Ever stood on top of a cliff or tall building and had a dizzying impulse to throw yourself over (even though you’re not suicidal)?
You’re not the only one. I’ve felt it too. And the existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard identified a similar experience in his work The Concept of Anxiety.
He explained that the mere fact that we have the choice to throw ourselves over and make such a life-changing decision creates a deep feeling of anxiety. He called this the “dizziness of freedom.”
My Experience with “Existential Anxiety.”
Every morning and night for the past couples of weeks I’ve went up to the roof of my 24 story apartment and looked down on the Williamsburg bridge and New York City skyline.
It’s a beautiful, calm, and empowering view. From up there, I’m a giant, and everything below me is like a colony of ants. Here’s a picture I snapped with my phone to try and capture it’s magnificence:
When I peek over the railing I see just how far down the fall would be. It’s enormous. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I feel that impulse to throw myself off.
The impulse isn’t driven by a desire to kill myself, instead it is driven by the recognition that I have the capacity to make very powerful decisions. It’s a metaphor of the millions of other decisions that I make everyday which greatly impact the course of my life.
Kierkegaard and Existential Anxiety
As I mentioned in the introduction, this experience is remarkably similar to what the 19th century existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once described in The Concept of Anxiety.
He uses the example of a man standing on the edge of a tall building or cliff. When the man looks over the edge, he experiences a focused fear of falling, but at the same time, the man feels a terrifying impulse to throw himself intentionally off the edge.
That experience is anxiety because of our complete freedom to choose to either throw oneself off or to stay put. The mere fact that one has the possibility and freedom to do something, even the most terrifying of possibilities, triggers immense feelings of anxiety. Kierkegaard called this our “dizziness of freedom.”
I believe that everyone experiences this “dizziness of freedom” to varying degrees. And the anxiety is rooted in the power we each have as conscious beings to make truly life-changing decisions.
So what about you? Have you ever tasted your own “dizziness of freedom?” What was it like? Did it frighten you, empower you, or was it a little bit of both? Feel free to share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below.