The Psychology of Trapeze

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take a couple of trapeze classes, something I’d done maybe 10-20 times back in in the mid-late 2000s. Aging 10 years has delivered to me a larger body, a weaker core, chronic aches and pains, and a more exaggerated fear response, but I was determined to get back on the rig.

The flying trapeze, popularized by Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City’s 2003 episode, “The Catch,” is a metaphor for so many psychological concepts; if you try it, you’ll see why. You face your fears, tackle doubts and uncertainty, reach out for support, and learn to let go, all in a 30-second flight.

Here are a few lessons learned on the trapeze rig:

1. You can feel feel fear and still progress. For me, climbing the ladder to get to the platform where you jump is scary. It’s heart-pounding, mind-racing terrifying. In fact, the combination of the physical exertion of climbing a tall ladder with the dread of what’s to come is enough to make me breathless. Each and every time. But, every time I climbed, I felt this fear and kept on going, one step at a time, until I reached the top. That’s how we tackle challenges, recovery, and life itself, placing one foot in front of the other, even – and especially – when fear sets in.

2. Listen to your teachers. In trapeze, there’s a team of teachers who coach you through the skills. One coach is handling the lines (attached to your harness), one is on the platform, and there’s often a third helping out, certainly when it’s time to catch. Following their instructions, especially as they say them, is key. As I was practicing a couple of tricks over two days, I realized that fear sometimes causes me to stop listening or to believe that I know better than a team of professionals (e.g., moving from one position to the next before the coach called out the transition), and that staying open to instruction, rather than acting according to the script in my head, was important. Here I am, creating my own cues, instead of trusting the wisdom of my teachers:

If there are people in your life whose judgment your trust – whether it be friends or family, health professionals or recovery supports – remember to incorporate their guidance. We can’t do this alone.

3. Mind your body. Each trick on the trapeze is composed of several parts. If you think about all of them, especially in the context of fear, you can become easily overwhelmed. Instead, focus on one piece at a time, and remember, your coaches will cue you. Try not to manufacture positions based on what you think should happen. Your body, aided with momentum from the swing, will naturally do what it needs to do. Your body will also nudge you (and then get louder) when it’s time to back off. During my lesson on the second day, the aches/pains from flying started to outweigh the gains. I just didn’t wan it anymore. So I quit. Honor your body by knowing when to walk away.

4. Trust in your support. This is a big one, especially for the famous “catch.” One of the biggest challenges I face personally is allowing others to step in, trusting they’ll be available for support. It’s no surprise that the catch has been my nemesis on the trapeze. Even when I took classes years ago, I’d nail a trick only to fall apart once it was time to catch. I’d reach or grab, break form, or simply freeze.

Here’s me, in my first catch attempt most recently. I missed, and the feedback from the instructors was that I tried to catch the catcher instead of letting him catch me.  But it’s only in trusting that someone else (a family member, a therapist, a peer from treatment, your beloved pet) will be there to support you that you can let go and conquer what’s in front of you.

5. Be open to possibility. While it will likely seem terrifying at first, flying through the air is an indescribable, natural high. For me, it’s worth the agita, the blistered palms and bloody feet, and the aching back and neck that follow. Even more of a high is letting go of my assumptions around doing all of the labor at all times and letting someone else do his job, to catch me as he promised.

My first day there, I met a woman named, Cecille. She was in her mid-50s and spoke with a European accent. I was floored by watching her fly, so acrobatic and fearless. Cecille told me she left her hectic NYC life and moved across the street from this small-town Floridian resort to be closer to the trapeze. “But you could have taken lessons in New York,” I said, wondering why such a drastic life move. “I know, she responded, “But when you’re busy in your life, you only go once a week, and I wanted to go every day. Life is too short, you know?”

What kinds of possibility await you? 

Here’s my final attempt:

If you’re physically able to participate in trapeze and have the resources to do so, we’re curious to know if you see some parallels between your participation and what’s circulating in your life. How do you approach the experience? What comes up for you when you fly? Be sure to let us know!


Published by