Fear of Falling

Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? Then why do we feel it even when the observation tower comes equipped with a sturdy handrail? No, vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.

Milan Kundera


I’m re-reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being and discovered this quote. I used to think of vertigo as being a fear of heights, and I think that’s what the book’s author meant.


But vertigo is the sensation of feeling like the world is spinning around you while you’re actually standing still. It’s often confused with acrophobia, which is an extreme or irrational fear of heights.


Most of us face a natural fear when exposed to heights. It’s possible we developed a fear of falling as a species as we starting building and exploring places where falling from a height posed more significant danger. Cautiousness around heights is an instinct we’ve developed as a safety mechanism or survival skill.


The anxiety from our fear of falling increases as we struggle to maintain our balance.


The human balance system maintains its position and motion using

  • Proprioception – the feedback system that tracks where each part of the body is at all times and how it is interacting spatially with the rest of the body
  • Vestibular System – the sensory system that maintains our sense of balance and spatial awareness (working the the cochlea in the inner ear) to keep us upright
  • Nearby Visual Cues


As our height increases, visual clues receded and we all find our balance becomes poorer. Most of us respond by shifting our reliance to our proprioceptive and vestibular systems for equilibrium.


An acrophobic continues to over-rely on visual signals, which lessens their ability to balance. So their anxiety at heights is well-founded!


The idea I take away here is that as we aspire to greater heights we need to develop and trust our systems and processes. We should focus less on constant validating feedback from others (whether it be visual signals, “likes and shares” or pats on the back).


The crowd won’t lead you to innovation or greater heights, you’re responsible for charting that path for yourself. Summon up the courage to lead and then generously offer to share the new perspectives you discover to those who choose to follow.


To operate at ever greater height it’s wise to have some safety precautions in place, but you can’t be sure all the time. You’re reaching higher than you have before, so by necessity it’s going to require doing something new that you haven’t yet proven to yourself. How does the potential upside balance against the possible downside and how can you mitigate your risk where possible?


I’m not surprised that the phrases “fear of falling” and “fear of failing” are so similar. They look and feel almost identical. There is excitement in doing something new – travelling to new places, beginning a new project, meeting a new person…but there is also the risk of ‘failure’ when you embark on an adventure somewhere, doing something or with someone different. Is it a coincidence we call it “falling in love?”


I believe we all face a constant push and pull between risk taking and staying safe, the known and the unknown, between the fear of failure and the fear of success. We’ve survived as a species so long because we each have our different levels of risk tolerance. Those who play it safe have ensured our ongoing survival, while those who climb out on a limb have pushed innovation ever forwards and have protected us against stagnation.


Where do you sit on the risk spectrum and what height do you aspire to today?

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