Fear of fallingPosted: November 17, 2011
Being high up tends me to make me feel nervous. Flying, tall buildings, that sort of thing. It’s not a proper phobia, just a niggling and persistent discomfort. I’ve got a standard line when I explain this to people: I’m not scared of heights; I’m scared of falling.
Somehow that seems like an appropriate caption for my life right now. Or rather, for the parts of myself that I’m trying to keep from running my life.
You see, I’m extremely risk averse. I’m reluctant to commit to tasks that I’m afraid I won’t be able to live up to. And just to make things interesting, there’s a pretty loud and insistent part of me that’s convinced that there are few tasks, if any, that I can really live up to. And since I’m just going to fail anyway, maybe it would be better not to try in the first place.
There are a lot of reasons why I struggle with thinking like this. Some of it, I think, is a natural tendency towards perfectionism. I know some of it is because of personal relationships where I was told that nothing I did was ever good enough often enough that I eventually started to believe it about myself, so often that eventually I didn’t even need to be told.
And some of it is because of the messages I grew up hearing in church – about how horribly depraved I was, about how even the best and most noble thing I could ever do would be nothing but filthy rags before God. And about how God was perfectly righteous and expected the utmost holiness, even though by nature no human being could ever live up to such a high standard. About how you had to try to be as good and do everything as completely right as possible, even though you could never be good enough for God.
What a lot of people, Christians and otherwise, don’t get is how this stuff sinks into your bones. It becomes part of you, not just how you think about your spiritual life, but how you think about everything. That shouldn’t be surprising, since we were taught that what we believed about God should affect every last aspect of our lives. Well, it does, but not in the way I was told it would.
You become obsessed with doing things right, and your entire sense of self-worth is bound up in that. But you also become convinced you can never get things right. That nothing you do is right enough. You can always be more right. So you begin to equate yourself with failure.
And no one tells you that sometimes failure is the best teacher. That sometimes it can be a good thing. That sometimes people look and do and feel better for having tried to do something and “failed,” than if they always took the safest path. Or that playing it safe is actually following someone else’s script, and no way to build confidence in yourself and your ability to get things done.
And of course you get no warning that the path every one tells you is safest may not be so safe after all. No, all you’re told is that this path is safe; if you take the others you’ll fall. And falling is so terrifying a prospect that all of one’s life must be devoted to avoiding it at all costs.
So you avoid heights. You stay safe and low to the ground and avoid even the slightest deviation from the path. But again, you can never follow it closely enough, so your entire life becomes defined by never being able to quite do things right.
My fear of falling looks like this:
– I feel like I’m going to fail before I’ve ever even tried.
– I feel like all the bad or incomplete things I’ve done outweigh any good.
– I feel like I’ve never done anything really good or worthwhile.
– I feel judged long before anyone ever judges me.
Someone said to me today that if someone else said all these things to me, rather than my telling it to myself, it would be emotionally abusive. And she’s absolutely right. It is abusive.
It’s pretty straightforward, really. I heard day after day and year after year that I was a worthless, abject, utterly wretched sinner and that God loved me despite myself. And I believed it. Part of me still does.