Emotional Safety Net

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Tightrope walkers don’t just magically arrive at a state where they can traverse a space high above the ground with nothing below them to catch their fall. First they practice on a rope just a few feet above the earth. Then they graduate to the real thing, but with a safety net to catch them when they fall. And they do fall many times while honing their skills, it’s part of the process. Some eventually gain the supreme confidence to get up there and do their thing without a net, knowing full well what it will mean for them if they lose their footing, but by this point they feel mentally and physically prepared for the challenge.

It’s not like I know anything about tightrope walking, but I do know a lot about psychology, and the paragraph from above struck me as a useful metaphor to think about the unconscious factors that help people go out there and take risks in their lives. Uncertainty is an inextricable part of self-actualization. Reaching beyond yourself, the process of growth, means trading the certainty of your current life situation for a set of circumstances still unknowable to you, a proposition that lies at the heart of existential anxiety. Symbolically speaking, the fear of falling is exactly what keeps people in their bubbles.

But there are mitigating environmental factors that make taking these risks easier. We’ll call it an emotional safety net, and really it’s just a solid structure of friends and family that you know you can rely on for emotional and moral support. In the back of your mind you remember that you’ll always have people to go to, to commiserate with, if things don’t work out. This knowledge instills you with the necessary confidence to reach beyond yourself even though you know you might fail.

To return to our tightrope walking metaphor, you would never get up there and risk it in the first place if you didn’t know there was a soft landing waiting for you if you lost your footing. You might make it across the chasm without falling, but it’s nice to know the net is there. The first takeaway then is that if you want to put yourself in the best position to gain that confidence to reach beyond yourself, make sure you surround yourself with supportive people who see the best in you and who you know have your back.

The second takeaway is to realize that while your brain might not be able to differentiate between the symbolic and the real when it comes to existential anxiety, you can consciously override this fact, realizing that failure does not constitute physical death, only symbolic death. If things don’t work out, even if you don’t have an emotional safety net, you’ll be able to brush yourself off, get back up, and try again.