When you hear the word failure, what comes to mind?
For me, failure has often brought about negative feelings and fear. It’s something I think I should avoid, like a hostile takeover or a zombie apocalypse, and certainly nothing that I should willingly admit experiencing.
But what if failure is actually a positive thing?
Most of my teen years were filled with the kind of sadness that can’t be explained at that age. I didn’t want to get out of bed for days at a time. I slept as much as possible during the day and rarely slept at night. I avoided school whenever I could get away with it and spent most of my days in the darkness of my bedroom, nearly to the point of being unhygienic.
To the outside world it probably looked like I was fine. I came from a nice home, had friends, got decent grades (despite my lack of interest in math or science); I had everything a teenage girl could need. But on the inside, I was spinning. I was angry, stubborn, and constantly blaming others for my internal struggle. All I wanted to do was escape my thoughts. But instead I sat with them every day, alone in my bedroom, wondering what was wrong with me.
As it turned out, nothing was “wrong” with me. I was simply failing at being perfect. Failing to be the perfect daughter, sister, friend, student. I thought I should have the perfect life and because nothing felt right to me, it was obviously wrong. In other words, if I wasn’t perfect, I was a failure.
I’m sure we’ve all heard a quote or two about the value in failing, but what about the value in willingly admitting we failed? That’s where the real fear lies, doesn’t it? To tell someone, “I’m not handling this well,” or, worse, “I need help.”
One of the things I learned from waking up on the other side of my dark teenage years was that I wasn’t actually failing; I simply wasn’t happy living under the expectations of others. I was supposed to be outgoing and social, not introverted and quiet; a good student who got involved in committees, not mediocre and uncaring; career driven and motivated to succeed, not spinning in circles without a clear picture of what I wanted to do with my life. I was supposed to follow a path designed for me (not by me) and not stray from it. But feeling trapped within those expectations was too much for me to handle, so I buckled. I caved under the perfect pressure until I realized the only way to find happiness was to stop living my life for others.
This is a hard thing for a teenager to do because we’re raised to follow instructions. We start our lives with our parents thinking for us, then our teachers, coaches, and other mentors meant to guide us through adolescence, all under the pretence of protecting and helping us. But when every one of those people fails to listen to what we actually want, they end up pushing us until we feel the only way out is absolute rebellion.
After discovering the freedom that comes from admitting I was okay with failing to be the person other people thought I should be, I felt immune to experiencing that kind of anxiety again. Until the end of 2018 when the familiar scent of failure returned and I was once again caught in its harsh grip, wildly thrashing about as I tried to make sense of what I was feeling.
However, instead of falling head-first into the anxiety vortex like I did in my teens, I took a hard look at the root cause of the stress that fuelled the anxiety and worked on ways to alleviate it. I practiced admitting that I was feeling anxious and found sympathetic ears to share my concerns with. Instead of thinking I was a total failure, I opted to view it as a stepping stone on my way to success. And you know what? It worked. Eventually, I was waking up not feeling quite so bad. My mind was clearing; I was able to sense the lightness and feel the clarity you can only gain by admitting you’re not perfect. And that’s okay.
I realize it won’t work this way for everyone, but the anxiety I experienced at the end of last year forced me to slow down. To quiet the noise in my brain so I could eliminate thoughts of what I should be doing and instead focus on what I needed and wanted. To figure out what perfection I was trying to take on that was standing in the way of my dreams.
Because, the truth is, it is often braver to admit that we are not in alignment with our true selves than it is to pretend everything is okay. And needing help is not an admission of failure; it’s understanding that we’re imperfect.
And that is one of the most beautiful things we can be.