When I was growing up, my parents had high expectations of me. They seemed higher than the sky, which I felt continuously set me up for failure. The funny thing is, the longer and harder I stretched to reach the sky, the more I grew. I can tell you that I did not come to this realization until many years later.
There were many times that I was working towards a goal or expectation set out by myself or others that I almost achieved. You could say I was in the clouds. But then something happened, and I fell. And fell hard. When I hit the ground, my goal and expectation changed. I no longer wanted to work towards that. It felt like too much energy, work, and hope. I did not want to put all that effort in and fail again. I thought that would kill me. But John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, said, “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.”
I feared failing and everything that accompanied such. This meant the fall, the disappointment, shame, guilt, and lack of motivation to continue. By having this mindset, I took failure on as an identity. Seeing myself as a failure seemed almost safer than taking the risk and failing again.
Through this lens, my successes seemed minimal and meaningless. Nothing I did or achieved seemed to make a difference or matter to me. None of it seemed to measure up or be enough. This viewpoint, mindset, and way of life hurt me more than any fall I ever experienced from failure. There were many things I never tried or went for because I was afraid to fail. I was afraid that it would only confirm what I already thought of myself. I denied myself the opportunity to be truly successful. But most importantly, I didn’t allow myself to grow into the person I was meant to be.
The fear and identity of a failure became fatal for me at two points in my life. And that was when I felt that I had failed at everything. The amount of shame I felt was indescribable. When I was 20 years old, I had to call my mom and tell her that I had a problem with alcohol, and two years later, I called my dad to say I was going to court to get a protective order on an abusive ex-girlfriend whom my mom had told and threatened me to leave multiple times before. One day I decided to switch the lens I was looking through.
For the first time in my life, I fought for what I wanted. What I knew would make me happy. What I knew would save my life. I even fought my mom to prove to her that it was worth any and every consequence that followed. Everything seemed to fall in place after that. I worked to discover and be more comfortable with who I was and my identity. I became happy and social. I met my close friends. I would go to events and parties that I never would have entertained the thought of. I smiled and laughed more than I had in my entire life. I took extreme risks, or ones that seemed extreme. I applied to graduate school in a field I had no prior education or formal experience in. Just a feeling. I presented research at three different conferences. I conducted research that will hopefully be published within the next year or so. I jumped out of an airplane. I swam with sharks. But the most extreme thing I pushed myself to do was to love and be loved.
What I learned about failure over the years, is that it is inevitable. You either fail by taking a risk or fail by default by not taking that risk. My failures taught me a lesson either about myself, or just how the world worked. Failures taught me healthy boundaries, how to make healthy, beneficial relationships, and ultimately how to genuinely love myself.
I used to think that failing meant starting over. But that wasn’t true. I learned something on the way. Failure isn’t a complete reset. It may make you change pathways like it did for me, but I had new knowledge and understanding that I would not have gained if not for failure.
Failure is not an identity. By believing in myself, I have stronger bonds with my family and friends. Failing shaped me and not fearing failure granted me a multitude of opportunities to better myself, my life, and others. Failure is not without cause and not without growth.
We must be gracious with ourselves and know that no matter what the outcome is, we are not failures. But instead, we are courageous and brave because we took a leap knowing the possibilities, both good and bad.