people absolutely have the right to but that I haven’t allowed myself. What’s the point if I can’t do it right the first time?

I’ve dissected my disability and sexuality enough by this point to understand that I basically stood no chance of avoiding this kind of thinking. Give a girl enough straight As and she’s going to realize that there’s no security quite like achievement. In high school, I decided I could risk coming out precisely because people already knew me as well-liked, very involved, and probably smarter than you. I was right; I didn’t lose a single friend. In my twenties, when I started writing about my disability online, I regularly stayed up all night (and I do mean all night) to manicure the final product. People liked what they heard — but I also internalized a cycle of suffering and success that still gnaws at me more often than I’d like.

As a perfectionist, I’ll always be more comfortable sharing my shiny conclusions than my messy processes. And the best thing about climbing, for me, is that it’s pure process.

dividerroundtable

I’m not yet skilled enough to breeze through a route the same way twice in a row. Right now getting to the top feels like the payoff from a series of fortunate but entirely random choices. Part of it, I think, is that nondisabled people set the routes in my gym (and, I’d suspect, the vast majority of others). They host adaptive clinics here every month — which is actually how I got back into this whole game in the first place — but don’t change the routes during them at all. “Correct” paths up the wall are designed to challenge bodies that aren’t mine, so the likelihood of me sending on a first attempt (let alone explaining how I did it) is pretty slim. I’ve had to grapple with that a lot. It’s not just overcoming my lifelong reflex to prove my worth through competition; it’s also the fact that I have to show my work, particularly to my belayers.

Like my route setters, these folks are exclusively able-bodied, and if they have other kinds of disabilities, we’ve certainly never discussed them. I quite literally put my safety in their hands each time I’m on the wall. If we’re being honest, though, that’s not the scary part. Even worse than the possibility of falling is the inevitability of someone else getting a front row seat to me trying something new.

Ouch, right? I know. But that’s how my brain has worked up ‘til now. I wouldn’t say I fear big failures; I do, however, experience them as a time lapse of smaller ones every step of the way. By the time I get to the end of whatever it is I’m trying to do, I’ve pickled so thoroughly in anxiety and castigated myself so completely that the final result doesn’t matter. That goes double for new experiences (even fun ones). Until last summer, I hadn’t even attempted a new hobby since college. Sure, I can blame the exhaustion vortex that is working adulthood, but my clenched-fist resistance to any kind of vulnerability is just as responsible. Admitting that you want to try a thing, let alone having a stranger watch you do it from 30 feet down, requires trusting yourself to survive mistakes and trusting them not to judge you for it. A fight-or-flight operating system gets you precisely nowhere in that situation.

There’s also the fact that climbing is — to put it politely — really fucking hard. Its physical demands are no joke no matter who you are. For me, that’s meant a pretty intense overhaul of how I use and understand my body. Going from routine reliance on my arms to using my toes (?!) on a regular basis has been very confusing. I am routinely forced to engage muscles I never knew existed, move in ways I long assumed impossible, and execute feats of balance that feel questionable at best.

I do feel the need to say here, for any new-to-the-party able people reading this, that climbing doesn’t erase my disability, help me overcome or transcend anything about it, or make me more like you in any way. I’m still disabled; you still aren’t the point.

The point is trusting (there’s that word again) my body to stretch as I learn to be nicer to myself. I was really, really cruel before, even and especially when you’d never have guessed.

dividerroundtable

Living here has required its own renegotiation of my body. I now use a cane most of the time when I’m out in public. Initially I bought it for extra security in the snow, but it’s become invaluable when navigating packed trains and sidewalks full of East Coast speed walkers no matter the weather. It’s a Get Out of the Way signal that I only wish I’d been confident enough to use sooner. It also, it must be said, clarifies my “situation” for able-bodied people a lot more quickly. There’s a whole other essay in the fact that no one has questioned whether I’m “really disabled” in well over a year.

I do feel “really disabled” here — for perhaps the first time, which is complicated to admit. Before, cerebral palsy was more of a political identity than something that affected my day-to-day. It certainly made itself known, but during my last couple years in Los Angeles, I thought about it a lot more than I felt it. Now I feel it almost every day. Turns out I like seasons, but my body most certainly does not. There’s also the matter of navigation; for all the deeply real problems with LA being so car-centric, I miss being able to get everywhere in the same amount of time as an able-bodied person. I know lots of disabled folks for whom DC offers unprecedented logistical freedom. My experience has been the opposite. I’ve lost some independence being here. On the other hand, I’ve gained community, and feel “really disabled” because I’m part of that. Knowing I can run ideas or questions or problems by other actual disabled people, after decades of being The Only One or The Expert By Default, changes a lot.

But this is also the first time my body has felt like part of my job. It’s a form of credibility, proof of the “lived experience” that gets me a seat at a lot of tables around here. I’m Professionally Disabled now in a way that I only sort of was before. There’s incredible power in that, but it comes at an incredible cost. Turning an identity into a full-time job is dangerous for anyone — especially, as it turns out, a people-pleasing perfectionist. I’ve always had a hard time separating who I am from what I do and how good I can be at it. Here, that separation pretty much ceased to exist.

dividerroundtable

In retrospect, I understand that I got to Washington a little high on my own supply. It’s hard not to believe the hype when you land an important job thanks in large part to things you wrote online. The internet is a merciless hellscape, and yet I managed to avoid the worst of it despite being extremely public about very private things. No woman is ever supposed to pull that off. And I think, somewhere beneath what I could even articulate, I took that as evidence of my rightness and superiority as a person. I also only understood “whoopsie” failure at the time: mistakes I found personally humiliating but, in the grand scheme of things, were easily fixed. I didn’t know what it felt like to really, truly fuck up and have to own it.

Then I got my ass handed to me from May through August of last year. Plans I made and decisions I signed off on imploded repeatedly. I hurt people in ways I didn’t comprehend until it was too late. I internalized systemic failures as personal ones. And all that happening at once did a real number on my perfectionist brain. The reality is that I did the best I could, and actually prevented many bad situations from getting worse. But what I told myself, for months, was “You are a complete failure.”

When you hold yourself to impossible standards, you think you’re protecting yourself against disappointment, when you’re really just stunting your own growth. You and your work are either good or bad, right or wrong. There’s no “so far,” no “next time,” no “lesson learned” — there’s no process. But process is the only way actual change happens.

It’s not a coincidence that I started climbing again in the midst of all this.

dividerroundtable

I’m not actually very good at climbing, truth be told. It’s still new, and I don’t get to the gym as often as I’d like, and I usually feel clumsy when I’m up there. But I really love it. And even if I never got any better, never climbed any harder routes than the ones I do now, I’d still love it. Because it’s allowed me to see myself in an entirely new light. It’s introduced me to the value of a second (or third, or tenth) try. And it’s allowed me to embrace what I would have previously called irresponsibility, and am now learning to recognize as forgiveness.

I’m moving back to Los Angeles in the fall; most people don’t know that yet, though I suppose more will now. My girlfriend got into law school and it’s my turn to be the trailing spouse. I’m excited to bring this version of myself home — the one who understands that ultimately, being happy matters more. I’ll keep climbing, of course, and likely at the same gym I went to as a kid.

There’s room at the top, there’s room on the way up, and there’s room down here, too.🌲


edited by Heather.


outsiders - see entire issue

Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in DC by way of Los Angeles and has a conflicted relationship with social media, but you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram anyway.

Carrie has written 82 articles for us.