This is a selfish post. I’m not intending to enlighten anyone, or share useful ideas, or make anyone else feel less alone with their burdens. I just need to say this.
I’m a failure. I wrote a four-part series on failure. This is the fifth in the series. I’m not intending to analyze failure or to provide solutions. I just want to say why I feel like one.
In order for me to do that, I need to explain my goals for life and why I’ve adopted them. And in order for me to explain that, I need to explain how I’ve interpreted my experiences.
I’ve understood life as a struggle between good and evil. We all have our schemas–our fixed ways of understanding things, our “truths” that might not really be true. That’s mine. More specifically, I’ve understood my life as a war over myself, my ability to retain my humanity.
The goal for me has been to remain committed to the struggle and to not give up, to remain a feeling person who doesn’t cope primarily by shutting down, numbing out, or denying my vulnerability, who remains open to pain–my own and that of others, who remains capable of empathy and compassion. It has also been my goal to be someone who refuses to surrender to the pull of fear, discouragement, hopelessness. It has been my goal to retain my dignity and my courage.
But hopelessness, discouragement, frustration and the desire to give up are a part of being human. Anyone who has ever attempted anything worthwhile has most likely felt it. And what I’ve striven to retain is being human, and not a monster or a robot.
So, I keep returning to my own hopelessness, both because I won’t allow it–it is part of defeat–and also because it is integral to achieving my goal.
* I wrote this about a month ago, but felt it still worth sharing.
Ever tried to play with 2 young children and make a to-die-for apple pie at the same time before? I haven’t. But I can pretty well imagine how it might go. The children would end up hitting each other on the head with their toys, crying, and biting your leg. The filling would somehow end up without any sugar, the crust would fall to bits, and whole thing would end up either raw or burnt.
It’s clear why, isn’t it? You have two competing goals: making sure the children are safe and happy and that your pie comes out well. And they interfere with each other. Sometimes, we also fail when we have competing goals.
There are times, of course, when goals mesh nicely. I can want to become more organized and also want to do well in a school subject. Those are compatible goals, and one feeds into the other.
But when they don’t, we can either balance them well enough to achieve passably well at both of them or abandon one. If not, we are likely to run back and forth between the two so much that we get nothing done on either one. When we try to juggle goals we aren’t even conscious of, it can get even more hopeless.
Most goals we think about are set consciously and deliberately: I want to lose weight, I want to improve my job performance, I want to be more consistent in disciplining my children. There are others we may not be aware: I want people to like me, I want to maintain my positive regard for myself, I want to keep on an even keel and not become unduly upset.
In fact, unconscious priorities for most people—perhaps all people—are to stay at a comfortable level of arousal and to meet basic needs for connection, autonomy, and positive self-regard. If we aren’t aware of how these goals are playing out in the context of our more conscious goals, we may end up making toddler apple pie.
So, if we want to lose weight and have a plan to eat right and exercise, but then also soothe our tired nerves by skipping our evening walk to watch TV and give ourselves an emotional lift with junk food, then our unconscious goals have interfered with our conscious ones.
Some therapists refer to this as sabotaging ourselves, but I don’t think of it that way. Because we have actually succeeded at something; we’ve met an important goal—the unconscious goal. The problem is only that we did it in such a way that it undermined our other goals.
And here’s something else to think about: Our unconscious goals will trump the conscious ones every time. They are necessities. Weight loss and job performance are not.
Many people attempt to deal with the problem of competing unconscious goals through sheer willpower. I’m of the opinion it won’t work. Ever. It might work for a while, but eventually you will need connection, autonomy, positive self-regard, and your desired amount of arousal. And you will get it.
So, it’s better to be as aware of our various sets of goals and try to go about meeting them in a way that doesn’t subvert our other ambitions.
But what if you can’t? I had that situation this quarter. I wanted to improve my job performance in several ways. I also wanted to do some difficult psychological work I needed to do to address my history of trauma. They both turned out to take up so much time that there weren’t any hours in the day and I didn’t have enough energy for both of them, either.
I chose. I’m flatlining in my work—doing an acceptable job (in my own mind), but not improving in any way over last year. I may even be doing slightly worse. I’m managing. But I’m making great strides in getting my head on straight.
When we have competing goals, sometimes one goal will clearly outweigh the other: Sanity was simply more important to me. It also seemed more oriented toward the long term. If I have fewer traumatic symptoms to cope with in the future, I will probably find all areas of my life easier to manage, including my job. For me, that was a no-brainer.
Other times, it’s possible to maintain a balance. Maybe you can’t seem to cut the junk food habit entirely, but you can cut back. And you have also started cheering yourself by taking a walk in the evenings with a friend, and that gives you more connection, so you are less stressed out. The exercise helps too. So you are losing weight, just not as fast as you’d hoped. You’re working a little bit on both goals at the same time.
What’s difficult making these kinds of choices about competing goals can arise is if you were raised in an environment where human limitations weren’t recognized. By limitations, I mean boundaries—both where one person ends and other starts, and what one person simply can’t do. Those go together. Part of where I end as a person is at the end of my capacity: my capacity to exert effort, to stay awake, to keep myself on task and focused, to make sound decisions, and so on.
My boundaries weren’t recognized growing up. I was both violated, and not expected to be hungry, cold, tired, or need comfort. I was not allowed to have any edges.
Because of that, reaching the edges of my abilities can feel like failure. I “should” according to that view, not be disturbed if I am violated. I should also be capable of doing everything I ever want to do. I should not be inattentive, distracted, or too tired to make good decisions. I should be superhuman. I am not.
If you grew up with any kind of dysfunction in the family–untreated mental illness, addiction, or simply codependence–most likely you grew up with a very distorted sense of responsibility. At least one adult in a dysfunctional systems typically fails to take appropriate responsibility for his or her life, and displaces those responsibilities onto others. The remaining members of the family most often collude with this, adopting responsibilities that are not rightfully theirs, including responsibility for tasks they have no control over. These tasks, partly because they are so impossible, tend to become all-consuming, which means that those family members trying to do them also fail to manage their own responsibilities.
If you grew up in a system like this, it is likely that you held accountable for carrying out responsibilities that were beyond you developmentally. It is not uncommon for young children in these households to be expected to carry out not just a few simple chores, but to make full meals regularly or do a large part of the housework. And the reality is that, while you may have had the mechanical ability to do them, you didn’t have the necessary executive function to do so. Even an 8-year-old is unlikely to be able to keep his room clean if regular time is not set aside in the day’s schedule for making the bed, putting away clothes, and tidying up the toys. The ability to plan is just not well enough developed until later. And then if it wasn’t set aside in early childhood, the habit isn’t there when the child is older.
For most of what I remember of my later childhood–say, after 7–I was in charge of most of the housework in the ground floor of our house. I recall taking out the trash from every room except the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, dusting and keeping the livingroom tidy, and washing the dishes. I don’t really remember when this degree of responsibility happened. It may have occurred gradually, with chores accumulating over the years. But I do know that I was so responsible for the house I felt like the housekeeper, and it pained me greatly when my housekeeping fell below par. Which was, actually, most of the time.
There were a few reasons for this: One, I lacked the executive function to plan and execute the tasks involved, and cleaning ended up taking up most of my weekend. Which I resented. And then rebelled against. And ran off from the chiding voice of my more responsible self to go play.
Also, I had no control over certain aspects of how the house was maintained. And how could I keep the house clean if the older members of the household kept messing it up?
And that brings me to another point: often, as children in dysfunctional families, we are held accountable for things over which we have no control. Just as I had no control over whether my father put the newspaper away or left it spread all over the livingroom, you may have been expected to keep your parent happy, although your parents’ moods are outside of your control. Or perhaps your job was to supervise and control your younger siblings, when you lacked either the knowledge, skills, or authority to discipline them. But placing someone in charge of something they can’t do is a good way to set them up for failure.
So it’s no wonder that some of us defend our bruised psyches against the painful blows of failure. We have already experienced too much.
One of the best parts about being a teacher is sitting down with parents and discussing their children with them, often in the presence of their children. I have noticed that parents who sincerely love their children continue to love them even when they have failed. When their children fail, they hurt for them and want to help.
They fete their children when they are the stars of the school play and wipe their tears when they stutter and flub their lines. When their children hit a home run, they cheer, and when their children repeatedly strike out, they hug them and take them out in the backyard to practice. Because these parents understand that mistakes, while a necessary part of learning and growing, are painful.
My suspicion about most of what is said about failure is that it is largely a psychological defense against the pain that failure brings, because our parents didn’t hug us when we forgot our lines, they didn’t wipe away our tears, and they didn’t make us a hot cocoa and snuggle with us until we felt better. And so we keep doing what they did to us: globalizing the failure so that we see ourselves as “all bad,” minimizing the pain of failure, or denying our feelings altogether.
We think we shouldn’t feel discouraged, saddened, or disappointed, so we try not to feel anything. Not feeling has worked for me for about 35 years, but I’m now ready to scream.
I am a master of picking myself back up again, dusting myself off, and getting back on the horse, so to speak, but the end result hasn’t really been more success. It has been not knowing what I really want to achieve in the first place, because I have suppressed so many feelings regarding achievement I can no longer orient myself toward my goals with any confidence.
I have, consequently, become a waffler. I can keep moving forward towards anything, but I don’t know what to move towards.
And that is what happens. You need ambitions, you need to fail at reaching them, and you need the hot cocoa when you fail. We all do.
That was on the wall of my classroom in 6th grade. It eventually became “I CAN BE RESPONSIBLE. I only got to I CAN. The CAN task was, in fact, to bring in an empty can. We made this into a pencil holder for some occasion–Christmas perhaps, or Mother’s Day. I do remember mine smelled. I had made the unfortunate choice of bringing in a can that had formerly held cat food, and the unpleasant scent of cat food does not wash out very easily.
But that aside, what “I CAN” means is I successfully completed only 2 tasks in our elementary school responsibility program (which seemed to mainly involve taking papers home, getting them signed, and returning them). Two tasks out of 15. I wasn’t responsible. As an 11 year-old, I had failed.
I’ve been thinking about failure recently. I feel like a failure a lot. And I’ve been wondering what it is that I think I have failed at and why, and along the way I’ve been pondering the way in which we generally construct failure.
Failure isn’t bad. Ever been told that? I have. Apparently, most of us see failure through the wrong lens. Most of us don’t succeed at much of anything worthwhile on the first try. We fail first. Sometimes many times. Failure is nearly always a stage in the process of success. True? Probably. But I can’t see how that helps.
Failure hurts–not because of the meaning we give to failure, but because it’s a form of loss. Saying we shouldn’t feel bad for failing is like saying we shouldn’t feel bad because we didn’t get cake. If you really wanted cake and it was an especially nice cake and you didn’t get any–particularly if everyone else you know got cake except for you–you are going to feel at least a little bit sad about your lack of cake. That’s only reasonable.
When all of my friends got to the end of “I CAN BE RESPONSIBLE” or at least very close while I was stuck at “I CAN,” I was sad. Very sad. Responsibility was my cake. And I didn’t get any. Failure is painful because it’s a loss of the success we want, and a loss of all of the attendant emotions of success–pride, satisfaction, positive self-regard. If you don’t get any, it sucks. It just does.
And that leads me to another way in which we (mis)understand failure.
Some people make excuses for failures. Others try to give them to us. A number of people at various times have tried to give excuses to me. And all of the excuses are quite correct and true. My lack of ability to get papers signed by my parents was not my fault.
I couldn’t get to the end of “I CAN BE RESPONSIBLE” because my parents were nutcases too terrifying to ask to sign a piece of paper (sometimes) and (other times) because I had a severe case of childhood PTSD bordering on Dissociative Identity Disorder and I didn’t always know I had a paper to sign because someone else handled school and there wasn’t adequate communication between the school personality and the various personalities in charge of handling the abuse going on at home. And you can’t ask your parents to sign a paper that you don’t know about.
Not my fault. Do I feel better? No. I wasn’t sad because I felt to blame. I felt sad because I wanted cake. I still want cake, and I still don’t get nearly as much cake as I want.
Williams, S. (2012, Novembere 28). It’s not about Success. Retrieved from: http://scott-williams.ca/2012/11/28/its-not-about-success/
In my last post, I had some questions for myself. Among them, why I’m so frequently such a disappointment to myself and seem to fall short of not only what I’d like to be able to do but sometimes what other people would like me to be able to do as well.
The answer, I realize, is astonishingly simple: Because it’s so damn hard. Not just one thing in my life, but nearly everything.
I teach, for example, in a low-performing, high-poverty school run by psychopathic idiots. Seriously. I don’t think there is anyone in the district with any amount of power who doesn’t have a diagnosable personality disorder. Anyone who doesn’t is unlikely to last long.
This may be the case more now than in the past, but has probably been the case to at least some extent for more than a decade. In other words, the whole time my students have been in school. So on top of the usual problems in a high poverty school, and on top of any family problems at home, the kids have to deal with school leaders who have inappropriate or poor psychological boundaries and the propensity for verbal abuse and inconsistent behavior. It doesn’t help.
So my job is really, really hard. Any teaching job is hard if you do it right. Teaching in that environment is unbelievably hard. And it’s not that I don’t feel I can manage it. I cope. It’s just that I can’t always do my job well. There is simply too much to do and too many challenges to overcome in each 24 hour period. Some things I just screw up.
Also, there’s this thing I’m trying to do in my head so that things can get kind of okay in there. That’s hard. Trauma is hard to deal with. It’s really hard to do at the intensity and pace I’m trying to do it at and have been for about two years. (I’m not getting any younger, and I am fed up with this.) So, I don’t always do that well either. Or, I take on too much to really be able to handle, and something else in my life suffers because my head has gone cock-eyed again.
This may be a lesson for everyone else out there dealing with something really and truly difficult–a nasty divorce, bereavement, recovery from drug addiction. Take it on, that tough issue, full throttle if you need to. Some things can’t be dealt with in any other way. But expect less of yourself somewhere else. You aren’t Wonder Woman. You will not be able do it all. Expect to screw up, and try to screw up where it counts less.
The other lesson in this may be the greater the challenge you take on, the more often you should expect to fail at it and everything else. Don’t let this disturb you. Just keep going. You’ll get there.