I’m going to try to give my responses to your points in the order you gave them, rather than simply answering your final question, because there’s some stuff in each of them I think I might be able to help with at least a little.
I know very much how you feel, with the whole ‘never failing’ thing. It actually took me failing to learn how to tackle it. The abusive relationship I mentioned above almost cost me the chance to go to university. Simply put, failure isn’t actually the end of anything. It’s just a fork in the road. When I failed my A-levels (qualifications British people take to get into Uni), I had to make a choice. Would I back down, accept my failure, and go work in a supermarket or something, or would I swallow my pride, re-take my qualifications, take some other ones as well, and show the world what I was capable of? I took my entire 2-year maths course in one year (it was easier, because I’d already done the material), two additional qualifications, and re-sat one of my more disappointing pieces of coursework for other courses from the previous year. the following year, I got into my first choice university, studying Maths and Philosophy. The same year, I developed terrible insomnia, and failed my Maths. This was devastating, because I wanted to be a Maths TEACHER. At this fork, I decided there was no honour in pushing through a bad position, and focussed purely on philosophy. I wasn’t enjoying the mathematics anymore, but philosophy was still full of wonders. I had to take one extra module every semester until the end of my degree in order to stay there,but in the end I graduated with good grades. Fast forward five years, I’m living in Norway, working a better job than I could ever have dreamt, ALL BECAUSE I didn’t back down from that initial failure. Through counselling, I learned a useful tool that helps me with any kind of anxiety, be it social, situational, or whatever: Ask yourself- in any situation, what is the ABSOLUTE WORST thing that can possibly happen? Be reasonable. Don’t just say ‘well, I could die’. What are the worst consequences that could befall you? Once you have that picture in your mind, PLAN WHAT YOU WOULD DO should that bad thing happen and the worst outcomes occur. If you are capable of restoring yourself to a decent position following your failure, and have a plan for how you would tackle it, then you no longer need to be anxious about anything inbetween the worst and best cases. if you can tackle the worst, you can tackle them all. Anxiety only has power when it remains undefined. If you can bring logic and reason to bear against it, it loses all hold over you.
I have a horrible relationship with my mother. But for years upon years, I worried about letting my parents down. Once my mother started letting ME down, and I looked back over my life with a much more cynical eye, I realised some fundamental truths that made me worry about this a lot less. Even if you had the BEST parents in the world, you don’t actually owe them anything. You don’t owe it to your parents to be the best you can be, or to be your best self, or to be successful. You owe them no more than you owe anyone else close to you, because at the end of the day, they had a child because THEY wanted one. You didn’t ask to be born. Be the best you can be, but do it for YOUR sake. Parental pride is a secondary bonus, not the primary goal. if you decide you don’t WANT a high-powered career, or great financial success, that is fine, too. Just be HAPPY. Parents are, after all, proudest of a happy child, even if that child’s road to happiness isn’t one they particularly approve of. And if your parents are the kind who wouldn’t be happy that you were happy (like my mother), then those relationships are dead weight. But I won’t go too far into that.
The identity thing I understand, too. I actually had to take a week’s absence from my job a few years ago, my identity crisis was so strong. Then I figured out how to define who I was. in my head I call it the Aspirational Model of the Self, but I don’t know if it exists elsewhere with a better name. Anyway: I have no idea what qualities I possess, nor how those qualities affect how people view me and interact with me. However, I know what I consider to be good, and I know what I consider to be bad. I know, if I had a choice, which aspects of good and bad I would want to take into myself. Therefore, my identity is “A person who aspires to be THIS”. By THIS, I don’t mean a career. Do you want to be kind? Respected? Intelligent? All of the above? Whatever it is, it’s unimportant. being an aspirant to that ideal IS what your identity is. Going forward, take that mental image, and take the actions that that person would undertake, or take those actions that take you closer to that ideal. It worked for me, I don’t know if it’ll work for you 😛
A lot of this ties in with fear of Failure. I was fortunate in that, in the things I actually take it upon myself to DO, I don’t strive for perfection. Paradoxically, I tend to strive for perfection in the things I DON’T want to do. So, I DON’T want to hand the pictures on the wall, so I will spend an hour plotting how to hang them, measuring distances, and EVER SO CAREFULLY hammering in the nails, only to find that one of them is 1cm too low, and thus I have failed as a human being, and the wall is ruined for all time. However, when baking a chocolate cake, and the left hand side sloughs off because that side just rose too fast compared to the rest, I don’t mind, because the cake still tastes good, so happy days. I’ve veered a little, but my underlying point is that the cake doesn’t need to be perfect in order to still taste good. A deformed carrot is just as nutritious as a perfectly-proportioned carrot. A slightly wonky table will still hold things on it. A B+ is still a passing grade. Your second-choice university is still a university. Things are only a problem when you worry about them. The proof of this is that, in my total failure as a human being re: pictures on the walls,my fiancee was overjoyed with how the pictures had been hung. I wanted them perfect, and failed. She just wanted them on the wall, and she won. I know it’s damn-nigh impossible to change the perfectionist habits of a lifetime, and despite understanding what i’m saying on an intellectual level, in the moment I still get flustered and panicked, but at the end of the day, Perfection is a myth. As long as you’re still breathing, you can make another go of things. As long as you keep trying, you can work around an obstacle. It doesn’t NEED to be perfect, nothing does. It just needs to WORK.
Finally, as for what we take from failures: We learn what failure feels like. We learn our responses to failure. We learn WHERE and WHY we failed, as long as we’re willing to look objectively at what went wrong and why, and are willing to ask for and accept criticism from external sources. In the instance of your flunking your first year- same here. But this failure isn’t an end, it is just a junction. It is an opportunity for you to evaluate how far you’ve come, and for how best to proceed. Do you want to continue on the same path you’ve been on? If so, what compromises do you need to make to stay on that path? If not, what path would you prefer to embark on instead? The wheres and whys and whats I mentioned earlier in this paragraph won’t help you now. In fact, they’re almost entirely useless right now, except insofar as helping inform your immediate decision. Where they will show their TRUE worth is in the NEXT time you fail. Then you can draw strength from this failure, look back, see how you handled it, and decide whether or not to use the same kind of method, or how to improve the existing one. It’s as true of education and careers as it is of interpersonal relationships. You don’t actively engage in the process of maturing. It happens TO you, despite what irritated parents say every day. Instead of running around and playing tag with your friends, by the time you hit 15, you want to stand around and talk, despite thinking that was dreadfully boring at 8. Experiencing failure and overcoming it CAUSES you to mature. Just to be clear, ANY course of action counts as overcoming a failure, except that which ends in your death. That’s the only scenario in which you let failure beat you. Deciding to quit your job because the other guy got the promotion? As long as you keep going, keep pushing, keep trying in WHATEVER you decided to go into afterwards, you HAVE overcome the failure to secure the promotion. I would only caution against taking one course of action over another solely because it is immediately easier. All courses of action are valid and equal, but taking the easy path can set you up for difficulties later, whereas pushing through now can make things easier down the line, much like exercising as a youth makes it easier to stay healthy as an adult.
This is all EXTREMELY esoteric and abstract, and I’m sorry about that, but this is the best advice I have to offer. For a little more insight into this type of thought process, try reading “The Way of Chuang Tzu”- the Thomas Merton translation- there’s a lot of it available online. Maybe try looking into daoism as well. I’m not trying to convert you to a religion or anything, there’s just quite a lot of stuff in daoism that can help with perfectionism and people-pleasing issues.
I hope this helps, Kendall 🙂
P.S. Don’t worry about your call for help being a bit lengthy, my response was way longer 😉