What I Realized about How We Change by Going Rock Climbing

how we change

I definitely did not look like this guy yesterday. But I had great fun and enjoyed being with other climbers.

Right around St. Patrick’s Day this year, I was preparing to return to rock climbing, a favorite pastime in college. I dug out my climbing shoes and dusted off my harness. I double-checked my belay device (and that I still knew how to use it). I scrolled through the Ventura climbing gym’s hours and planned my visit.


And then the world shut down.


I’d not climbed in about 17 years. Even though I was long overdue, I figured I could wait a little longer.


Last week, Ventura County moved into California’s Red Tier classification for managing the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant that the local gym could reopen.


So yesterday, I booked my two-hour, socially-distanced slot and climbed for two hours. I realized two things:

  1. I’m definitely not 22 anymore, and
  2. The secret to being a good climber is being able to visualize your moves before you do them, which is a lot like how we change our behavior.


I’m Not in Kansas Anymore

When first I entered into the climbing gym, it was like greeting an old friend you haven’t seen in a while. You know each other, but it’s clear immediately upon meeting that time has passed. For me, I was the youngest in the building by about 15 years. I felt a bit like Heinlein’s stranger in a strange land.


I felt at home quickly, though. The handful of other climbers that were there were friendly. After a while, we talked about various climbs and cheered each other on as we climbed. I was definitely feeling my age (and my weak forearm strength!), so even though I was self-conscious at first, I soon forgot all about it.


Playing Chess in Your Mind

My old college buddy who had gotten me into climbing all those years ago told me that he knew I’d be a good climber because I played chess. “You plan your moves in chess,” he’d said, “and you do the same when you’re climbing. You have to strategize and see what you’re gonna do in your mind first.”


And boy, was he right. I remembered how right he was yesterday when I was climbing. “Ah, yes,” I said to myself as I thought through a sequence of moves, visualizing myself completing the climb. “This is what it was like. This is why I liked climbing so much.”


Visualizing Changing Your Behavior

I often work with clients to change their behaviors, especially early in recovery from porn addiction, sex addiction, or substance misuse. Those in recovery need help identifying alternative behaviors that they can engage when they want to use or act out sexually.


Often couples need help with this too. Partners who are locked into relational patterns with each other find it very difficult to conceptualize how to relate to each other differently, usually because they’re reacting to each other based on the “emotional programming” encoded in childhood. They also usually have no idea how to consciously communicate in healthy ways.


As I was reminded while climbing yesterday, the key to changing  is to first create a new behavioral framework in your mind. That’s why I often suggest to clients questions, sentences, or statements to make in relationships that demonstrate new skills. For instance:

  • The “Nice Guy” may need help with learning to ask for what he needs. “I’d like to go to the climbing gym on Sunday. I’m planning on going from noon to 2 pm. Will this work for you?”
  • The sex addict in recovery needs support with learning to practice empathy with his hurting partner. “I know that what I’ve done has caused you to feel terribly hurt and betrayed. I can understand you don’t trust me. I’d like to hear what you’re needing from me so that I can rebuild trust with you.”
  • The individual working on moderating his drinking often needs some coaching about how to enact his ideal drinking plan, especially in higher-risk situations like parties or family gatherings. “Nah, just water for me right now, thanks.”


Why is the ability to visualize specific changes like this so important? Because it’s really hard to implement such changes without being able to think through how to do it first.

Doing so would be like expecting yourself to hit a home run without knowing how to swing a baseball bat.


How We Change by Visualizing New Behavior

When I first start talking to clients about changing their behaviors, they often have no idea where to start. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. If you’re considering making a change in your behavior but aren’t sure how to visualize the changes you want, it just means you don’t have a frame of reference for the changes you want to make.


Here are some tips that might help you visualize where you want to go:

  • Read some good books or articles that include specific examples of people who are living out the changes you want for yourself. Ask yourself, what are they actually doing and how can I imitate them?
  • Find a mentor, sponsor, or therapist that you can trust and talk with them about how you’d like to change. Ask for specific examples about how you might behave differently. See if what they say feels right to you and try it out.
  • Imagine if you were embodying the changes you want to make, almost like an actor in a play. How would you feel about yourself, and then ask, what would or could you do differently if you felt that way?


Need more help? It’s true, changing longstanding patterns isn’t as easy as climbing a few rocks. If you’re needing support in a relationship or in your recovery, or if you just want to talk, we’d love to connect with you.


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Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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