Something that I am working on unlearning is treating day-to-day life like school.
In short, I need to stop thinking in subtle or huge ways that if I don’t “Get an A” in this task, I am not good enough.
When I was very young, I did well in school and my siblings and I were well supported by our parents. Positive memories all around. After the accident that killed my parents and sister when I was eight years old, there was one major thing that stayed the same – and that was school. After the hospital recovery, many things changed for me, such as who I lived with, the fact that my brother was not living with me, and many other things. But when I came back to class, things were the same. My seat, my classmates and my ranking in the classroom stayed the same.
To me, it was a source of validation and control. While my home life was unpredictable and uncertain, I knew one formula that worked every time – you learn and study hard, you get good grades, you get admiration for your achievements, and you get reassurance that you are good at something.
The high numbers on my report card, the colourful ribbons that say, “with honors” and the shiny medals were tangible items that I aimed for. My achievements were a key defining factor of my personality, and for the longest time, formed my basis for how I saw my value as an individual.
For an adult, however, this is a destructive way of thinking and this became more evident to me during my university years and the early stages of dating.
I used to be a horrible, sore loser when playing board games. In the past, I also felt a strong – sometimes excessive – sense of responsibility to fulfill a set of ‘requirements’ to make my boyfriend happy. When I forget a little chore such as washing dishes, I get mad. I get a sense of defeat with every increase in my clothing size over the years. I feel that I failed whenever I seethe happy Facebook posts of my childhood friends and cousins. I can go on and on.
I realized that it is a subconscious survival skill of mine, thinking that if I do all these things perfectly and successfully, I won’t be left behind painfully and unexpectedly again.
My spouse is the biggest challenger of this unhealthy behaviour and a supporter of positive improvement. As a kid, he was not an A-student. That helped me see things from a new perspective – and helped me to recognize that those little things are not a big deal.
I intend to keep the positive behaviour that came from this, like having a strong work ethic, willingness to try new things, and believing that a person’s potential is boundless. But, it’s also okay to remove behaviour that causes damage and misery to one’s psyche.
Real life never works like school. There is no specific curriculum, teachers and teaching moments come in a variety of instances and forms, and self-driven learning is a very powerful thing. Perfection and ‘levels of achievement’ are arbitrary as these vary for every person and every context. There is enjoyment to be had from letting the journey unfold and experiencing things for the sake of it. I learned how to say “oops” and “I did that poorly and that was hilarious”. I’m learning to silence the fear that I’ll get penalised for not doing things ‘right’. The main thing I must ‘compete’ against, is myself and only for the things that matter.
Each mistake will not produce an F in my “Life Report Card” but will provide tools and lessons that will help in the future.