Failure was not a part of my vocabulary for most of my life.
I worked and I worked to achieve, to get the grades, to never—ever—fail a test or an assignment or get the answer wrong. For a while I was successful. I achieved, academically at least, and this was the important aspect of achievement as a child; the only one I knew anyway. I was always among those at the top of the class. I got the As, the 10/10s, the Firsts.
I found a way to be seen. I also found a perfect way to hide.
I could hide behind the mask of my success and the image of perfection that I had been taught to uphold my whole life. I needed to cover up the trauma and abuse I was experiencing, otherwise my world and the worlds of many people around me would come crashing down. Mostly it worked; no one suspected anything. Our perfect facade was enough to keep their suspicions at bay. The only criticism I ever received at parent-teacher meetings was that I was “very quiet” and “could speak up more.”
Even then I felt ashamed.
I hated speaking in class, reading passages aloud, giving answers and presentations; I found it incredibly difficult to project my voice across the room. I had to concentrate just to speak loudly enough when answering my name being called in the register. These comments (which were not given as huge criticisms) made me feel tiny and exposed as I cowered in the corner of my world.
I spent my school-life afraid; afraid of being seen, afraid of being heard. I quickly learned that being silent highlighted this, so as life unfolded and I grew, people realized much to their surprise just how much I could speak. I could—and can—talk, and talk and talk and talk. I became a master at it, always saying enough to make people believe they saw me, but never so much that anyone really did.
I had found my way to speak without being heard, no longer failing by being the shy, quiet, intimidated child I was. Inside nothing changed, but the image I projected did.
All they saw was the mask I had trained myself to wear.
As I grew older, failure came a-knocking.
Finding my way outside of this artificial academic world did not come easily to me, and as life began to push me down, I did not know how to deal with everyday mistakes and failures. Once, about 10 years ago, when I told a friend I needed to talk because I had made a “huge mistake”, I clearly remember him saying, “What? You don’t make mistakes!”
I had spent my childhood growing up before my time. An old soul. People said it constantly. I was older than my years in countless ways. I was emotionally mature and self-sufficient, and my academic achievements were enough to carry me through life, yes? Adulthood should have come easily, right?
I had spent my life learning everything I needed to survive through the trauma and the loss of my childhood; finding a way to be seen, but hiding at the same time. I had learnt skills, emotionally, that many of my peers would not have to learn until much later in life.
I was well trained in “coping” and became an expert in reading emotions; often in my need to foresee possible “danger” to protect myself. In turn, I became a master at helping others. I learnt emotional literacy in reading people and interacting with them. Once again I could hide behind my “success” in supporting them with their every emotional need. However, as I was learning these successes, I was missing a whole heap of lessons that would help me to cope with other elements of life that we all face as we grow.
Lessons I should have been learning as a child were replaced with those I learnt through living through trauma and abuse.
As failure came around, failure that we all face at one point or another in life, I did not know how to deal with it. I had not nurtured many parts of myself that needed caring for and or taught myself to live fully because this “perfect” mask was more important, just to keep me alive. My outward emotional literacy was not enough to keep me succeeding and my academic achievements could only take me so far.
As such my failures became greater than mere mistakes that I could brush off as lessons learned. They became deeply ingrained in the shame I carried, and still carry, from my childhood. They chipped away at any sense of self-worth I had left, and with every failure I began losing more and more of myself.
Over the past few years I have have faced loss, again and again, in my career, family, relationships, beliefs, and sense of self. With each loss I face, from childhood and now in my adult life, I feel like I a failure all over again. I feel like I have failed at managing to keep hold of certain people in my life, the positive memory of those who left my life long ago, my career path, my glossy “perfect” memories and the mask I carefully created.
I do not know how to cope with failure. I struggle to keep hold of who I am. I do not know who I am. I do not know how to keep living when I have lost nearly everything that I had built my life around, when I have lost the sense of self I had convincingly faked.
Once again I fail. Once again I lose. Once again I experience loss and shame and failure at the very core of my being.
I am now taking part in the long, long process of learning how to live life while letting go of the “achievements” I spent my life busting a gut to earn; the process of learning the lessons that I could not learn living through an abusive childhood, and adulthood for the most part.
I have to relearn the meaning of achievement, the real meaning of success; what it means to fail and how to cope with failing both inwardly and outwardly; what it means to lose “everything” and how to rebuild my life from nothing; how to balance all of the expectations of being a functional adult with the inner need to learn the childhood lessons I never had the time, space or environment to fully learn.
I have to learn how to fail in these lessons, over and over, and how to pick myself back up and begin living life again.
We’ve all heard the sayings about failure allowing for growth, loss creating space to emerge, how life is a continual learning process. Well, I don’t dispute a single one of them. I take so much from other people, learning about myself through their experiences and our shared human experience, but as I work through the many, many lessons that I am far behind in learning, I begin to realize how real learning, real understanding happens in the experience.
Our biggest lessons will be found, not in books or academic teachings, but in our own unique life experiences.
Maybe this time of loss and failure is part of that. Maybe I have to hold onto myself, keep my eyes wide open and trust that I will find the lessons and the learning within myself, all the while trying to see and feel and learn from my shame, my failings and my loss, even through all the pain, trauma and grief that comes with the experience.
Maybe in learning what failure really means — and what it does not — I am actually learning just as much about success and living life to its fullest.