At work I tell children all the time that “it’s ok to make a mistake, that’s how we learn” as they look up at me teary-eyed when I tell them they have some corrections to do. But I’m a hypocrite. For years I have lived my life terrified of making mistakes, of failure. It has left me paralysed at times, struck dumb for fear of saying the wrong thing and unable to make a decision for fear that it’ll be the wrong one. I wrongly linked failure to rejection and achievement to love.
At the Optimum Health Clinic, ‘Achiever type’ is one of the psychological traits that can trigger M.E. and other burn-out type illnesses. We stress our minds and bodies to their limit by trying to be better and never feeling satisfied that we’re good enough. I guess it’s addictive in that sense, a little bit of achievement makes us feel good but over time we want more and more as the buzz lessens and the dread and anxiety kicks in. I was a bright child (aside from a poor grasp on number) and good on the sports field. At high school I was pulled in every direction feeling that I had to achieve in every area of my life: academics, music, sports and my social life. I was terrified of failure, not because of how I’d feel, but how I’d make other people feel. I didn’t want to let anyone down; they all seemed to have such high expectations of me. I got more and more exhausted, dropping commitments as my mind and body began to fail. I had failed at life and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was the girl with M.E., the one we hardly ever see, the one that falls asleep at parties.
Sick with M.E. and having a terrible time at sixth form I began to lose weight. Everyone suddenly gave me positive attention, telling me how jealous they were of my ability to slim down. I had something I was good at again but it nearly killed me. As I said above, achievement can be addictive. What started out as accidental weight loss due to anxiety became obsessive calorie restricting and over-exercising. Not only was it the only thing I felt I was good at, it was the only thing I felt I could control in a world where M.E. threw unpredictable symptoms at me and I was being bullied. I punished myself for failure of any kind with restricting my food intake further or harming myself. It made my health deteriorate rapidly as I lost 2 stone in 6 months. My periods stopped, my hair thinned, and I stayed in bed all day too weak to move, trapped in my depressed mind and broken body. By this point it wasn’t about weight loss or achievement any more, the illness had taken over. I felt that I’d let everyone down so much by getting ill that I just wanted to disappear very quietly so they wouldn’t notice I was gone. There is a poem by Carol-Ann Duffy about a woman who does just that; she loses weight and shrinks to the size of a speck of dust and floats about on the breeze. I think in my delirious starved mind I thought that’s what would happen to me. Fortunately I realised that I needed help and got counselling. It took 2 years to gain the weight back, but fixing my mind was harder. I found myself transferring my control issues onto other people or other things like telling people off for eating lots of biscuits or controlling my surroundings with obsessive tidying.
The legacy of my achiever mind and fear of failure has lived on past my brush with anorexia. I was still spending all my time trying to improve myself. I was my own project, creating myself a strict regime of activity to try and improve my M.E. whilst at the same time trying to study for my degree and get a better job. I was still being an achiever and I was still being a perfectionist. I worried over my outfits, my hair, my skin, my speech. I’d been an extremely creative person up until the anorexia, it had been the only thing my perfectionism hadn’t touched, but now it had paralysed that as well and I was terrified of even trying to draw. Making mistakes in driving lessons upset me so much that I still haven’t passed my test after over a year of lessons as I had to keep taking breaks from them to recover. Trying to create a perfect home with someone I loved just pushed them away. Perfectionism was leading to rejection and failure, not love and achievement. It had to go.
So where am I now? I’ve started driving lessons again and fortunately have a driving instructor who I can joke with when I make a mistake. I give myself a little pep talk and manage to hold back the tears. I’m doing maths exercises to try and improve my maths so I can help children at work, instead of panicking about my possible failure. I’ve started to draw and paint regularly and share it with friends, to try and regain my creativity. I’m pushing myself to talk more by meeting new people so I can prove to myself I won’t be rejected if I stumble over my words or think I sound stupid. Most importantly, I’m listening to who I really am, who I want to be, rather than worrying about what other people think or want me to be. It seems so simple but I’ve spent my life connecting my self-worth and self-esteem to how other people respond to me, it’s time to break free of old ties. This might still sound like me trying to improve myself, but my perspective is different now. I’m not pushing myself to be better because I hate myself for failing, I’m encouraging myself gently to realise my fears of failure leading to rejection are unfounded. Because for the first time I can remember I am being kind to myself.
Are you punishing yourself for failure? Imagine what you’d say to a little child or your best friend if you saw them upset that they’d failed, say those kind words instead.
Are you controlling your life too rigidly? Try stepping outside your comfort zone and do an activity that makes you feel something big – like walking by the sea or going to a concert.
Silence that inner critic: shout “get lost” (or stronger words to that effect! And only out loud if you’re alone!)