I’ve had an email from someone who has a problem with public speaking. Over the years she’s become more and more terrified until she’s reached the point where she just can’t do it any more. Normally I would suggest NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) or hypnosis or self-hypnosis. But this woman has tried those things and just about everything else that’s going.
A standard NLP method is to visualize a scene in which you succeed in doing what you’re afraid of. The problem with that approach is that when you’re really terrified of something it can completely hijack your visualization. In other words, you can’t even imagine yourself succeeding. Each time you try you only ever see yourself failing. As a result, your fear increases.
So this is what I wrote to her:
I have a fear of heights that goes way beyond normal caution and I haven’t been able to cure it with NLP. One of the problems with NLP visualization – it seems to me – is that even the visualization itself can be hijacked by fear. For example, I’d be visualizing myself happily walking along the edge of a cliff but then, WHAM, I’d see myself falling over and crashing onto the rocks below. I couldn’t even stop myself visualizing it.
Well, a friend asked me to go canyoning with him. Do you know what that is? You descend a gorge in the mountains, following the course of the water. It’s difficult for a man to turn down a ‘challenge’ from another man so I agreed. As soon as I got there I knew I was in trouble. Ahead of me was a narrow, sombre defile and I could hear the water thundering below.
We put on our wetsuits and harnesses and my friend (who is a mountain guide) took care of the ropes. The first waterfall wasn’t too bad. Maybe a 5 metre drop. I got a grip on myself and abseiled down. Looking up from the pool in which I’d landed I realised I was now trapped. Abseiling down had been nerve-wracking but climbing back up was impossible.
We waded along the stream to the next drop and I realised to my horror that it must be at least 20 metres. I was terrified. And, yes, my heart, too, was pounding as if it would come right through my chest.
Breaking off for a moment, we keep horses – ponies, really. And sometimes with a horse you have to put blinkers on it. You see, a horse has very little power of imagination. If it doesn’t see something it doesn’t worry about it.
Standing above that 20 metre waterfall I knew that either I would have to stay there till I died or I would have to go down. I also knew the only way I could get down was to stop thinking. It wasn’t a situation for thinking positively. It was a situation for not thinking at all. Except, that is, for the very specific things I had to do – clip on the rope, move one foot, move the other foot, let a little rope run through my hand… I didn’t look at anything except the water and rock right in front of my face. Not up, not left, not right, and certainly not down.
Basically, I was in an altered mental state. I had turned off my capacity to imagine, to visualize…
And I did get down. There were several more waterfalls and I handled them all the same way. I didn’t anticipate them. I didn’t think about what would happen if this or that…
All the best, Paul