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How performing for the approval of others drove me to the end of myself

Jun. 21, 2017
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Growing up, I became very prestigious. My family, in an effort to keep me on top of things, would point out the areas I needed improvement in. I remember one day coming home with five A’s and one C with a smile on my face. I felt I did my best and I wanted to share that with them. When I got home, I handed my report card to a family member. “This is good. What is that C doing on there?” I think that’s when the lie began to form that my best wasn’t good enough. So I began to push myself, to be better. Even my performance on state tests were ranked among other individuals, and I was always wondering where I fell among others, never looking if I was proud of what I had done despite all I had encountered with those subjects that year.

I spent most of my childhood reading and studying. A lot of the prestigious classes had summer work, so I was always busy working on my academic life. I never really stopped to ask myself if I felt those classes were necessary for me, or if I should take a break to enjoy my summers. I just accepted the greater responsibility because I felt it meant I was doing something greater, as if being a child and enjoying my summer and being happy wasn’t a priority. It was like I was always cultivating my brain but never really listening to the matters of my heart.  

My self worth was derived from my achievements and the praise of others. As long as I was at the top of the class and receiving rewards, I felt I was something. And pride began to form, as I saw myself being better than those who were performing “poorer” than me, which I now understand could have been their best. I was always seeking validation from others—teachers, peers, men—never really stopping to ask myself if I was proud of me. And I was in this vicious cycle of approval from others, feeling like I was nothing without it, and everything with it.   

In high school, I went into overdrive, with college on the horizon. So as usual, I signed up for all honors classes. Nothing new, simply wanting to prove that I could handle the pressure, that I could be something greater than others. Even though I was struggling in AP Physics and failing to understand the fundamentals, I would not back out. I would fake it, until I made it, keeping a poker face when the low test scores were obviously hinting that I may need to start on a lower lever. But I kept with it, even though I really wasn’t learning much. It was always like that, keeping with it, not matter what the cost. In junior year, we began to prepare for college. I remember feeling so anxious about making "the right" decision. Thankfully, I listened to my theater teacher who told me to follow my heart, so I pursued writing though I would doubt if it was prestigious enough for others.  

Getting accepted into college after high school was a pretty big deal back then, as it is now. Everyone’s always asking, “what’s next?” It’s rapid movement, and I never really thought about taking a semester after high school to figure out what I truly needed and wanted. It’s like an assembly line, everyone’s doing it, and if you’re not, you’re going to seem unserious about your future—disregarding that income and family matters could prevent someone from being able to attend college. 

College was a lot of things. It was fully of spiritual awakenings, heartbreaks, and the realizations of addictions. I was the first generation college student and there was a lot of pressure on me to graduate. I remember calling home one time and encouraged to keep going after expressing how extremely tired I was. In my family’s defense, I don’t think they truly understood the full weight of what I was carrying. My pride wouldn’t allow me to show it. I just felt this weight was upon my shoulders, and I was carrying everyone’s dreams and expectations, while mine continued to be buried within. I was blessed, however, to meet friends and have experiences that made the time fly by sooner and smoother. 

Graduation, however, was a very depressing time for me. Here I was, after four years of study, receiving a Bachelor’s degree and I still wasn’t happy. I was tired. Broken. In limbo as I was trying to figure out what was going on all around me. A party was threw in my honor. It all happened so fast.  

Immediately following graduation there was a pressure to start working and look for a place to live. I never stopped to ask if I felt I was on the right path. I just kept going and going, determined not to give up.  When I got offered to work at my school, I still felt shame. I wasn’t working in my field, yet other colleagues were. Even when I began making a lot of my money for my age, that couldn’t fill the sadness that lingered in me, the fact that “success” wasn’t all that it turned out to be. But no matter how sad I was, torn I was, broken I was, I could not come home. Coming home felt like the ultimate let down. What would everyone think?

But then life happened. REAL life. The stuff you can't prepare for. The performance mentality worked itself in everything—in my relationships, in church ministry. I was determined that I could gain this ultimate wave of perfection, as long as I stayed on top. I gained almost everything, but nearly lost my life in the process, as I kept trying to push myself when my body and spirit could not hold up. I was human, but I felt like a machine, forcing myself to produce and produce and disciplining my body. The ultimate form of self hate. 

Eventually, I ended up getting sick and coming home. It was a long journey. I kicked and screamed. I lost my job, many friends, the future that I held so dear. I even lost myself. 109 pounds and so clueless to her own beauty. I spent so much time worrying about others that I failed to take care of myself. 

Home was hard at first, uncomfortable, foreign. But it was where I was humbled, and found healing. It was where I was reminded that I was precious, and loved beyond my ability to perform. Home was where I was left with myself, the weight of all of me. I found a love that did not look at my abilities or accomplishments, but saw who I truly was—a person of beauty (thanks babe!) Home was where the God who created me, used friends and family, and held me until I became conscious of who I was, His daughter, accepted, regardless of what I could do.

I’m not writing this article to say you shouldn’t pursue college. For some, those opportunities are rare. I am writing this article to say, however, that college is not who you are. Educational achievement is not who you are. They are opportunities to gain skills, form relationships, and opportunities to enjoy learning and being fully you in the process. While college could be one segway into following your dreams, each one of us has own own journey, our own adventure. You’re not a failure if you don’t attend college, or don’t complete your study, or change majors. You are still You and that’s what matters most at the end of the day.

You may be wondering where I am now. Well the first thing that is important is that I am. I am healing, loved, and falling more in love with the girl I never appreciated. Learning to be patient with her flaws, her imperfections, her fears. Yes, I am working, at Target, happily employed, where I get to engage with guests and cross paths with them, in hopes of making their day more pleasurable. I even recently applied to take a college course this summer, Spanish, since I enjoyed it so much in high school.  I’m fighting to be present, not perfect, each day. Unfortunately 26 years of stress, anxiety, and constant striving won’t go away overnight, but I am learning to embrace the day to day, moment to moment unveiling, the unveiling of the girl who put everyone above herself and never believed in her own worth. She’s not that bad actually, stunning even.