Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Events & Initiatives, Jae Makitalo.
I have never been comfortable with the idea of failure, most of us probably aren’t. Most people can push through the fear of failure and use it as a motivator for success. I used to think this was a skill I had, but I soon realized it was most certainly not. I probably used to use my fear of failure as a motivator, but once I started experiencing failure, fear became everything but a motivator and it didn’t take long for me to become the queen of catastrophizing. I can take a single event (like an assignment, a test or even a social interaction), and in about two minutes I can tell you how the next 10 years of my life will be affected if this event went poorly.
Feeling like 10 years of your life could be derailed by messing up one thing begins to make you feel like your chances of succeeding are non-existent. Succeeding at something doesn’t get rid of this feeling, it just pushes it onto the next thing you can screw up. That kind of stress can break someone, and that it exactly what it did to me. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t look months or years ahead at how I wanted my life to play out and think of every single way I could screw it up. I have always been the girl with a plan B, just in case I needed it, and a plan C, a plan D, a plan E…. you probably get the point. I used to think I was just being prepared; I didn’t realize how detrimental this kind of thinking could be until I began to spiral out of control. However, because I was so prepared, when I finally began to fall apart, I happened gradually. I managed to always have a trick up my sleeve to try and keep me on track.
Although this may have slowed my derailment, it did not make the fall out any less catastrophic. In fact, it probably made it worse. On top of that, I presented as someone with boat load of university stress, which made it harder to figure out my underlying cause: a generalized anxiety disorder. When I finally got my diagnosis, it made it so much easier to understand my fear and what was going on in my brain. I was put on medication to manage my anxiety and started cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to try and understand my mind so I could figure out how to manage it. When I finally started making progress and the work I put in started to bring me closer to my goals, my fear got worse. I didn’t understand why I was so scared of failing. My work was paying off, and everything I put my mind to I succeed in, yet I couldn’t bring myself to believe that I was ever going to reach my goals.
I had become so accustomed to failing over the past few years, I wasn’t sure I was able to succeed anymore. Feeling like this was heartbreaking. I was not someone who peaked in high school, I may have been successful in my studies but I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, struggled with feeling like I was going to lose the friends I had and just wanted to get out into the world and prove to myself that I was worth something. Yet, after all this, I couldn’t help but think that maybe I had peaked in high school. Maybe that was as good as things were going to get for me. Everything seemed to go downhill once I moved on to university and I had all these big dreams that seemed to remain out of my reach.
For the past year, I’ve found myself constantly shifting between a “You can do this! You just have to work hard and keep your mental health in check” and “You’re riding on luck, don’t get too excited because it can run out any second” headspace. Although I never really felt good in this headspace, I didn’t usually feel that bad either. I always just felt sort of okay. But after a while, coasting through life in a mindset where the good things don’t feel good just so the bad things don’t feel as bad isn’t fun anymore. So, I finally decided I couldn’t continue like that. I didn’t want to feel like my life was driven by fear. I wanted to succeed, and I wanted to know that when I did, it was because I worked my ass off and earned every bit of it.
In June, I realized I needed to change. If I was no longer going to let myself be ruled by fear, I had some serious work to do. I made the choice to distance myself from all unnecessary forms of social media to give myself the opportunity to really check in with myself and figure out how I was feeling. I started journaling almost every day to make this process easier, doing yoga daily and I began to really dig into my copy of See Me, by Hailey Rodgers (one of our amazing co-presidents).
The first thing I learned about myself was that even when writing in a journal that only I will read, I am so scared of being judged by what I put down on paper. It’s like I have this feeling that the karmic forces of the universe are going to reek havoc on my life if I admit something that I’m not proud of or struggling with. Instead of working through my thoughts and feelings, I think I just got used to avoiding them the best I could just so I wouldn’t feel as bad all the time. When I finally started putting things down on paper that mattered, it was almost refreshing. I mean, admitting things that I had been hiding from myself really sucked, but it felt like it was something I could manage once it was down on paper.
The second thing I learned was that once I got comfortable with the thoughts going through my head, I didn’t feel the need to try and drown them out with distractions all the time. Silence used to make me so uncomfortable because I couldn’t control what went through my mind. I usually end up over analyzing everything I can think of which makes me unbelievably anxious. Getting those thoughts and feeling out made them feel less daunting, which made it easier to control the narrative inside my mind. Once I realized this, it was so much easier to keep the good stuff centered in my mind and rationally think through the rest.
The final, and most important thing I learned was where the underlying fear of failure was coming from. When I started experiencing failure, it sucked but I could almost always rationalize it. I wasn’t sleeping and I was dealing with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. Although I probably could have managed my situation better or reach out for help sooner, it’s no surprise that it had a negative affect on my success. After starting medication and CBT, I began to feel like I wasn’t allowed to be anything other than my best because I no longer had a reason not to be. I know this isn’t the case and I can’t expect to always be functioning perfectly just because I know what causes me to spiral out of control. However, I realized that I have this fear that no matter how hard I work or how much I try, my best will never be good enough and I still won’t be able to achieve my goals. Without having a ‘reason’ to fail, the idea of just not being good enough scares me more than failure itself. So, I guess I don’t really have a fear of failing, but a fear of not being good enough, and that not being good enough is what will cause me to fail. It took me a while to come to this realization, but now that I have, I can start navigating my way through it. I have also realized that this fear doesn’t make my successes feel like successes. I see them more as just doing what is expected of me instead of accomplishing anything. But when I fail, I feel like I have hit my absolute rock bottom. Every. Single. Time. I end up feeling discouraged and stupid for ever thinking I could succeed in the first place. And as much as this feeling sucks, I just know that when I finally overcome all of this, I will have become the definition of resilient.
This past month hasn’t been easy, and I know that I still have so many things to work through. But, for the first time in a long time, I am beginning to feel like I’m in a good place. I feel like I can accomplish what I put my mind to, and that fear won’t be able to hold me back anymore. It’s not easy to keep this headspace but the feeling confident, happy, and seeing the progress I have made makes the work feel manageable. Fear can be such a powerful tool if you can harvest its power and keep it from working against you, but the journey there is not an easy one. With that being said, the reward is definitely worth it.