A few weeks ago, my sister sent me a text, “I have a big box of your college papers. Nerd. Come get them.”
So I did.
She handed it to me and it was a big box. Like, too big. I could now understand her judgment; there was absolutely no need for me to save so much stuff from undergrad.
I felt like a pack rat, which was embarrassing.
But rather than simply pitching it all sight unseen into the recycling bin, I decided it take it home. After all, I had saved it. Maybe there was something inside worth finding.
It sat on the floor in my art room for several days. I hesitated to open it, and I didn’t know why.
But then I opened it, and I knew why.
Here’s a fun fact about me: I can be hard on myself.
Last month, I had a meltdown.
Call it a professional identity crisis, call it compassion fatigue, call it a toddler temper tantrum. It really doesn’t matter what you call it, I was melting down. Those close to me who saw it, you know.
One day I was trucking right along, doing what I do every day.
And the next day, I was down. And I mean really down.
Because I had failed.
Now, I have failed before. I’m a social worker, for goodness sake. Any work with humans is bound to have unexpected twists and turns, eventually landing you in a place you never expected to be.
So, I’m not exactly sure why this failure was so different.
Maybe I was in an exceptionally vulnerable state, because I have been working really hard to learn new skills and put them to good use.
Maybe I was just really tired, because helping others bear their emotional burdens is fatiguing, to be sure.
Maybe I was on the defensive already, because I had been posturing myself with extra confidence to hide the insecurities that I felt at my self-perceived incompetence.
Or maybe somebody finally told me in so many words what I had always feared was actually true.
“You’re not any good at this, don’t come back.”
It had taken just one phone call to systematically topple me, like a poorly yanked Jenga block. It was so unexpected that I collapsed under the weight of it, rendered simple and useless.
I hung up the phone, allowing the clients disdain to wash over me like a tidal wave. It was debilitating, and my only conscious thought: “I must escape.”
I wanted to run and hide, so far away from everybody and everything that I would never be found.
Unfortunately, my present state did not immediately negate all of my responsibilities for the day, disallowing the luxury of a full-blown mental health break.
So, I went with a close second:
I locked myself in my coworkers empty office and cried for 15 minutes.
I timed myself, checking my watch regularly to ensure I had not gone over my allotted limit. All too soon, time was up. I blew my nose, squared my shoulders, made pleasantries and small talk with my coworkers, then walked shakily out to the parking lot and drove to my next client’s home.
Make no mistake, I was not fine.
But I had to pretend.
I had to, and I’m not very good at it.
I think it showed quite clearly.
Mental health-wise, I hadn’t been this bad off in a very long while. I sort of floated through my next few days of existence. I was on autopilot.
To every person outside of my conscious thought, I was functioning but clearly not doing well. Several people told me as much. One person who hadn’t seen me in months took one look at me and said, “Oh, there’s something wrong.”
And I agreed. There was something wrong.
But it was bigger than one conversation, one moment of realization. I needed a few days to allow my mind space, to let it do what it does best: process what was happening.
You see, I have learned this about myself. I need some time, not necessarily to do anything, but just to think. And not always consciously think, like sit down and write or something, but let my brain whirr behind my eyelids while I preserve precious mental energy. I’m almost like a laptop on energy-saving mode, with a small logo bouncing from edge to edge. It looks calm. But all heaven and earth is being moved within, scrambling to help its attached human continue functioning at any level at all.
I found myself lying on top of my bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, unmoving.
Or sitting at my desk at work, looking expressionlessly out the window.
This lasted for about a week.
In that expanse of time, I questioned everything. I felt like my entire professional trajectory had been turned upside down and shaken out on the ground.
I tend to read multiple books at a time, usually due to ADHD but also due to the fact that there are so many good ones, it’s hard to land on just one.
Systemically, I’ve been working my way through a book called Heart Talk by Cleo Wade, a woman who writes poetry with words that make sense to me. Sometimes when I read something that she’s written, I physically react, sitting back in my chair and taking that thought to heart. Or get up and walk around my house, going from room to room searching for a distraction, something that will stop my mind from thinking about things that are too hard or too real or too time-consuming to manage.
About 5 days into my funk, I read this:
Those words were a proverbial punch in the stomach.
I had somewhat recovered by that point, justifying my own stance and my own feelings and using whatever self-soothing techniques I could think of to encourage myself. I had decided that I was [always] right and that these people were simply the only ones around that couldn’t see how brilliant I was.
I was slowly rebuilding my ego, tending to the bruises gently and coddling my hurt psyche with bravado.
And it was embarrassing, because I read these words and I knew they were true.
That night I was in church and there was a moment where we all sat in silence. It was an opportunity for God to speak.
Now, God has never spoken to me audibly.
I know other people have said that they heard actual real live words when they sit down or stand up or lay down or whatever they do, and I’m not doubting them.
Maybe a little, I am. Just because it’s never happened to me.
Which doesn’t mean it’s not possible, I for sure don’t know everything. Which is sort of the point of this whole story, really.
Anyways, I was silent. I stood and leaned against a wall and stared at an odd stain on the ceiling and this thought happened:
It’s okay to fail.
And I knew that this was something God was telling me. Writing those words down in black and white, it makes me feel crazy. And I might be. But in that moment, I needed to hear those words:
It’s okay to fail.
Because I felt like I had. I’d failed myself, I’d failed my client, I’d failed my calling. I’d failed the God who made me and gave me the gifts that I had allowed my ego to become bigger than.
Ego is a powerful thing.
Especially for somebody like me, who spent the majority of my life just kinda bulldozing around, being me without a trace of apology, not realizing how the things I say and do can impact others.
It’s taken much of my adult life to learn that I need to stop, slow down, and think before I speak or act. Being impulsive isn’t always cute.
I have been humbled
That’s a part of growth, is this destruction of ego through failure. It’s necessary.
All of this, and I finally decided to open the dumb box.
I say “dumb box” because as soon as I opened it, I came face to face with my own ego. Every college essay I had written that received high marks was included. Obviously, the ones where the professor had the audacity to disagree with me [and subsequently dock my grade] were not saved. As well, all of my notes, meticulously organized by topic and including highlighted sections and doodles of artwork that came out when the professor was too boring for my advanced thought processes.
I was 20 years old and about to save the world.
I couldn’t be stopped, or slowed down.
It was painful. Yes, some of the stuff I wrote was actually good. But that wasn’t the point.
The point was, after the humbling week that I had just had, it was no coincidence that I opened this box and was forced to realize what I did:
I had a huge ego.
HAVE a huge ego.
In the essays, I write about working with clients who have experienced trauma, being culturally competent, having compassion and building rapport. I write about things that I have never experienced with the audacious pomp only present in a 20-something who was empowered with just enough knowledge to be dangerous.
I’m overwhelmingly optimistic, enthusiastic, and determined.
There is a tone to my work that suggests I truly do believe I can save the world.
Eventually, I stopped reading and simply stacked them sheepishly in my recycling bin, feeling raw from my recent failure and with the desire to cover my ears and yell at God, “okay, enough already, I get it!”
I was humbled.
And I felt defeated and embarrassed and hopeless.
But then I picked up the last essay, and something compelled me to read. It was the very last paper I wrote in my undergrad, spring 2006. I was waxing on about my future career goals, with the same bravado that had become all too familiar by this point.
And these words jumped off the page, in size 12 Times New Roman:
My goal is to help the family, to make a difference.
Family counseling is my passion, and I believe with all my heart that God has given it to me for a purpose.
Yeah, I wrote that in a college essay.
I wrote that in a college essay 11 years before I ever took on my first family therapy case.
I have no recollection of writing this essay, or even the class it was for.
I didn’t make a 5 year or 10 year plan, checking off boxes as I achieved my goals. I haven’t spent the last decade working towards this career goal in any sort of conscious way.
But here I am.
Without my realizing it, the One who made me put me in a position where I am doing what I knew I had been called to do.
And I’ve rejected this idea in the past, to be clear. I remember telling my friends that I never wanted to work with the sort of people whose couches I currently sit on every single day.
I told my mom I wanted to be a hairstylist. She just gave me side eye and said, “sure.”
Here’s what gave me hope, reading that paper [which I decided to save]:
I have been given gifts.
Whether I actively chose to use them or not, I have been given these gifts. The gift of presence, being able to sit down with somebody who is hurting and listen to them with compassion. The gift of courage, to walk into somebody’s house on the worst day of their life and not be afraid of what I might find. The gift of peace, to sit among conflict and recognize that this is not who somebody is, but rather a reflection of their pain.
These are gifts that I have been given.
And if I decide to quit being a therapist tomorrow, these gifts would be still mine.
But it’s up to me how I use them.
Being entrusted with these gifts, it’s a responsibility. And I realize that now. In the past, my ego has hindered my use of these gifts. I let my ego be bigger. And it only led to failure.
I feel like I should end this by spouting off wisdom to the tune of: “Here are 7 ways I have discovered that keep my ego from being bigger than my gift,” or something equally as inspirational.
But I don’t have that.
Not yet, at least. Maybe someday, when I grow up a little more and experience more failure and decide to continue growing from it.
I don’t have a solution, I only have a process.
A process that I am currently in and wrestling against and annoyed by and trying to stay faithful to.
Wish me luck?
Oh, and same to you. I hope you experience failure in the near future.
[Just kidding, or am I?]