Fear of falling

Skywalker

Image by Difusa, CC license

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.

12 Comments

  1. “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.”

    I’ve long wondered why a supposedly wise God would look askance at his creation’s flaws, when he created them with those flaws.

    • Funny that you say that – I came across a quote by Moby yesterday that said something similar:

      I have a feeling the universe is more forgiving an loving than we have traditionally, culturally, given it credit for. If God ended up being petty and angry, it’d be so sad. If you are God and you understand how everything in the universe works, why would you judge these poor, stumbling, shortsighted humans who are just blindly trying to figure out how to stay alive from one day to the next?

  2. @Ahab — it’s a bit worse than that: he created them perfect, but another of his creations tempted the perfect creation to become un-perfect, and now all of creation is flawed.
    So not only did he create a creation that could un-perfect itself; he lost control of it too.

    Perhaps this is why the religious response (under this worldview) creates so many counter-controls of body, mind, society, worship, and law… It helped me to frame my own perfectionism as an effort to control outcomes, or limit effort so that outcomes could be predictably awesome.

    Learning how to step out of that mindset has also meant learning how to step out of the theology that set it up.

    • Learning how to step out of that mindset has also meant learning how to step out of the theology that set it up.

      Oh my goodness, yes. Absolutely. That’s why church is no longer safe space for me. Even very liberal churches buy into the idea of sin, which is incredibly unhelpful to me when it comes to resisting self-loathing.

      • Yes — and it’s not usually a sin that means “learning opportunity”; it’s still a sin that means “deficiency of nature from which you can never escape except by rescue from above.”

        And I find this stunting.

  3. Wow. This matches my experience almost exactly, and it’s good to be reminded that I’m not alone. Thank you.

  4. you explain the abuse culture so well. for the first half of my life, i totally internalized its values. but thank god for therapy. now it’s actually possible to wake up every morning excited about what i can contribute to the world for the rest of the day. it’s possible, grace! and blogging will do wonders in helping you get there> :)

    • Thanks, Betty! It’s definitely something I’ve been working on in therapy (though even sticking with that has its challenges for the same reason – I’m afraid of failing at therapy! what a mess). It’s encouraging to hear that you’ve been able to move on from that mindset :) Blogging definitely helps.

  5. Do we get over this? I see how I sabotage myself before I even start things because I see myself that way. If I don’t start, I can’t fail, right?

    • I hope we do get over it, Prairie! It’s such an obstacle and source of self-sabotage for me. I really hope I’m not this way indefinitely.