The LearningMethods Library
Conquering the Fear of Heights
by Eillen Sellam
Copyright © 1998 Eillen Sellam,
all rights reserved worldwide
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AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER, I have had a powerful
and crippling fear of heights. I have memories of moments where
I was completely overwhelmed during some holidays; where climbing
became a nightmare and I had the feeling I was not the master
of my movements. Sometimes I felt strongly that someone was
going to push me over the edge. Often, I felt drawn to the edge
as if something was actually pulling me towards it and over
it. I had to fight hard to resist this pull and I had the overwhelming
symptoms of fear as if I was already on the edge ready to fall
even when I was many metres away from the edge. This was a very
scary feeling. I was shaking. I felt sick and I often ended
up in tears.
I tried different things like forcing myself
to go near heights even if I was afraid. Some friends tried
to help me ‘get over it’ in this same way but none of them were
successful. This, of course, only made me feel more stuck with
In July 1997 during a workshop on LearningMethods
run by David Gorman (on which I was helping to teach), one of
the students described her intense fear of heights. Just by
listening to her explanation, I started to feel a little nauseous
and I had to remind myself that I was only sitting on a sofa
in a normal, quiet room. I shared with the group my own experiences
with the same problem in order to support her and also because
I was really ready to open this up for myself.
One of the premises of this work is that
it is only possible to understand and make real changes by being
in the middle of the real situation where the ‘problem’ appears
so that one can experience directly what is actually happening.
Luckily, the workshop was taking place in Bern in Switzerland
not far away was a cathedral on a cliff overlooking the river.
So we all walked over there to the plaza in front of the cathedral
where there was a 25 metre drop to the river. There was a low
wall at the edge of the plaza before the drop. The wall was
made of three horizontal metal tubes sunk in periodic upright
pillars, so you could see right through it to the emptiness
beyond. Definitely the sort of place to get my fears going.
David worked first with the other student.
Starting from the centre of the plaza, quite far back from the
edge, he asked her to start walking slowly toward the wall and
stop as soon as she felt anything strange — any fear or the
starting of a fear. I was applying this process to myself as
he went through the process with her.
She began to walk toward the edge, one step
after the other. Quite soon she said she felt a little sick.
David asked her to stop walking right away. He asked her what
exactly she was feeling (she said a tightening fear) and where
precisely she was feeling it (in her chest and gut). He then
asked her if this was what she normally felt in these situations.
She thought for a moment and then said, yes it was, but normally
she just ignored it and kept going because it was her ‘fear
of heights’ feeling and she felt that she shouldn’t be feeling
this and didn’t want to be feeling this.
David invited her to notice that even now
she was in touch enough to register the first signs of her reaction,
but that normally she wouldn’t pay attention to or respond to
these feelings. She would keep going in spite of the feelings
until they suddenly rose up and overwhelmed her. But this time,
she had a chance to respond differently to her own feelings
since she was now aware of them.
He outlined an experiment she could make
right at this moment. It was for her to choose consciously to
let herself feel that sick feeling without trying to do anything
to get rid of it or to pretend it is not there or to react and
run away from the experience as she might usually do. In other
words, to accept whatever she is feeling, simply because she
is feeling it. At the same time, he said, it was important for
her to consciously stay with her intention to walk closer to
the wall, but, at the same time, because she was feeling this
fear and sick feeling, she could also choose to not go any nearer
to the edge while she was feeling it.
He emphasized to her that this was not a
‘formula’ she had to follow, but rather it really was a choice
that she must consciously make — a choice that she was in complete
control of. She really could choose to carry on walking closer
to the wall in spite of her feeling, or to run away because
of the feeling, but she could also choose to stay right where
she was simply because she was feeling this symptom and she
knew what would happen if she ignored it and carried on walking
It took a while for her to accept the feeling
and really let herself feel it without reaction or rush while
at the same time staying with her intention to walk to the wall.
She would either tend to lose her intention and just concentrate
on the feeling, or regain the intention and want something to
change so she could get going again. Then there came a moment
when she finally accepted just being where she was at, feeling
what she was feeling, even though she did want to get on toward
the wall. Amazingly, a moment later the feeling was gone and
she was just standing there feeling normal!
Then David told her to start walking toward
the edge again, but to stop whenever she noticed any new reactions
coming. Each time she felt the start of a symptom, she would
stop and answer what she was feeling and where she was feeling
it in herself (thus ensuring that she'd stay in touch with the
reaction). And each time she’d allow herself to feel as she
did while consciously keeping her intention to walk nearer to
the wall. This process allowed her to stay in touch with herself
at each moment and not react to her own feelings.
After using this process two or three times,
she began to really take in her surroundings; how far away she
was from the wall and that she was actually standing on solid
ground, not falling. So the process had served to bring her
into the present moment where she (and her coordinating system)
could directly experience that there was no danger. Little by
little, using this same means, she arrived close to the wall
without being overwhelmed.
At this point we were all standing in front
of the wall. David asked me how I felt, having witnessed all
this. In fact, at this moment, I felt quite liberated from my
usual pressured state near heights because I too had been able
to choose to stop going forward as soon as I felt something
strange in me, as soon as I felt any tightening or the starting
of any fear.
In the process, I realized I was the master
of my own movements! I realized also how much I was normally
pushing myself to go closer even when I had symptoms coming
to me telling me, "danger, stop". Before, this ‘message’ from
my system had not been clear to me and so I had pushed it away
as something I didn’t like and had carried on trying to do what
I wanted. Suddenly it was obvious why this approach could not
work. In fact, I was lying to myself, refusing to see the reality
as it is, but as I wanted it to be. What an illusion! And what
a disrespectful attitude to myself.
Each time in the past that I reacted to the
symptom by pretending it was not there and pushing myself, the
result was a much bigger, overwhelming reaction of fear and
sickness where no action or choice could possibly be taken.
I was pushing myself so hard that, in effect, I was in advance
of where I really was. This was probably why, so often, I felt
I was out in space ahead of myself, closer to the egde than
I really was, being pulled by the edge, unable to control myself.
Now I saw that this feeling of being forced or pulled was in
fact coming from me. This something that was going to pull me
over the edge was me — Eillen pulling Eillen — a separation
of identity so complete I didn’t even know it was me anymore.
No wonder I could not know where I really
was in space relative to the edge and no wonder I had such strong
symptoms. All of this came clear to me at this moment and I
felt free of pushing myself and could allow myself to be me.
What a good feeling it is! What a realization!
With this new feeling of freedom I suddenly
decided to sit on the low wall right at the edge. The group
was very surprised because all their attention had been with
the student and they didn’t know that I had been using the same
experiment from the beginning what David was suggesting to the
student and that I had had all those revelations. Earlier in
the class inside they had heard me expressing my fear of heights
and the next moment they saw me sitting on the edge of a wall!
But I wanted even more. I asked David, "What
about sitting on the other side of the wall with my feet in
the air?" Everyone was shocked. Even the ones with no fear
of heights wouldn’t have dreamed of sitting so close to such
a high drop. What a jump for me (pardon the pun)! What had happened
was that the sudden liberation made me feel like everything
was possible. After so long being so held back by this fear,
now that I was liberated, I wanted more — which, of course,
was not realistic unless I was to become an acrobat!
The second chance to experiment with my new-found
tools was the next day on a high-diving board over a pool. Approaching
the diving board, which was about 3 metres above the water,
I felt something in my stomach so David recommended that I stop
walking as soon as I felt this kind of sickness and go through
the same process as yesterday. It took quite a number of times
and at least half an hour for me to arrive on the tip of the
diving board looking down at the water. The feeling of being
sick in the stomach was coming back again and again. But the
process was always the same — to stay aware of what is going
on for me step by step; to not go ahead while I am feeling any
fear (in other words, to be in touch with myself); to choose
to respond to my feelings with respect and without reacting
Eventually I was able to jump off the board
without the fear overwhelming me and again I felt quite triumphant
After those experiences, I had other opportunities
to use the same tools, namely to stay in the present moment,
see where I am and see how I feel, to come back to the reality
of the situation and to check if what I imagine (like someone
is going to push me over the edge) is actually happening or
not. But I can tell you, it was still a big challenge to stay
with this process in the face of such big feelings. Especially
in ‘real life’ instead of a ‘lesson’. But each time it worked.
I had a few opportunities during our summer
vacation in Maine while walking on the high rocks by the sea.
This was now two months after the first realizations. David
helped me to go though those same tools again. His help allowed
me to go little by little; not going past the place where any
kind of acceptance, reflection, or thinking becomes impossible.
That spring (nine months later) we went to
the Gorges de L’Ardèche in the south of France near
where we were living with its huge cliffs and deep river chasms.
I felt perfectly normal and didn’t even notice that I had no
more fear of heights until David pointed it out to me.
Now that this particular fear seems to be
past I have tools to help me use this same process if I feel
the beginning of some other fear. I don’t consider the fear
as a failure as I used to, but as my true feeling and a message
for me to listen to. I can use that message to remind me to
use my tools to give myself a chance to see what it really is
that is happening. As I come into the moment I can see that
my fear is not what is happening and, of course, it goes away.
The problem of having the fear of heights
was so big and so present before in my life that I thought that
the very best possibility would just be to be able to learn
some way of coping. Or to avoid going into nature near heights,
which you can imagine was not a satisfying solution at all.
I thought it had become part of me — who I am, my identity.
To my surprise, I am free from that now in
only a few months by using this process through just five or
six practical experiences. As a bonus, other areas in my life
are also opening up that I didn’t even realize were connected.
For instance, this spring, I found I could
bring under control another fear which had similar ingredients
to this fear of heights. That is my fear in cars, which I have
also had for years. In all the situations I am about to describe,
I am not the driver of the car, but I am sitting in the front
seat beside the driver when the driver is coming up behind another
car to overtake. Quite often, I thought that we were going to
crash into the car in front of us.
It really felt like it — the fear, the reaction
was certainly there. I would become very tensed as if I had
to hold myself backwards from the car in front of us. Each time
I was the only one in the car to react and the only one to think
that an accident was about to happen. Over a long distance trip
you can imagine the amount of stress that would build up in
me, and believe me, it is not fun for anyone else in the car
One time when I was driving with David and
this happened, he asked me what I was afraid of and I explained
him that each time I thought we were going to crash in the car
in front of us. He realized that this issue has to do with my
evaluation of time and distance.
David suggested an experiment: that as soon
as I feel afraid, to start counting the seconds before we arrived
close to the car so that I could really see the amount of time
it took to get close. So I started this experiment on the highway
whenever I started to be afraid. This was the same process as
in my fear of heights — to be in touch with myself as soon as
I have a message of fear, to not react, but to allow the feeling
and keep aware of what was happening..
Each time I had the opportunity to do this
experiment, I did it! Almost each time, I could count at least
1…2…3…4…5 seconds before we were getting close to the car. I
realized that in this amount of time, the driver had lots of
choice if necessary, to stop, to slow down, etc. So, gradually,
my perceptual system — my judgment system for driving — readjusted
for time and distance just as it had for time and distance with
heights. I saw that where I thought there was danger, in fact,
there was no real danger. Instead there was enough time to respond
Once again, I realized I was ahead of myself,
already crashing into the back of the car in front of us. That’s
why I had to tense myself backward — to protect myself. My judgment
system for time and distance is now more accurate, more realistic.
Already I am less afraid, though I continue to use this
of counting if I need to show myself the actual time
Just like in the fear of heights, how much
ahead of myself I was! As with the heights, part of the fear
was that I felt pulled out into the empty air, and with the
car I was already far ahead, many metres in front of where I
really was in space. Working with the first issue brought much
more clarity to the second one. I’m sure that I will see connections
with other areas in my life where I am also misjudging time
and distance and then reacting as if it was all real...
Change is possible… and exciting!
Addendum — a year later (October 1998).
One day, we were staying at the house of
some friends in London in an apartment on the third floor. The
friends were near the end of adding a new extension to their
apartment up on their roof and so there was scaffolding up one
side of the big old house to the roof. One afternoon as we came
back to the house, nobody was there to open the door and we
didn't have the keys. It was cold and raining and since we knew
that one of the windows in the new roof extension would be unlocked,
we decided to climb all the way up through the scaffolding rather
than stay and wait for them in the rain.
First I looked around to take in the conditions,
since it was raining and slippery. I was aware right away of
the need of going slowly and taking this climb as another experiment
of playing around with my heights issue. I consciously chose
to deal with one thing at the time, rather than just seeing
the end as arriving at the window of the new fourth floor, which
would have been my habitual reaction.
I started to climb the ladder up from the
ground to the first section of scaffolding. It was really the
first time that I had ever climbed such a long ladder. I went
slowly, knowing that I could at any moment go down or stop and
wait for a while. I chose to go at my own rhythm, one step at
a time. I felt at peace with this knowledge and with the freedom
to do what I choose to. After climbing this shaky ladder, I
arrived at the level of the first scaffolding — the start of the
first floor above ground level. There my heart started to beat
quite fast as I looked down at the view. I could recognize one
of those panic moments when I’d start to be overwhelmed. I was
getting tenser, feeling almost ready to cry. I was holding onto
one of the metal scaffolding poles. I felt kind of stuck there,
getting rigid as this pole, feeling like a victim. But in recognizing
this, I chose to look again at the situation — not to be passive,
but to act — to be aware of what was happening for me. I found
myself able to use my reasoning and I realized that I could
not fall unless I actually voluntarily decided to jump.
As soon as my attitude changed, I decided
to sit down so I was less overwhelmed by the view from this
height. This was such a release for me to stay in touch with
myself and choose what is the best for me considering the situation.
My legs were shaking from the previous ‘state of panic’ moment.
But I was much more confident in my capacity of being present
in the situation in a conscious and active way. I continued
to climb all the way up using the same means of going one step
at the time and being able to respond to whatever is happening
in the present moment. My legs stayed quite shaky from the previous
experience, but I accepted this as a fact and that this physical
reaction will take a while to come back to normal. I chose not
to fight against this lightness feeling, but to go with it.
No other panic moments happened on the way
up. At the end, I felt such a victory. That one short moment
of almost panic I went though showed me again that if, at the
first sign of fear, I can take a moment to really see what's
going on, I change from a passive to an active attitude. I am
bigger. I am the boss. The fear is not going to ‘paralyse’ me.
I am moveable and I can make the choices that suit me. I can
meet the fear and still be able to continue the process. Even
if the fear has shaken me up, I come back to what I have learned
from the past and address the situation and prevail.
It is such a freedom for me to continue in
this path of experimenting. Even a few months before, I would
never have imagined being able to climb this high on this kind
of ladder and scaffolding.
There is a small biography of personal
details about the author below.
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articles by David Gorman and others
About the Author
comes to teaching the LearningMethods work from a background in dance,
music and the Alexander Technique. She completed her training as an Alexander
Teacher in France and the United States. Over the years, her work has been enriched
by her encounters with many teachers and by her experiences in Indian dance,
singing, painting and the martial arts.
Up to 1996 Eillen maintained a private teaching
practice and worked with singers of the École de Formation Lyrique
de l’Opéra Bastille in Paris, but inspired by her experiences with the LearningMethods
work outlined in her articles, she changed her direction to become a teacher
of the LearningMethods work. She taught regularly at the Conservatoire de Théâtre
in Avignon for years and now, having moved to Canada, she is building up her
She was giving workshops in LearningMethods
and Improvisational Creativity in various countries around Europe, Canada and
the USA, until she began to take her knowledge of how to help young people into
the mainstream. Eillen is now the director of a not-for-profit organization
funded to bring educational programs on empathy, respect, and anti-bullying into the public
school system in Ontario, Canada.