The Extraordinary Psychology and Mythology of Falling

Psychology and Mental Health Self Help

Life is a cruel, heartless bitch, I thought, why are so many good people falling? I was on the treadmill at the gym. I was trying to listen to the podcast my phone was playing, but my mind was wandering to all the people in my life who were sick. When one of those people is your own mother, laying in the hospital suffering, it changes your perspective on things. A flood of emotions rush over you. You feel sad, anxious, angry, confused…the list goes on. And you cycle through and repeat those emotions quickly.

One lone positive thought crept into my mind.  An old Japenese proverb that once inspired me so much came bubbling to the surface. Fall down seven times, stand up eight. But, for the first time, I didn’t think of it the way that it was intended. I usually saw it as this little motivational speech we give ourselves whenever life knocks us down. You know, Eye of the Tiger, I Ching, Rocky Balboa, and all that jazz.

This time, however, I came up with a theory. I thought that the average person will probably have what they consider a “fall” about six or seven times in their life. Of course, there are lots and lots of hard times in our lives. Plenty of bad days. And I am aware that there are many people in the world whose entire lives are a shit show from start to finish. Barring any outliers, most of us will have six or seven life-defining rough times in our lives. Granted, this is just my theory and it’s based on absolutely nothing substantial. If you look at this article, you might see that even the luckiest among us is going to average a few of those things on that list.

The point is that, unless you die very young, you will have a major fall several times in your life. That proverb in conjunction with my theory made me think about the science and psychology of falling. This is where my studies took me…

A Fear of Falling Can Cause You to Fall

If you like personal growth blogs, you’ll inevitably stumble onto The Law of Attraction. Several years back, Rhonda Byrne wrote the book The Secret and the world was ablaze with the idea that you can bring things into your life through your intentions. If you shift your focus onto what you want, more of that thing will come into your life.

Then came the secret haters. Those wonderful people who inevitably rise up against what is trendy and declare war on it. “The secret is nonsense!” They cried. “Get off your ass and go do something!”

I, being the little middle-of-the-roader that I am, think it’s a little bit of both. You will never achieve something without taking action. Period. However, you will never take action until you set your intentions to inspire you to take action. I also think that The Law of Attraction people have it backwards. They say that you draw things to you through your intentions. I say that your intentions draws you towards more of what you want.

This study suggests that a fear of falling can actually cause you to fall. It works like this:

  • Anxiety creates “stiffening behaviors.”
  • Stiffening behaviors cause your body to use resources that otherwise would be used to help you with complex motor tasks.
  • Because those resources are not being used to help you with balance, you are more susceptible to falling.

Ironic, isn’t it? You create more of the very thing you fear just by fearing it. Your body behaves differently on an unconscious level because you’re using those resources to worry.

This is why it’s important to set your intentions towards things that you want to happen in your life. For someone with anxiety, this might require you to do some mental gymnastics. The best way to interrupt a pattern of anxious thought is to find ways to take your mind off of it. You will never beat anxiety by focusing on anxiety.

When I get trapped in a loop of anxious thought, I play a game, do a puzzle, or any activity that causes me to engage my mind. Most of the time breaking the thought itself is enough to pull you from the anxiety. If the anxiety comes back, I break the loop again with another game or puzzle. Most of the thoughts that plague our mind require us to create a new habit of thinking. This will take time. Be patient and keep getting back up.

Your Fundamental Flaws Can Cause You to Fall

Our culture is wrought with mythology surrounding this concept. We LOVE a good “fall down, go through hell to get back up, and rise from the ashes like a Phoenix” story. There are three main reasons people fall in mythology, and each one is as fascinating and relevant as the next. Falling occurs as a result of ignorance, gullibility, or pride.

One of the most fascinating myths is the myth of Icarus. Icarus’s father, Daedalus, was contracted by  King Minos to build an incredible maze to house the half man-half beast created by his wife’s crazy actions. Daedalus built the labyrinth (so well that he almost didn’t get out of it), and the king rewarded him by imprisoning him and his son so that they couldn’t give away the secret of the labyrinth. Daedalus fashioned wings from feathers he had collected and glued them to their backs using wax. Icarus got caught up in the exhilaration of flying and, despite his fathers warnings, flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, and Icarus plummeted to his death.

Icarus represents to us the story both of pride and of the curse of creating the thing that causes your own downfall. Icarus’s flaw was overconfidence. Daedalus’ flaw was his own success.

Then we see the story of Adam and Eve. The story of the curse of humanity itself through one act of disobedience. I call it the choice that was never a choice. Consider this: you wouldn’t place a giant cake right in the center of your kitchen if you were trying to lose weight, would you? Not if you expected to stick to your diet. You will walk by that cake every day and be tempted by it. Placing a tree with this forbidden fruit right in the center of the garden is an ultimate act of temptation.

I think these stories speak to the inevitability of the nature of humans to fall. This relates to our lives because it exposes these themes of fundamental flaws. Icarus’s flaw was pride. Adam and Eve’s flaw was gullibility. Even Daedalus is considered flawed by his extreme smarts. These flaws led to their downfall.

Do you have a fundamental flaw? Don’t be so quick to answer that (yes or no). We are masters at keeping ourselves from our flaws. Our minds work overtime to help us synthesize the world in a way that makes what we do make sense. It’s not an easy thing to look inside and say, “Hey, I am the problem in this situation.”

But that is your challenge if you are to grow. The only way we grow is by changing something. We can’t change something until we see that something isn’t totally right. Just because you have these flaws doesn’t mean that you are flawed to your core. So, stop beating yourself up or stop being so skittish. Look at yourself objectively.

The best way to spot these flaws is to look at the bad things that have happened to you. Some of them may have been out of your control (i.e. death of a loved one), but most of them are brought about by decisions you’ve made. What do they have in common?

Another great way to spot these flaws is to look at the things people say about you when you are fighting with them. If you keep getting the same feedback from completely unrelated people in your life, it’s a good bet that you are communicating something that you don’t intend. This ultimately means that there is something driving you to communicate that way. These types of thoughts and flaws surface rather quickly when you start looking for them.

Not Every Fall Needs a Reason

This doesn’t get said enough. Sometimes bad things just happen. In his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan Peterson spends considerable time breaking life into two categories: order and chaos. Order is our attempt at mastering the world around us, chaos is the thing that happens that throws us out of order. Chaos is the moment we fall–the moment our lives change.

One of the most famous questions ever asked is: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I spent a significant portion of my teen and young adult years pondering that question. It doesn’t seem fair when the good people in your life are thrown into suffering. It took me a while to realize that the problem with that question is the descriptions we use.

“Good” and “bad” are subjective concepts. This means that each individual person decides what is good and what is bad. Sure, there are many things we as people agree are good/bad, but it’s still based on how things affect us as people and not what is objectively true. Our concepts of good and bad are based on what is good for us as a group and what is bad for us as a group.

So, the answer to that question is that things just happen. Period. Things happen. We react. Our idea of what is fair or unfair flies out of bounds beyond that. The universe doesn’t care what’s good or bad for us. It just moves forward according to the laws of physics. Nature is brutal.

Does that mean our actions are meaningless? Why bother trying to shape the world if nature is going to destroy it all anyway? This is the kind of thinking that leads to depression/despair. It can be hard to come back from the thought that our actions, when compared to the scope of the universe, ultimately have little to no meaning. This is an existential crisis. The human condition.

In the face of this bleak and callous realization, we are challenged to find a perspective that gives our lives meaning again. When everything we thought about the world is destroyed, what is left is a fresh foundation on which to build again. And we are challenged to do what only makes sense when we fall…rise.

The Challenge to Rise

I can count three specific times in my life that I could reasonably say were “fall” moments. In each of those moments, I found that the path towards rising always began with one defining moment: a choice. A decision to change. We may fall for many different reasons, but the process of rising always comes from one very specific action. You make a choice.

Will Smith gives a powerful speech on this:

In the previous section of this article, I depressed everyone with an existential crisis. The thought that our actions are meaningless was one of the most frightening and depressing realizations that I had in my life. These thoughts led me to a fog, a zombie-like haze of going through the motions of my daily life without engaging in anything. Why bother?

I ultimately began to realize that I was thinking about something that didn’t exist. This future without me in it, the one where the sun destroys the entire galaxy and leaves all of our work here ultimately meaningless…it just doesn’t exist NOW. It’s a prediction based on what we currently know. You have no idea what the effects of your actions here and now will have a million years in the future.

Consider the notion of chaos theory. This is the notion that small changes in the initial conditions of a system can have massive effects at the end of it. A famous short story by Ray Bradbury, A Sound of Thunder, takes this concept and expounds on it. A futuristic corporation offers to take people back in time to hunt extinct species (such as dinosaurs). On one such hunt, a man steps on and kills a butterfly. When he returns to the future, subtle changes were everywhere.

The point is that one subtle change in the past can snowball into massive changes in the future. So, if the death of a butterfly could have such an effect on our present, then how might your presence here now affect the future?

I go through that long-winded diversion to convince you of one thing: your actions have meaning. Everything you do matters. Your mere presence here is affecting this place for generations to come. Are you going to continue to sit back and do nothing? Or will you make the choice to rise?

The Process of Rising

Once you make the decision to pick yourself up, there are three things that happen:

A period of learning. When your world gets turned upside down, you must learn new information to process it. This might mean reading books, taking a class, or just having a long discussion with somebody about your experience. If you don’t intend to repeat the experience and make the same mistakes, then you must learn something beyond what you already know. This allows you to do things that you haven’t already done.

A period of re-falling. A fall within a fall. Often you don’t just fall once, stand up, and go about your merry way. It’s more like a period of time when you keep falling and rising. This is necessary because you are learning a new way of living. New experience means you will make mistakes. Nobody gets it right on the first try.

A period of new habits. Once you work out what doesn’t work, you finally begin to find things that work for you. They still seem foreign, so you must continue the process consciously for a while until the new behavior or action becomes a habit. A good way to make these habits more manageable is to set a goal for thirty days. Do the new thing for thirty days and, at the end of that time, reevaluate.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. The bottom line is that we may not always be able to choose what happens to us, but we always have a choice in how to respond. There will be bad seasons in your life, and your attitude towards them will determine how much you will suffer. Bad times don’t have to be so bad if you choose to find ways to process what happens to you and move beyond it. If you can’t figure out why you fell, maybe you can come up with a reason to rise.

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