I come from a long line of super-achievers. Specifically, everything they decided to do they were hugely successful at and much of the time it seemed to happen overnight. I know the latter isn’t exactly true — that they worked hard to get what they wanted — but the point was always driven home to me when I was growing up that everyone expected great things from me and that failure would never be an option.
In school I was expected to get straight A’s. If I got anything lower than that, my parents said they still loved me, but I could tell I was a disappointment. They invested heavily in the education of my siblings and me, and they wanted to see a big return in the form of executive jobs, sizable salaries and stellar reputations.
Both my sisters are attorneys in downtown law firms and my brother has his own software company. I think about the dreams I had to become an actress or an archaeologist or maybe even a writer. I also expected I’d be married by now (I’m 30), but even my dating life is a flop. I work as a cashier at Target. I dread family get-togethers when everyone talks about their brilliant careers and I know deep down they feel embarrassed I’m such a loser and it’s too late for my life to change.
It sounds like it was really tough for you when you were young. I’m sure your parents were well-meaning in encouraging you to be your best. Possibly, though, they also did you a disservice with all their expectations. What was intended to be encouraging or inspiring reinforced the message that your self-worth was performance-based rather than recognizing your life’s journey is a quest to find happiness, meaning and personal fulfillment. I’m concerned that you’re now perpetuating that cycle of pressure by assuming everything is already set in stone, constantly measuring yourself against the achievements and lifestyles of others and defining yourself as “second best.” Instead of “I’m OK, they’re not OK” or “They’re OK, I’m not OK,” replace this with, “I’m OK, they’re OK. We’re just different from each other.”
How can you have failed when your adulthood is still a work in progress, an exciting time of exploration and discovery? You’re not alone in being confused about who you are and how you want to live your life. People who wait until age 29 or older to marry, for instance, generally have twice the chance of a successful relationship.
Consider the following examples of people who didn’t hit their stride until midlife (and beyond!):
• Julia Child didn’t learn how to cook until she was 40, and it took her another decade before she published her first cookbook.
• John Pemberton didn’t invent one of the most popular soft drinks — Coca-Cola — until he was 55.
• Folk art painter Grandma Moses didn’t pick up her first brush until she was in her 70s.
• Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t find a publisher for her “Little House on the Prairie” books until she was in her 60s.
• Ray Kroc sold milkshake mixers until he hit his stride at age 52 with an eatery called McDonald’s.
• The inventor of the thesaurus, Peter Roget, was 73.
None of these individuals allowed rejection, setbacks, or external judgments and comparisons to keep them from summoning the self-discipline, passion and commitment to pursue their dreams.
By focusing so much on pleasing others, I’m worried that you’ve lost sight of yourself. The question is, “What do you want out of life?” not “How can you perform so others will validate your existence?” If you’re sure you no longer want to be an actress, archaeologist or writer, that’s fine but try your best to refrain from calling yourself a failure just for realizing you don’t want to achieve someone else’s goal.
If money were no object and if you didn’t have to “become” somebody, what would you want to be doing right now? What do you absolutely love? While I understand you want your family to be proud of you, having a daughter that is trying to be true to herself sounds like a great start. At the end of the day, you don’t have to prove anything; just live your life to be happy.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.