Failure & Self-Respect Speech

Today, I delivered a speech to over 2,000 high school students. Several requested it in a written format, and I’m happy to provide it. Here is the transcript. ❤

My name is Abigail, but when I was a freshman, I was just “A.” That A – that single letter – was everything to me. I didn’t see myself as a person as much as I saw myself as a walking report card.

I had lofty aspirations. I wanted to go to the nation’s most prestigious writing school, study English, and become a bestselling novelist. So I worked hard and held myself to a high standard. That healthy motivation, however, quickly spiraled into an obsession with perfection. Seeing anything less than one hundred percent was despicable. If I got a perfect score, I’d berate myself for missing the bonus point. There was always something to criticize, something that would make me raise the bar even higher, into the realm of the unattainable.

I got my wish. I had A’s, and I appeared successful and studious. But I’d completely lost sight of why I was driving myself so harshly in the first place. I wanted to go to college and pursue my dreams, because I wanted to be satisfied and happy. But I wasn’t. It took a lot of time to realize that, and to get to a more peaceful state of mind.

I mention my freshman year because it is what motivates me to inspire all of you. A’s, B’s, and F’s are just letters. Standards to which we adhere and work towards, but not to shackle our identities to. How can one letter define who you are? You have years and years of stories behind you. You aren’t a letter, or even a sentence. You’re a novel.

And just as we treat books with respect – you know, by not dog-earing the pages or defacing them – be kind to yourselves, as wonderful novels, by setting goals that you can actually achieve. Find peace by understanding that failure isn’t the end of the world. Failure is how we learn. It’s okay. It really is.

This isn’t a call to not try. You have to try in life, you have to make an effort and work hard.  This is a call to acceptance. This is a call to love yourself not for what you achieve, not for what you earn—but for who you are. And if you don’t know who you are yet, that’s okay, really. Just let me start you off with something, and I hope you remember this every single time you feel like insulting yourself or treating yourself harshly.
You are loved.
You are worth it.
You are enough – failures and all.

Thank you.

National Do Things You’re Bad At Week

This coming week, the 18th to the 25th, is National Do Things You’re Bad At Week. Each day, try something you absolutely know you’re horrible at doing, especially those you avoid doing out of fear of failure. The point of this is to open up to the idea of learning from mistakes, trying new things, and ultimately discovering the beauty in laughing at ourselves a bit. I’ll be blogging my way through this week, and I encourage you to do the same. Feel free to tag National Do Things You’re Bad At Week, or just DTYBA (do thing you’re bad at) for short.

Happy failing, learning, and laughing!

P.S. My daily posts will seem off because of my general schedule. I’m a night owl, so I usually don’t publish until after the day has technically ended. My personal day doesn’t change until I wake up in the morning. For example, it’s the 18th because it’s 1:23 in the morning, but it’s the 17th for me because I haven’t gone to bed. Just warning you.

How To Fail

Life is an ice rink, and we’re all children trying to learn how to skate. There will be stretches of fast, smooth gliding–and plenty of tripping. Enough bloggers have written about “the key to perfection” and “secrets to success”. It’s time to learn how to fall and how to fail. 

First off, we must expect to fail and accept that failure is not a sign of personal weakness. Assuming that a new skater will be able to glissade across smooth ice as soon as her skates have been tied is simply unrealistic. It doesn’t matter how old you are–we’re always being exposed to fresh circumstances. Would you scold a little child for falling on the ice? Of course not! Refuse to treat yourself badly. Say nothing to or about yourself that you wouldn’t say to your dearest loved one.

Next, we learn how to fall. Have you ever taken skating lessons? There are techniques you must learn that will ensure falling safety. Such is true in life. One of the best things I’ve learned to do is come up with a list of ways to cope with sadness and disappointment to avoid resorting to self-hatred. Spend time with yourself. Run a hot bath, light some candles, and listen to some Debussy (an hour of Debussy here). Take a walk and engage your sense of smell. Do anything that relaxes you and lightens your mood. This way, you’ll know what to do when you fail.

Finally, take a look around the skating rink. Observe the ice. Pay attention to the skaters in your proximity. What caused you to fall? Was it just a bump in the road of life? Did somebody slam into you, shaking up your world? Once you’ve examined and reflected, it’s time to take action. All action requires getting back up. You cannot stay sprawled out on the rink. It’s dangerous–you could get hit in the head by a blade of hopelessness. Who are the skaters closest to you, and what are they doing? Are they holding on to your arm and pulling you down? Will they disparage you in your learning process? Avoid these skaters. Surround yourself with those who care about you. Those who will forgive you and love you, despite your flaws. 

Most of all, keep on skating. You’ll get the hang of it soon. And when you do, it will be glorious–you will jump and pirouette like never before.

 

 

Perfectionism destroys.

At the start of every summer, I make a mental list of all the things I’m going to be during the next school year. I get this image of a perfect, confident, straight-A, beautiful, helpful young woman. Every time. When September comes, I follow through with it–for a few weeks. Then school and/or life problems become too overwhelming, and I have to refocus my energy. By the end of the year, I look back and feel disappointed with myself and the girl I did not become. And so the cycle begins again.

But earlier this year, in June, I was determined to be that girl. I was going to do it! I was! So when September started, I hit the ground running. I kept running. The only way to succeed was, in my eyes, to set my expectations for myself unattainably high. So I never lived up to my own standards. As soon as I started coming close, I’d raise the bar just out of reach.
It crushed me.

I need something or someone to blame for my predicament, because I’m so sick of blaming myself. Because I don’t really believe in blaming other people, that rules out the someone. I’m going to blame perfectionism. But who brought on the perfectionism? I did. It was me. See? As soon as I try to find another reason, I realize that it really is my fault.

Perfectionism is such a trap. It’s only a matter of time before it leads to defeat. How frustrating it is to keep jumping, jumping high for a bar that will never be in reach. It would defeat anyone. Who wants to keep trying for something that will never be reached? All I really want to do is curl up in a ball and sleep all day, because there’s no way to fail at that. I am so sick of failure. In other people’s eyes, I was great, but I never gave myself the grace to admit it. To me, everything I did was falling short. Now look where I am. I used to live by a quote: “If you shoot for perfection, you will reach excellence.” But no! Well, yes. I did do well. But I got tired of goals just out of view, just out of reach. And then the will to keep shooting dies out, the stamina dwindles. Why try if nothing I do will ever be enough? But, like I said earlier, perfectionism is a trap. And once one’s brain is there, it’s next to impossible to get it out. So I’m sitting, with no more strength left in my bones to keep jumping, so my grades start to slip. Little by little–it’s gradual. My brain is still trapped in perfectionism, so trying to let myself lower the bar is like trying to swallow sand, but I haven’t got anything left to keep jumping as high as I did. I can only reflect on how terribly I’m doing.

Don’t let perfectionism trap you. Don’t ever let it trap you. Set your bar high, but never out of reach. I’m telling you, don’t jump into this whirlpool. It’s no way to achieve anything.

Pond of Dreams

This world is a selfish, selfish place. We’re all fish in a pond fighting for resources, success, and power. Everyone has an agenda, a main goal in life that they will do anything to achieve. Some people go about achieving this goal in a kind, passive sort of manner, while others are not afraid to trample and kick to get what they want. Still others use kind hearts and generous gifts to manipulate circumstance to their advantage.

My dreams get washed away in this cut-throat pond. I have to constantly be on the move, searching amidst the darkened waters and debris of the past to find pieces of glittering diamond. Maybe one day I’ll be able to piece them all together and achieve. I don’t want to be the only fish without a treasure.

It’s a race, really. I’d prefer to just live in a cave and pick berries for food, but I can’t. So, with my present circumstances, I set my personal bar very high. Unattainably high, to be honest. Setting the bar too low will result in laziness or complacency. Of course, setting it too high results in constant feelings of inadequacy, but you know. It’s a small fee to pay for the price of success in the pond of dreams.

Not an option

I wasn’t always a perfectionist. In fact, I was anything but one. Starting in fourth grade, I realized that I was lazy by nature. My laziness carried me all the way through eighth grade. It was how I described myself.

I’ve blogged about my switch from lazy underachiever to perfectionist before. It was the end of the year award ceremony this past June. Almost everybody got an award but me, and I realized that it was nobody’s fault but my own. I had dug myself in a hole and had failed to get myself out, so I didn’t receive any recognition. I decided that high school was going to be the complete opposite.

From that day on, I began to hold myself to an excessively high standard, not only in academics, but in my relationships as well. Failure simply isn’t an option for me. It’s not an option with my history of lazy nature. And yes, I have a lazy nature. I have to fight against it.

Holding myself to a higher standard has been good for my grades. I’m nearly achieving straight A’s (I’m not counting my unacceptable A minus in Algebra), which hasn’t happened since the beginning of seventh grade. I need to prove to myself and to the world that I can do well. Pretty soon, I’ll drop the minus from my math grade and get it back up to par.

Goals. I’ve never been a real goal-setter before, but now goals are everything to me. Straight A’s. Straight A’s all the way through high school. No exceptions. B’s will not get me into the colleges I want to go to. B’s will not satisfy perfection. In fact, not even A’s will satisfy perfection. I need to strive for 100 percent, 24/7.

Let’s cross our fingers and hope I can keep achieving. Actually, let’s not fall into superstition. No need for crossing fingers–I’ll just do it. I will succeed in prevailing against my nature of low tenacity.

Abigail: a rubber band dog

I’ve been wondering a lot about my “love intolerance” lately. What causes it? When did it originate? It’s really unclear to me when the intolerance started. I’m going to conclude that it was a gradual onset, probably beginning sometime in fifth or sixth grade. The causes are still unclear, but I’m going to take a stab at it and link it to repeated rejection and verbal attack. Seems like a lot stems from those experiences. Who knew so much damage could occur in a time span of three to four years?

One thing I’ve observed is that love intolerance almost never arises around adults. I’ve been blessed with fairly stable adult influences, and I know my family loves, even as screwed up as we all are. Peers, on the other hand, are a different story. This is where my love intolerance becomes an issue. This is where the problem arises. I try not to let it get in the way…

I know I’m loved, accepted, all that. I have the knowledge in my head. Somehow, though, I can’t etch it in my heart. I don’t feel it. I can tell myself twenty billion times, but it’ll rarely sink in. I could be showered with love and acceptance, then start freaking out whether or not the person even likes me two hours later.

Love does make a difference. I’m overjoyed when I feel wanted. What I’m saying is that I can’t make it last, no matter how much I want it to. I’d like to feel at peace knowing I’m accepted–peace in both my heart and mind. I don’t want to live like “I know you love me, but you don’t really.” It’s terribly confusing.

To me, love is performance-based. A high performance receives a greater quantity and sincerity of love than a lower performance. Sort of like a dog. The dog performs the trick and gets a treat. If he fails, the treat is withheld.

The dog analogy came to me sometime this past July. It felt true to my issue, so I ran with it. I’m going to extend and analyze this analogy now. It’s funny how I see myself as the dog and my peers as the humans. Deep down, do I feel inferior to them? Absolutely. A lot of this is rooted in inferiority, I think. Life, to me, is a ladder. Other people happen to be further up on it than me. When I fail or mess up, I’m knocked down a rung.

It’s scary how performance-based I’ve become, not only with peer acceptance, but with everything. Especially grades. I’m getting straight A’s. By most people’s standards, I’m doing really well. But I don’t see that 97 percent in English. I see the 3 percent I failed to get. A perfect score on that French test isn’t enough, because I missed the bonus point.

In eighth grade, I failed to achieve. Academically, I accomplished little that year. Most of the time, I was failing almost all my classes. Only by getting partial credit for late homework and retaking tests and quizzes did I manage the grades I did. At the end of the year ceremonies in June, almost everyone in the auditorium got up to receive an award, even if it was just the A/B Honor Roll certificate. Not once did I move my butt from my seat. It was then that it really, really hit me–I’d failed. No, I didn’t fail the grade, but I had in my mind. The pressure I put on myself to achieve, or as I put it, “bounce back”, increased dramatically that day. Now, I’m in ninth grade. For most, the slate is clean. But not for me. I have an entire year to make up for.

That’s why I’m retaking Algebra 1. And even then, I’m still only scratching an A minus. I’m ashamed of that A minus. What would’ve been excellent last year is scum now.

There you have it, folks. I cannot fail. Not when I have friendships, college, expectations, self-esteem, and so much more on the line. I’m walking on a tightrope, and I really, really, really can’t screw up now.

Please. Somebody. Show me that it’s okay to fail. Give me a reason to believe that. I’m afraid I’ll snap from the stress, like a rubber band at its breaking point.

I guess I’m a dog and a rubber band. How does that work?