For a long time, I thought perfectionism was just me staying up too late, making minor adjustments to a project that would already earn an A. But I’ve learned that it’s more. It’s the reason I stayed up, the idea that what I did was the final word on who I was, what I was worth. Academia is absolutely a horrific minefield for perfectionists, but just being out of school doesn’t solve the real problem.
There’s been a part of me that has been miserable, ashamed ever since I left seminary. I feel like I’ve got the words “I am a quitter” tattooed on my forehead, a name tag that says “Hello my name is Big Giant Failure” on my chest. Everything I’ve written about the issue has been true, but it’s been largely a logical exercise. I’m realizing that it hasn’t made much an impact on how I feel.
I feel like a failure.
It’s not just because I don’t have a master’s degree. I know I would have been capable of getting the grades and finishing the program. And, logically, I know I made the right decision to quit: who would I have been at the end of being so miserable for so long? What it boils down to is the question of worth: what good am I if I’m a failure?
My junior year of college was a bit of a nightmare. My roommate and I still refer to it as “the year from hell.” I caught influenza: not the stomach flu but the full-blown respiratory flu. And, because of my rheumatoid arthritis, I was heavily immunosuppressed, so I got SICK, can-barely-make-it-down-the-hall-to-the-bathroom-on-my-own sick. My mom eventually came to school and took me home, and my brother had to carry me inside because I was too weak to walk. I missed an entire week of classes, but I felt the aftershocks of serious illness long after. I remember feeling small and hopelessly fragile as I walked around campus. Sometimes I’d just start crying as I walked to class. Being that sick and helpless left me shaken and fearful.
I’m realizing that, internally, quitting grad school has had the same effect.
I had one of those full-blown ugly cries the other day. Out of nowhere, my RA suddenly flared up in my wrist. It’d been a lot, trying to do all the things I needed to get done with the unexpected pain and fatigue. Then, after dinner, I stubbed my toe on a stool I’d left out in the kitchen. I started to feel my emotions boil over, so I just went and lay on the bed. Joel came in, asked what was wrong, and I said I was just feeling discouraged because of the flare up. But as we talked, I realized it was more. I’m tired of striving. I’m tired of feeling like I’ve disappointed people. I’m tired of being so endlessly cruel to myself. I’m tired of feeling like a failure.
Anyone who knows me knows I spend a lot of time in my own head. Anyone who knows me well knows it’s not a very friendly place in there.
When I was in counseling in college, I learned about self-talk. My counselor read me descriptions of ten cognitive distortions, negative ways in which we talk to ourselves. She asked me, “Do any of these sound familiar?” All of them did, every last one. Not only that: they were exclusively how I talked to myself. I couldn’t even think of the last time I’d spoken positively to myself.
Knowing this does help. Having a name for these things helps me call them out when they happen. But, to be honest, I haven’t improved much since then. Or, if I had, I lost a lot of ground when I left grad school.
Ever since I made the decision to quit, I haven’t had a clue where I was headed. I was able to put that on the backburner for a while because I became very determined to make a boy named Joel fall in love with me. But we’re married now, and, having succeeded at that one thing, I find myself once again directionless.
I spent years staking my worth on my intelligence, on my ability to learn things and get the grades. But I made the decision to leave that toxic environment, and lost my vision of the future in the process.
One truly great thing about Joel is his childlike wonder; he hasn’t lost his connection with whimsy. Since we’ve been together, he’s helped me rediscover parts of myself that I’d buried away because they didn’t help me get a 4.0. I’m suddenly remembering what I spent all my free time as a kid doing: the afternoons spent drawing and writing and reading and making things. I’m remembering that six-year-old Amy wanted to be an artist. Eight-year-old Amy wanted to be an author. It was nineteen-year-old Amy who decided we wanted to be a professor, but when I look inside, past the walls and pretenses and ways in which I feign adulthood, it’s six-year-old Amy I see. I’m still the little girl who cries over everything. I still want to go outside and have adventures. I still want to color pictures and play with clay and write stories.
As I sat with puffy eyes and a snotty nose and talked with my dear husband, he asked me what I wanted to do. The answer was practically shouted in my head. It’s like Little Amy had been just waiting for someone to ask her what she thought. But it took me several long minutes to speak it out loud: I still want to be an artist, an author.
There’s a lot of fear in that for me. Beyond the obvious concerns about finances and all those adult issues, there’s my ever-present need to be good enough, my crippling fear of failure. It keeps me from trying things, from moving forward. Just like having the flu left me feeling fragile and small, quitting grad school left me feeling like I’d never succeed at anything again. Not trying has protected me from having to face failure again, but it has also eliminated any chance I might succeed at something.
The people who love me believe in me, even if I don’t believe in myself. My mentor and friend TC once asked me if I thought all those people were stupid. Obviously, I don’t. Then why, he asked, do I think they could all be so terribly mistaken about me? How can I be the one single subject on which they all suffer delusions?
It’s silly, but I really do think that way. I have wonderful friends and family. I think they are all smart, insightful people. But I also think they are all, somehow, mistaken about me. But as I’ve said before, it’s probably high time I start trusting them instead of myself.
It’s time to leave the “Hello my name is Big Giant Failure” name tag behind. I quit grad school. I don’t want to go back. I lost the plan I had for my life and took a different path. It’s time to choose a new destination, even if I end up somewhere altogether different in the end.
It’s time to try again.