Prompt: Describe an experience in which you overcame an obstacle to experience success. This may be something you achieved that at one point seemed impossible. Tell the story in a way that helps the reader understand why this experience had an impact on your life.
Narrative Essay Example
Before the summer of 2011, I had always been afraid of heights. For most of my life, even the idea of climbing a mountain would give me butterflies in my stomach. That was the summer I turned 16 and achieved something that profoundly influenced my life. On my birthday that year, my mother and I successfully climbed to the summit of Mt. Ranier in Washington state, and it remains a peak memory in my life. Our ascent to the peak was filled not only with dramatic views but with many obstacles both physical and emotional. The experience was a tremendous test of our physical ability and our skill in committing to a goal. Our grueling months of preparation eventually paid off, and I"ll never forget the rush of feelings I had when we reached the top. It was so overwhelming, I almost forgot about my fear of heights for a moment. However, there were many times during the process when I was certain we'd never make it.
When my mother and I first made the decision to train to climb Mt. Ranier, my knees actually shook with anxiety. First of all, we had read that only half of the climbers who attempt to summit the 14,500 foot high peak actually make it. Most turn back due to weather, exhaustion and even injury. Further, I was so scared of heights I couldn't even look over the side of a bridge. The day we made the decision, I was only 15, and we had a year to train for our trek. I'll never forget the expression of pride on my mother's face when I said, "yes, I'll do it." She looked at me and said, "we will just commit to doing our best and supporting one another. The process is what's most important." At the time, I didn't truly understand what she meant by that. The daunting year of training ahead would turn out to be filled with challenges and pitfalls I couldn't possibly have imagined.
Surprisingly, much of the preparation for climbing a mountain takes place indoors. We never expected this part of our journey! Together, my mother and I attended training sessions at a local climbing gym which included everything from running to lifting weights. Because of my fear of heights, I had to learn to climb up a wall to ten, twenty and even fifty feet above the ground. I also had to learn to trust in the ropes as I rappelled back down the wall. So much of climbing involves teamwork and developing trust. Many of our drills included myself and my mother learning how to spot each other and encourage each other. Our extensive reading on the history of mountaineering also took place indoors and we often stayed up late at night reading about the nuances of this exhilarating sport. Spending so much time indoors to prepare made us crave the "Great Outdoors" even more and we couldn't wait for warmer weather to arrive so we could do our first training climbs on the actual mountain.
It was finally time for our first outdoor climbing practice and the butterflies in my stomach had certainly multiplied. "Don't let the butterflies get the best of you," my mother advised me as we set out on a ten mile training trek. "Try to enjoy the feeling and turn the anxiety into anticipation." She was always full of kind words, but could I apply her wisdom in time for the day of our final climb? As it turned out, our practice excursion proved trepidating. Though it was May, the skies were grey and menacing on the southernmost face of the mountain. Near the halfway point, I lost my footing and fell backwards down the trail, slightly twisting my ankle and earning a tough bruise on my right forearm. Our guide was worried I may have sprained my ankle, and immediately applied a wrap and some ice. Though I was sore, I kept going for another mile or so, but I had to give up before we reached our intended target. The guide stayed with me while the rest of the crew continued to the destination. I felt deflated and discouraged that I couldn't even reach the top of our practice hike. How would I mange on the actual hike, given this setback?
Although I didn't succeed on our first practice hike and suffered minor injuries, I was able to recover in time for our planned summit climb. Thankfully, all the hours of practicing in the gym and reading about mountaineers who overcame pain to succeed had paid off. I had, over time, gained the physical and emotional strength to recover quickly and come through adversity even stronger. The breathtaking views along our climb no longer distracted me with fear but compelled me to follow through with my goal. I had not overcome my fear of heights, but I had made peace with it to the point where I could remain inspired by my own achievements. There is something transcendental about facing one's fears, an experience that's even more beautiful when supported by loved ones. My mom and I were among the last in our group to reach the flag at the summit. Finally standing there was proof that we had completed a process of preparing and persevering. We were above the clouds, but our feet were firmly on the ground, ready to take on any future challenge life might present.
Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice...Read More
Joe was afraid of heights.
He could have just avoided heights, as many people do. The trouble was he also loved them. Joe was a rock climber.
It’s surprising how many rock climbers are afraid of heights. It takes them longer than other climbers to learn new techniques or get used to new climbs, and tackle harder routes.
“It’s scary to be on the edge of stuff,” he told me five years ago. “Even a hill, or a road with a steep drop-off is a problem.”
Fear of heights, or acrophobia, is an irrational fear of high or exposed places. For some people, a cliff is a high place. For others, it can be standing on a chair or even a single step of a staircase.
The key to getting over a fear of heights is thinking small. Small changes are at the heart of big changes. In any endeavor, whether it’s learning to play the violin or perfecting a tennis serve, you have to keep at it. If you keep practicing, little by little, you’ll inch toward mastery.
Joe got a taste for rock climbing when some friends took him to a local gym. “It seemed like a good challenge,” he said. Other acrophobic rock climbers seem to feel the same way. As one rock climbing blogger said, “I appreciate the added mental challenge that it puts me through.”
Joe really struggled at first, though. “I would get most of the way up a pitch, and I would be stuck there because I got scared,” he said. “Even if it was a competition, I would freeze.”
Does the Fear Make Sense?
The word irrational is important, because it makes sense to think twice about how far you are from the ground. Falls can be dangerous, even deadly, and it’s prudent to be cautious.
However, we’re not born with a fear of heights. Infants appear to be curious, rather than afraid, when presented with a drop-off. Fear of heights is a rational fear taken to an irrational level.
The fear itself can include feelings of panic and dread, a physical response of fast heartbeat and shortened breath, a sensation of dizziness or spinning, and a desire to get away from the situation as quickly as possible.
In extreme cases, fear increases the danger of heights because it creates either a problem with balance or a panic reaction that makes it difficult to do the things necessary to get to safety.
About five percent of people who are afraid of heights experience a panic attack when they perceive the height as too great, and need serious help getting down from wherever they have gone.
The Power of Repetition
Joe used two methods to work through his fear. The first was simple repetition. His strategy was to climb as far as he could, hang out at that height for awhile, come down, and repeat.
It didn’t matter how high he went; it might have been just a few feet off the ground. It only mattered that the height was a challenge for him. “My strategy was to just keep climbing the same pitches over and over,” he said.
Joe’s method takes commitment. “I had to push myself.” Joe admits.
The method Joe discovered is at the heart of exposure therapy. I use the same cognitive behavioral technique in my practice to help clients who have a fear of public speaking, fear of flying, fear of heights, or a variety of other fears or phobias.
The essence of exposure therapy is approaching what you fear little by little, each time challenging yourself a tiny bit more. Treatment is very successful, and in an area where medication is of little help.
Exercise for the Brain
The second method was neurofeedback. Neurofeedback, or EEG biofeedback, is like a workout at the gym, only it’s for your brain. Twice each week, I connected sensors to Joe’s scalp. These sensors measured brainwaves, and displayed the results on a computer screen.
In the EEG display, I saw one of the characteristic patterns for anxiety, an excess of high-frequency waves in several areas of the brain.
The ability to measure something is in itself helpful, because any physiological process that can be measured can be changed. Each time Joe was able to create an EEG pattern more associated with calm and confidence, he got positive feedback from the computer – a beep and a picture.
In a typical neurofeedback session, a client gets over 2,000 pieces of feedback. With that feedback, Joe was able to gain control of his mental process and thus reduce the anxiety and feel more confident.
The combination of neurofeedback and Joe’s regular practice worked well together, and he started to improve. “I noticed it was easier when I was trying to climb fast,” he explained, “because when I was thinking about speed I didn’t have to think about the height. I got to be good at fast climbing.” Joe had found a way to use a strength to move past the fear.
The support of friends helped him as well. “My friends encouraged me, and sometimes they would joke about it. That helped too. I kept at it because I really liked climbing.”
Change from the Inside
Arno Ilgner, author of “The Rock Warrior’s Way,” investigated why some climbers are so afraid of heights, why they climb anyway, and how they get through it. One thing he found was that if you want to climb well, it’s best not to focus on just getting to the top.
Rock climbing, he argues, should be a means to an end rather than the end itself. It’s not about getting to the top per se. For Ilgner the real end is being present to the joys and the stress of climbing. Rock climbing, he says, is about choosing your focus, learning to steady your attention, and learning.
Joe found something similar in his own climbing.
“Climbing a wall might not seem like much to other people,” he said, “but to me what mattered is that I kept pushing myself. I realized then that I could use the same strategy to get over other fears, like being in crowds and talking in front of groups of people. You have to keep trying, and little by little you’ll get there. You can use that strategy for anything.”
Exposing a Fear
Building confidence and overcoming fear take time, but with a systematic approach, you’re likely to succeed. The heart of this approach is here:
- Relax. Choose a technique that helps you relax, and practice it. That way you can bring yourself back to calm during each exposure. Neurofeedback can help here, and so can progressive relaxation, a peaceful image, meditation, yoga, or anything else that helps you feel calm. When you’re working with a performance-related fear, exercise also helps – work out until you tire yourself out. Anxiety takes energy, and if you’re tired, you’ll have less energy to worry.
- Feel what you feel. As author Ambrose Redmoon wrote, “courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” When you feel anxious, your body will respond. Let that be okay. Be safe, of course, and then just let the fear, dizziness, rapid heartbeat or any other sensations just be there.
- Don’t believe everything you think. Are your thoughts rational or irrational? If the thought is rational, take care of yourself. If it’s not, then try refuting or challenging them. When Joe noticed himself thinking, “I’m going to fall,” he challenged it. After all, he was in an indoor gym. That meant he was tied in with a top rope and there were thick mats below. He was safe. In other words, is your fear rational or irrational?
- Rehearse. Imagination is powerful. Athletes and performers use imagination to improve their game and polish their act. Coaches and police cadets use mental imagery to prepare for the unexpected, with excellent results. Imagine yourself climbing perfectly, reaching the top, and celebrating. You can almost feel the high-five, right?
- Practice. It’s small actions, one after the other, that make big changes happen.
Heights are normal for Joe these days. With focused effort – and a nudge from neurofeedback – he got over his fear of heights. But he ended up doing more than climbing rock walls, because he was operating from a fundamental principle: How we do a small thing is how we do everything.
When you want to master something, whether it’s rock climbing or tennis, playing the violin or learning to coach, you have to learn to stretch yourself in ways that are challenging. It helps to love the process, to find some part of what you are doing as more important than the fear. These are the tools that give you confidence to continue to challenge yourself.
Joe, five years later, is still climbing.
Keep Reading By Author Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.
Read In Order Of Posting