Why are We Afraid to Fail

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” 

― Maya Angelou

When I was in my early 20s, I made a list of things I wanted to do in life, sort of a bucket list. Right at the top of that list were two things I wanted to try at least once in my life – bungee jumping and sky diving. I wrote the list, put it away and didn’t really think too much about it, until recently.

This summer, my cousins visited me in Oslo. One of things we thought might be fun to try was the Oslo Summer Park. It’s a climbing park where you walk on ropes between tree tops at varying heights, following set routes. Some of the routes also include zip wires. You get some basic training before you get to try out the actual courses in the Park. So at the training level, I climbed up a short rope ladder to a wooden platform. I had a harness that secured me to the safety line above. I was a little over five feet above the ground. I stepped onto the rope. The rope shook violently and I froze. I couldn’t take one more step.


Image that says Do not fear failure
Photo Credit: Tomasz Stasiuk via Compfight cc

Did I mention I had a harness that secured me to the rope above? So even if I fell, I would be dangling close to the ground. But all the logic and reasoning I’ve relied on all my life failed me that day. The more scared I was, the more the rope shook. The more the rope shook, more scared I got. It was a vicious circle. It was embarrassing because my two nephews, the youngest only 6 years old, were trying the climbing park for the first time as well, and they were not in the least troubled by the height or the shaking rope. By the time I got off the rope, I was shaking like a leaf tossed about in a hurricane.

When it came to actually trying a climbing course, I went up one level of the tower where the easiest course begins and waited probably for two minutes watching people, mostly kids, walk on the rope as if they were born doing it. I told my cousin, I don’t think I want to do this and I climbed down the tower. My heart stopped racing only after it was sure that I was on firm ground again and had no intention of leaving it for a while. So much for bungee jumping and sky diving!

My cousins, the amazing, supportive people that they are, said something wise. They said self awareness is a valuable lesson to learn. So was I afraid of heights? My fear was not that clear-cut and simple, which only made it difficult to accept. How can I be shouting in excitement on a roller coaster or any of the crazy rides in an amusement park and yet find my legs quaking when I have to walk to the edge of a steep cliff and look down? Yes, that happened a few years back on a windy day atop a cliff. Why do I get a thrill from whooshing down a zip line and yet freeze in fear walking over a rope when my mind knows that my harness will save me if I fall? Yes, I loved the zip wire part of the training at the Summer Park. Unfortunately, they don’t allow you to try the zip wires by themselves. I have looked over the railings of tall buildings and admired the deep gorges of Grand Canyon and yet, walking on an unsteady surface a few feet above the ground has me running away?

I realised I was not so afraid of height as I was of falling from the said height. I’ve this vague image of a past life where a man with a monocle pushes me off a cliff and I tumble down to my rocky death with my dress billowing in the air. Wonder what I did to meet such a fate? I must have made fun of his monocle. Who wouldn’t?

My cousins were right about self awareness though. Fear is the worst and the best teacher in the world. It’s up to me to choose what lesson I learn from it. And I learnt something valuable: My fear of falling was rooted in my fear of failing. Often, falling can seem like failing because we attach importance to steadiness, to a firm foundation, to stay far away from shaking ground. And the thing with fear is that the more you fear it, the more it rattles you. I had denied it for long and that day in the Climbing Park I realised that it was time to accept it and face it. I had spent most of my growing up years being good at most things I did. I hadn’t given much thought to failure. But as an adult, I realised that you cannot live life like that because when you divide your energy between too many things, you end up not doing justice to any of them. Failure is not something I need to fear, because there’s a lot I’ve learnt from failing at some things. Sometimes, in life, you have to fail to know who you are and what you want to do with your life.

So what if I’m not good at something? So what if there are some experiences I’d rather not go through in life? Because there are so many other things I’m good at, so many other experiences I want to enjoy in life. There was a time I would have subjected myself to harsh criticism because I saw walking away as giving up. But I have learnt that, in life, you need to pick your battles, because life is too short and too precious to spend it constantly beating yourself up. Knowing what you don’t want to do in life is just as important as knowing what you need to do to be happy.

But the lesson in self awareness I got that day made one thing clear: it was time to take bungee jumping and sky diving off my bucket list. I don’t need to prove to anyone how fearless I am. But accepting my fear was the first step towards not letting it keep its hold on me. Instead of plummeting to the ground from great heights, I’d rather aim for the sky. So new addition to the bucket list: a trip into space 🙂

What are your fears? How do you deal with them? Share in the comments.


One thought on “Why are We Afraid to Fail

  1. I really feel proud about you.your acceptance is yr success really. I have this fear of ht!:( I try to think of something else .!!! More over there are so many things to see and do in this world.so there!


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