Jacquelyn Smith

Mind Over Matter: Fear and Focus


I’m not a fan of heights. I never have been. I don’t consider it a phobia, just a natural inclination to steer clear of cliff edges and other places where I can plummet to my doom. But a couple of months ago, I had this idea to do an excursion while we were on vacation in Mexico, which included a 60 foot rappel.


Maybe it was watching all those seasons of The Amazing Race that made me think it would be a fun idea… It always looked relatively easy on TV. I felt OK when I was putting on all the gear. I didn’t start to feel uneasy until our guide was demonstrating what to do on a mini platform at the bottom of the tower we would be climbing. My husband and I shared one of those wordless communication moments: Were we really going to go through with this?


Now, if it had been just the two of us, there’s a chance we might have backed down, but we were part of a group of about ten people and I didn’t want to be the chicken in the bunch. So up the tower we went, my husband and me bringing up the rear.


Even going up the tower stairs was scary. They were those slat stairs with nothing between them, which I don’t like even when they’re indoors, never mind when they’re in the middle of the jungle and going several storeys up. My legs were shaking and I gripped the railings on both sides. All I could think about was taking one stair at a time. I didn’t dare look around, or I knew I would lose my nerve.


Somehow, I managed to get to the top. All you could see was the treetops, so there was no way to tell how far away the ground was. But now it was time for all of us to rappel back down. My husband and I watched as everyone else took those first few steps backward and disappeared in pairs over the edge.


Even though I dreaded the arrival of our turn and knew I could still back out if I really wanted to, the thought of descending those wretched stairs was worse than the idea of rappelling.


When our turn finally came, I wobbled over to the guide to get cinched in. What came next should have been the scariest part. Not only do you have to step off the edge of a tower, but you have to do it backwards. I knew if I was going to make it without freaking out, I was going to have to think about anything else but the empty air behind me.


My focus narrowed to my guide. I kept my gaze fixed on his face and listened to every word he said as if my life depended on it. The next thing I knew, I was over the edge and on my way down. I could even look over at my husband, who was in the air beside me. Once I got a handle on how to control my descent, I actually started to enjoy myself!


By the time we got to the bottom, I felt unstoppable. (Which was a good thing, because the next stop on our excursion was a 3 run zipline through the trees. This meant even more tower climbing, but I did it!)

After the ziplines. Totally rocked it!


Thinking back, it was only my determination to keep my focus away from what I found so scary that enabled me to keep going. I’ve also come to realize this trick is something I’ve applied to other intimidating scenarios over the years, including my writing.


Whenever I’m afraid my writing is no good, or that no one will want to read it, I shift my focus to things like how much I’m enjoying the project I’m working on, or what little details I still need to work out.


Then I keep moving forward.



Have you overcome any phobias or fears? What techniques have you used?

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