Living in the panopticon: self-talk and climbing’s social media nightmare

Taking a close look at everything, one boulder at a time, deep in the Winds. David Lloyd photo.

Panopticon: a vantage from which you can see everything; all-seeing. From Ancient Greek pân, “all” + optikós, “visible”.

Words have power. In our self-talk before we even begin climbing, in the things we say to each other on the hike in, in the things overheard at the crag, and in the vast quantity of media we all consume these days, words hold sway over our thoughts.

Our own words and the words of others affect our mood, behavior, and decisions. Words can affect whether we see the same performance as great or terrible. A few thoughtless words can change whether we become friends with someone and climb with them for decades, or leave the crag every time they show up. Words change how we choose to train and what we choose to try. Words can keep us going when we want to give up; words can keep us down when we fall short.


What we say to ourselves is possibly the most important function of the power of words.

Bringing yourself down verbally means you need to do physical work to raise yourself back up – you need to prove to yourself that you can do what you said you couldn’t.

There’s value in pressure relief (“let’s just see how this goes”) – and perhaps even when it slides into self-deprecation (“I have no chance at doing this”, “I’m a punter” etc). But much of the time, these words are wasted energy.

Negativity as comedy or pressure relief can be pleasant or useful. But negativity as identity will infect everyone present, unless the crowd is unusually self-aware. Or, if the source of the negativity is particularly lucky, someone speaks up to snap them out of it.

I recently matched (or bested) my PB flash. Upon initial viewing of the boulder, I said, “I should try to flash this,” then justified that statement to a friend by listing the aspects of the problem that I felt suited me. I also considered elements of the boulder less in my wheelhouse, but I kept those to myself. It’s not automatic to think this way, and I often fall short, but after years of practice it’s largely become a habit.

This doesn’t mean that bringing up my disadvantages would have sabotaged my flash attempt, or that my success is a direct result of positivity. My success is a result of a lot of factors, but the biggest one is luck. Because of the way I see myself and the things I let myself say, I left space for that luck – I felt something positive and latched on to it, allowing it to take root.

Our self-talk is a goulash of our personal identity, philosophies and aphorisms from our childhood, things our friends say, and things we read and absorbed online and elsewhere. So when we think about our self-talk, it’s important that we think about all that other stuff, too.

We really do live in a society

From the reverse perspective, we should strongly consider what we say to others as well. 

Our words can have a profound effect on others. To relate back to my recent flash, I’m grateful that my friend didn’t respond with a mortified “WHAT?” to my optimistic plan for a flash attempt. Dismantling someone else’s carefully-built confidence can be as simple as a misguided statement: “Oh, that problem? It’s hard if you’re short.”

Personally I have long arms, and I don’t like being told that things will be easy for me to reach. Even if it’s objectively true that the move is a shorter reach, I have to be careful not to let this kind of comment flip a subconscious switch in me: “This will be easy for me.”

Because I’ve learned that I don’t like when people do this to me, I try my best not to do it to others. There’s an important distinction here: it’s one thing to idly discuss a problem or move being harder or easier, and another thing entirely when a member of the conversation is actively trying that problem right now. Both of these conversations should be handled with empathy, but in the latter situation it’s probably easiest to keep your opinions to yourself.

Your words don’t need to be meant for a specific person in order to have power. At busy crags, I’ve often witnessed casual cruelty due to the careless words of strangers. Regrettably, at times I’ve been that stranger.

Does this mean you’re responsible for the feelings of every person within earshot? No.

Does it mean you don’t have the right to say whatever you want? No – you can say whatever you want.

You can say whatever you want, and people can feel how they feel about it. For instance, if you say something callous about a problem being easy, they might think you’re an asshole. And people thinking you’re an asshole can come with its own consequences.

Aside from the self-serving aim of not alienating yourself, cropdusting the crag with your bravado isn’t nearly as fun as genuinely connecting with other people. You don’t have to be an altruist to benefit from the joy of lifting other people up. The leap of compassion to see things from someone else’s perspective is probably a shorter leap than you think.

Down the content hole

In a lot of ways, social media and the interconnectedness of modern climbing is a good thing. We have more beta and access than ever. However, this comes with access to a million viewpoints and opinions.

I always feel compelled to mention that controlling your information diet should be a paramount intervention for improving your climbing performance. (Podcast hosts probably hate this soapbox of mine. Sorry!)

From the consumption side, words can be subconsciously devastating.

The big name feeds in climbing training are a firehose of potentially useful information. Our brains are built to gather this kind of information – to sort through a bunch of randomness and find patterns in it. The downside is, with modern life, this can result in a sort of nervous tic of information gathering. We compulsively want the newest podcast on while we fold laundry, when we’d probably be better off thinking through the beta on our project… or not thinking about anything.

Ideas that aren’t important to your situation are just more things you need to filter out in your day. And some ideas that are relevant to you won’t be prudent to add into your regimen right now. In fact, listening to the average training podcast (ones featuring me included) it’s pretty likely that a lot of what you hear doesn’t matter. It’s noise.

From the content creation side, the power of words is hard to overstate.

Instagram posts telling you what you’re doing wrong.

YouTube videos telling you which training widgets to throw in the garbage so you can buy new, updated widgets.

Blog posts shouting the 10 things you absolutely need to do today.

If you’re a content creator, the things you say promoting your product or service do have an effect on people who read them, for better or worse. Unfortunately, it’s often for the worse.

The tough part of this equation is that content creators feel compelled to create content that serves an algorithm. Serving the algorithm pushes potential clients into their pipeline and can create cashflow. This seems to be where lots of content creators lose the plot.

Matching a need to a product is providing value. But creating a need where there is none is the broader goal of this type of marketing. To this end, words put the audience in a hole, and sell them a ladder.

I’m not sure there’s a 100% ethical way to be a successful content creator; all of us are making some sort of compromise to make a living. We have to sell things, and in modern times selling things requires working with algorithms. Any content creator with a few neurons bouncing around knows that these algorithms are not a net good for humanity.

One ethical thing creators can do is avoid creating need. If you’re a creator, I urge you to err more on the value side of things. Is your marketing trying to connect people to a product that might help their need? Or is it using words to convince them that they have the need your product happens to fix?

If you’re a consumer, be wary of marketing that creates need – in climbing, as with everywhere else. With the incoming barrage of AI insanity, it’s only going to get harder to stay true to your actual, internal needs.

My suggestion for training information is to seek it out, rather than letting it come to you. Stop hoarding random information. Unfollow or mute accounts that just dump exercises without context. Let training podcasts wait until you have a question you know they’re tackling, or at least until a preselected time of year.

Fewer words in your day will not be a bad thing.


I want to take a brief detour to tell a story about a time that words profoundly derailed my climbing.

Many of my readers know I’m not a fan of strength assessments that compare your strength to number grades. And there’s a reason that I feel this way.

There are logical problems with it, first of all: while all the data sets I’ve seen show reasonable correlations between things like upper body strength and climbing grade, we can’t be sure if those are the axes we want on that graph; the strength tests are not normalized or done in a controlled setting; there could be other physical measures that are more valuable than finger strength or upper body strength, or better ways to measure those things; and I’ve ranted plenty about how climbing grades are a necessary evil for trying to understand progress, but not a reliable yardstick for it.

But I have a personal problem with these correlations, as well. 

When I worked with a big training brand several years ago, their assessment spat out a summary that left me feeling almost morosely ill-equipped to climb hard. I was in the lowest percentiles for my grade ranges.

My finger strength for my bouldering grade? Pathetic. My power endurance for my sport grade? Grim. My overall body strength? Childlike.

I felt like an absolute fraud having achieved the things I had, with my measly strength. This made me buy into their system of raw physical training, in pursuit of these metrics, almost like hypnosis. After all, that’s their product. Funneling me from their assessment towards their product was sensible marketing – creating a need.

After a long period of training with them (almost two years) and significant progress made in their metrics, I had achieved basically nothing new in my climbing. With each step upwards in metrics, I really felt I was accomplishing something. But with the improved strength axis, came… nothing. My grade axis was stagnant. The higher training volume had left me too tired to take on big projects, or even keep up my previous volume of climbing. I gave up that training and went back to mostly climbing.

It took me years of reflecting, and eventually coaching hundreds of clients myself, to conclude a few things.

First, that the assessment summary they sent had psychologically damaged me. I bought into the idea of causality – that moving the strength axis was what precipitated movement on the grade axis. But the relationship is not causal. To be clear, the summary never said it was causal. Everything was couched in statistical language. But when you sell the solution and the problem at the same time, it’s easy to see how people fall into this trap. To this end, I find these assessments to be emotionally unhelpful.

My second conclusion is that these assessments are also not helpful for making training decisions. Sure, the relationships are correlated, but that may be largely incidental. People like graphs, because they can simplify things. But they can oversimplify things.

Each data point on a strength-grade graph is an individual. Buried behind the strength number is a unique training history, anthropometry, as well as the nuance of how they performed the test. Buried behind the grade number are all the assumptions and nonsense that go into the grading systems, as well as a lack of insight into how the athlete actually climbed when they achieved that grade.

It’s one thing to have a graph showing a correlation of upper body strength and grade. But knowing where you are on that graph just isn’t that useful for actual climbing training and performance. If anything, chasing those general metrics held me back from doing the specific things I needed to do to keep chipping away at progression.

My final conclusion, and the one which was the most surprising to realize, was that their assessment of me was straight-up wrong.

I’m not the weakest person to climb V12. I’m the person who was able to climb V12 despite being what they saw as weak.

This minor shift in perspective ended a several-year stint of feeling sorry for myself and my pathetic fingers. I had let the words in that assessment summary have power over me. And in my weakness to those words, I lost a part of myself that was fundamentally far more important than finger strength.

And since I stopped doing that kind of training? I haven’t really trained my finger strength with conventional means at all. I do some high-recruitment curls most climbing days, I boulder a lot, I climb on a board, and most importantly I manage my volume. And my fingers get a little stronger every year.

I’m hesitant to make conclusions, though, about that personal story. It’s possible I have good genes for finger strength in ways we don’t understand well yet. For some people I train, this mix works. Some others, especially those who have only been climbing a few years, do seem to need more connective tissue adaptation-oriented training. And some people seem to get more finger injuries than others almost regardless of what kind of training they do.

I have no misconceptions about where my data point would be on that assessment graph. It hasn’t moved much. But not worrying about those specific training metrics opened up recovery volume for me to dedicate to actual climbing, as well as other forms of training. I had to break away from the popular and compelling notions of finger strength in order to learn this lesson for myself.

In short, the reliance on assessments can be summarized like this:

Do you want to be stronger?

Or do you want the achievements that you think being stronger will get you?

This difference is the power of marketing – the power of words.

Improving self-talk

Hopefully, one of the biggest takeaways from this article is to spend more time thinking about the words you every day.

It’s easy to turn off a podcast or limit the amount of time you spend on social media, but your own voice is one that you’ll always be hearing a lot of. Focusing on the things you say to yourself is one of the best steps you can take to defend yourself from the shitstorm of words out there.

The first step to changing a behavior is becoming aware of it. I like a two-pronged approach. If you have a habit of talking down to yourself, try to notice that in the moment.

Asking your partners to call you on your bullshit is a helpful tool. Tell them you’re working on being more positive, and ask them to point out when you’re being negative. Negative talk usually includes a “no”, “not”, “never”, or a synonym of “bad” – terrible, punter, suck, etc.

Step two is to later write down what you said, as well as some ideas of replacement phrases. Good replacement phrases don’t need to be vapidly positive. The point is not to blow smoke up your own ass. Good self-talk can be pragmatic, but should be open-ended so you have room to succeed or fail with equanimity.

Remember my flash I brought up earlier? I didn’t tell myself, “I WILL flash this,” or “this will be easy to flash.”  I told myself, “I should try to flash this” – an open-ended statement where my only expectation of myself is that I show up.

So if you said, “I’m terrible at roof climbing,” you might replace that phrase with “I’m working on my roof climbing,” or “this is a good opportunity for me to practice roof technique,” or “my arms are going to get a good workout today.”

If you said, “I can never get myself to take a whipper,” you might replace that with “It’s okay that I got scared. Next time I’ll start by weighting the rope.”

If you said, “I’m always injured,” the flipside of that might be “look at what I’ve been able to accomplish despite these setbacks.”

If you said, “My fingers are weak,” you might say “look at what I’ve been able to climb with these fingers,” or “I have lots of runway for finger strength gains.”

You don’t need to be positive all the time – just consider leaving room in your narrative to surprise yourself.

(And find a coach who won’t stack-rank your finger strength.)

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