The Failure Monster

Fifth grade was the first time I really noticed how terrified I was of failure. I had forgotten to do a homework assignment for the first time in my life and I was issued a pink warning card.

“This is it,” I thought as the teacher placed the pink paper on my desk, “I’m a delinquent.”

After fighting back the panic tears, I vowed to never be in this position again. And truly, I never really failed at anything after that. I did all of my homework (plus other people’s homework if they asked me to). I tried sports here and there but never anything competitive – never something with a win or lose score. I applied to one reach school knowing that I wouldn’t be accepted but applied because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do (I’ll take that $55 application fee back if you don’t mind, Berkeley). And then I worked. I worked every day. I worked up from an intern to a staff biologist. From a cafe waitress to a program coordinator. I worked for jobs that I knew I could get and keep (despite the not totally infrequent boredom). I stayed where I knew I was valued rather than where I would value working.

I avoided things that I wasn’t immediately good at. Sure, I’d try something once, but the second that I felt frustration tears welling up, I stopped. I’ve been so afraid of sucking at something that I don’t know how to snowboard, or play in an adult recreational softball league, or even mix a cocktail for someone other than myself. I mean, it’s booze. Who is going to complain?!

When faced with any potential failure, little fifth grade Kelly just looks up at me, pink card in hand, and points out the pain that I might cause myself.

So today, after toying with the idea of never blogging again in order to avoid the shame of my infrequency, I decided it was time to for me and little Kelly to throw down. I snatched the pink card out of her hand, ripping it up into a million pieces in my mind. I pointed out that no one had ever EVER cared that she didn’t do that one homework assignment. I went into a frenzy over all of the fun that we’d missed and in my rage pointed at her to place the blame.

Except that I was pointing at myself. I was the only one that cared about the missing homework assignment. I was the only one that cared if I tipped over on my dirt bike while it was stationary (true story). I was the only one telling myself that I might suck at something. And who would really care if I did suck? Just because I don’t allow myself to fail in front of people doesn’t actually make me good at things. All it does is banish me into a corner of self-doubt and shame. And though I have limited experience, I’m pretty sure it’s easier to bounce back from a failure when you have teammates or friends or family cheering you on.

I’ve never given people around me something to cheer for. As I’m facing life changes like marriage, debt, starting a small business, even parenthood (eventually), I realize that I can’t hold up the perfection facade for much longer. I have no doubt that each one of those life changes will come with a large dose of fall-on-you-face-failure. If they didn’t, how would I ever actually succeed in them?

I’ve let the Failure Monster lurk under my bed for long enough. So, with this very long overdue (but not a failure) of a post, I hereby banish said monster from all of the dark, scary corners of my mind. Twenty two years later, I’m finally ready to light up all of those corners with love for myself, support from my community, and a large dose of humor (if you laugh when you fall down, it doesn’t hurt as much).

Now, who wants to watch me snowboard?


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