How Falling Down in Front of People Helped Me Deal with My Fear of Looking Bad
Well after twenty-five years of worrying it finally happened: I fell on my butt in a group yoga class.
Don’t worry, I wasn’t hurt. We were going into an extremely low squat, where your butt is only a few inches above the ground, and the teacher suggested if it felt difficult to squat that low we should put blocks under us to take some of the weight. As I lowered into a deep squat my legs started to give out. As I started to go down, I somehow missed the blocks and fell on my butt. Oops.
Although it was embarrassing, it was an important opportunity for personal growth.
Let me tell you why this is significant: I have practiced yoga on and off for over twenty-five years now. Every time we do a balance pose or a deep lunge or a low squat I think to myself, “Holy crap, I hope I don’t fall!”
That twinge of anxiety ratchets up a bit if I get shaky, like if I’m doing a standing balance pose and I feel myself start to sway. I’ll come out of the pose more quickly because I’m afraid I’ll fall. I thought more about falling than I did about staying upright.
I’ve realized that I’m not particularly worried that I’ll hurt myself if I fall, because honestly, in real life I trip and/or fall quite often. Once I was hiking with my ex-boyfriend (who was WAY less athletic than me) and I tripped on something, I’m pretty sure it was a leaf or an ant or something equally innocuous. He shook his head and said, “I swear, there can be a twig 10 feet away from you and you’ll manage to trip on it.”
My fear of falling in yoga class is about one thing: the fear of being embarrassed.
I have spent a lot of my life either feeling embarrassed or being worried that I might be embarrassed. When I was doing a lot of running, I often felt embarrassed that I was slower and larger than the other runners — even though no one ever, not even once, did anything to make me feel embarrassed.
Same thing for things like barre class, spin class, and other group workout activities. Yet the fear of potentially being embarrassed was sometimes crippling.
Later during the class when I went into savasana (the rest pose at the end of a yoga class) I thought about why I’m so afraid to embarrass myself in a workout. What was the big deal? What had I missed out on because I was afraid people would judge me?
I realized that, like much of my trauma, the fear of looking bad when I was doing something active stemmed from grammar school.
You all remember grammar school right? (This is also known as grade school or elementary school depending on where you live). It started out fun with the collages and turkeys made from the outline of your hand and singing cute songs and nap time, but around 4th or 5th grade it becomes a real-life “Lord of the Flies”.
The kids separate into factions and some of the kids find themselves on the bottom. Right at the bottom of the heap is all the perceived misfits. In my school, it was the fat kid, the kid with the lazy eye, the kid with a growth disorder, the kid who had frequent seizures, the kid who smelled bad, and a couple of other assorted kids who were “different”.
I was the fat kid in class. I was picked last for any sport. I was last in every single “contest” we had for the highly traumatic (for me, at least) President's Physical Fitness Challenge, much to the annoyance of the other kids, and the gym teacher.
I was the kid who couldn’t seem to catch the ball that came right to me. I never could hit a baseball. I couldn’t touch my toes. I was the kid who everyone had to wait to finish when we did laps.
Gym class was where the new world order was most evident. My lack of athletic ability and physical fitness made me super popular in gym class, or as I thought of it, the 7th circle of hell.
As time went on, I became increasingly worried about embarrassing myself, and that made me more tentative and afraid to try because trying just led to more mockery. Instead, I tried to be invisible as much as I could, or come up with excuses to miss class altogether.
The best thing that happened to me in 8th grade was when I had back surgery to correct severe scoliosis because it meant I was excused from gym class for most of the school year.
That’s right, a 12-hour surgery followed by an extremely painful 9-month recovery was better than getting a dodge ball whipped at my head in gym class while people made fun of me.
Fast forward to the day when I fell in yoga for the first time and…..nothing bad happened. I looked around, but most people didn’t seem to notice I had fallen. No one was laughing at me.
My friend Betty raised her eyebrows and gave me a good-natured smile — Betty has probably run thousands of miles with me and is very familiar with my klutziness. No one mocked me after class. Nothing bad happened because I fell. It was NO BIG DEAL.
Sure, if that had happened in grammar school, I would have gotten a different response. But in the adult world, we are mostly all focused on ourselves.
It was a strong wake-up call for me. Who cares if I look different or have different abilities in yoga or any other fitness class? I have the same right to be there, to take up space, to enjoy the feeling of being active.
As I lay in savasana I focused on releasing that old fear. I radiated compassion for myself, and for the little fat kid who was tormented in gym class. I gave myself kudos for continuing on my journey to stay active.
I expressed gratitude to my body for all the times it held me up in class without falling. And I promised myself that I would never let the fear of embarrassment keep me from enjoying movement.
I felt relieved. I felt calm. I felt hopeful. The one thing I did not feel was embarrassed. And that’s awesome.
So if you're thinking of trying a new workout, just go for it. Maybe you'll look stupid, maybe you'll fall down, but in the end, the benefits far outweigh the cost of not working out at all.