I hold myself to extremely high standards.  This is not to merely say I am a perfectionist, rather that I am so intent on not being wrong that I do everything in my power to avoid it.  Being wrong or failing at anything sends me into a tailspin of self-doubt and embarrassment that can take days or weeks to emerge from.  The perceived repercussions of even an innocent mistake paralyze me and render me nearly completely useless.

Despite the fact that I was poised to graduate in the top 10% of my class, I only sent out one college application.  I received back an acceptance letter with a scholarship that would cover my tuition in full for eight semesters. The thought that I wouldn’t get in never crossed my mind and, truthfully, this was the biggest reason I applied there. There was little chance for failure.  I didn’t dare apply to one of the more prestigious universities my teachers told me I could get into.  If I was rejected, the knowledge that someone out there, even someone I didn’t know, perceived me as less than good enough at anything was too much for me to bear.

The Bachelor of Social Work program I enrolled in required 800 hours of interning.  I worked at a shelter for victims of domestic violence, helping women secure resources to make it on their own after leaving their abusers. I accompanied some to court, helped others find jobs and housing. For a time I was the weekend counselor, which meant I was the only person in the house who didn’t live there. If someone called needing a referral or seeking shelter, I had to gather information and possibly make arrangements for a new family’s arrival. I would sit at the desk each Sunday just begging that phone not to ring. I’d watch the ladies and their children milling about the house hoping that whatever they needed could just wait until Monday.

Please, please, no one need me. I can’t handle your troubles. I am not qualified. What if I do it wrong?  Why would you trust me?

I dreaded going to work.  Not only would missteps and inappropriate advice make me look stupid, it could literally get someone killed.  I cracked under the notion of pressure and quit before I had the chance to ruin someone’s life.  Since then, I’ve always taken the safest route, the path of least resistance.  I didn’t take on challenges I didn’t reasonably think I could conquer. I didn’t take on risks.

When I think of the potential I’ve wasted, it makes me as sick to my stomach as that job at the shelter.  If only I wasn’t afraid of failure, of disapproval, of everything.  What could I have been?

Now, on the verge of middle age, I walk around with a knot in my gut trying desperately to overcome the fear.  All along I was afraid of failure, but what I should have feared was ruinous complacency.

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48 Responses to “Safety.”

  1. Kianwi says:

    Gosh, you sound so much like me. I’ve done things that might seem daring to others, but they really weren’t daring because I knew I’d succeed. I think a lot of people that know me in my real life would be surprised at how much I’ve really let my fears hold me back. They just don’t know what really scares me!

    Yeah Write scares me, so at least I’m forcing myself to participate!

    • I lurked at Yeah Write for a while before I participated. I nearly threw up the night I linked up. The writing thing is so stressful, but I can’t not do it anymore. I have to try. I can’t live with wasting any more time.

      Thank you for being so supportive of me. It really does mean the world to me.

  2. Oh Michelle. You are so good. I totally understand that feeling. Better to just not try than to try and fail, right? The stories I could tell…

  3. Christie says:

    You could be reading my mind. Well said.

  4. I relate to this post probably more than you know, especially that fear of failing and then the regret from taking the path of least resistance. I’m so glad that I was able to get past that.

  5. Jester Queen says:

    I feel bad for the you who never fought against the fear, but at the same time, I feel the hope at the end of the piece, the realization that it’s never too late, even if it does get harder as time passes.

  6. Oh, sister, I hear you! We have many similarities; this was almost painful to read. I’m hopeful the risks I’m taking today are getting me closer to the me I was meant/am meant to be. You, too. Thanks for a wonderful post.

    • Thank you for reading it and being so supportive! I am trying to brace myself for the fails. They will happen, they happen to everyone and we all will live through them. We have to keep telling ourselves that.

  7. Yes, yes, and yes. Wasted potential is something that keeps me up at night. I have let fear run my show for so long. I too have tried to be safe and I ended up a frustrated lawyer because, well, lawyers have a career path and I could just plug in and tune out. But, turns out that kind of safety comes with a price I just couldn’t pay. So now? I flounder. This post gives me great comfort and great compassion for us all.

    • It’s funny that you say lawyer. People tell me that I could be one and it was actually suggested to me by a teacher I really respected that I give it a try. I think I would have been good at it. I don’t want to take up trying to do it now (and ultimately I’d rather pursue the writing) but I always wonder if I had gone pre-law instead of social work how things would be different.

      I hope you can find a way to not flounder. You are an excellent writer and I hope you continue to pursue that, if that’s what you want!

  8. Closed doors drive me to the edge. I hate having my choices narrow. Remember though, that each day brings potential.

    This was a wonderful post. Ellen

    • Thank you so much. I think I’ve accepted all that life has thrown at me, but the doors that are closed by my own hands/mind are what really get to me. I’m trying to remember that about each day. It’s not over till it’s over, as they say :)

  9. Such an amazing post!
    I felt like each word was hand picked. Everything just fit well, you know?
    You told a great story filled with lots of emotion. Awesome, awesome job.

  10. It’s sickening when we finally realize that taking the easy way is it’s own kind of mistake. We just can’t win, can we? I have to remind myself of that all the time – mistakes are inevitable, so planning our lives around avoiding them is doomed ourselves to failure. I have to constantly remind myself to make my choices based on some other criteria. Love the post.

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  12. Robbie K says:

    Beautiful honesty here. I volunteered at a DV shelter in college. I always felt more comfortable doing activities with the children. At least I could keep them entertained and distracted for a bit.

    • Thanks Robbie! Yeah, I loved the mundane tasks I got much more than the counseling stuff. It surprised me because I thought I’d like it more. It was a learning experience though and I value my time there for what it did give me.

  13. This is a brave post. So many live to the end of their lives without such self-examination, and would certainly never share it. But when you share it, it’s out, free to be let go of. This is very well written…I could relate to so much, especially the last line-well said.

    • Yes – that’s it exactly. These thoughts were weighing on me. I wrote the post and rewrote it a zillion times because it wasn’t right, it wasn’t saying what I needed to say. And when it was done and I sent it I felt so much better. Thank you, as always, for being so supportive!

  14. Oh Michelle. Who hasn’t felt this way? Thank you so much for sharing so honestly with us. I’ve been swallowed up by these feelings before. I found my favorite quote of all time through a time of questioning like this – the one by Mark Twain about “20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did….”

    • That is a great quote. It’s funny, you say who hasn’t felt this way, but I honestly never thought anyone else felt this way! I beat myself up for feeling like this and for doing it to myself. So many of you have said you can identify and it makes it so much easier to see that these feelings shouldn’t hold me back. Thank you for such a great comment.

  15. carrie says:

    I have been there! I am there! So afraid of failure that I just haven’t tried. I don’t even have a license I am so terrified I might kill someone on the road. I get it. And it’s kinda nice to know I’m not the only one. Although it totally sucks too…that you have to suffer as well.

    • I am relieved and saddened to know I’m not alone. I hope you can break through your walls too. I know there’s a long road ahead of me to feel confident and all that, but I’m on a better path. At least there’s that, right?

  16. christina says:

    oh i think we’ve all been in this place in one way or another. i know for me, i lived most of my life on the sidelines- never really participating in life, just kinda watching it all go by. once i got my feet back into the game (sorry for cliches), it became SO empowering. these days, i feel like i can do anything. and really, so can you.

    • That’s so wonderful that you can feel like that. When I’m confident, I feel like that too. Some days though I don’t feel it, and I wallow (like lately!) but I’m trying to fight it off. Thank you for your kind words!

  17. Kathleen says:

    I really admire the bravery of this post. You’ve taken your first step in writing it. That one truly is always the hardest. I think the fact that you are writing about it shows that you really are ready to try, to risk failure. Middle age forces us to confront a lot of our fears, but you will find strength in doing so.

    • I think the age thing really has a lot to do with it. When I was in my 20s it felt like there was always still time. My early 30s, some time, not as much but still some. But the second half of my 30s? Wait a minute, I’ve got to get a handle on this or I will die like this. Thank you for being so supportive!!

  18. You ARE an Ian! After 8 years of marriage I am beginning to understand the crippling nature of the stories we hear in our heads. For me that voice spurs me to do insane and extreme things. For you (and my Ian) it generates paralysis. Fear moves me to chaos and moves others towards comfort. Very insightful, raw and honest post – I loved reading it and all the places it is taking my mind.

    • Ha! I really did identify with him in your post! I’m glad you enjoyed it, particularly as someone who doesn’t feel that way. It’s so odd the way we handle things differently when presented with similar situations.

  19. IASoupMama says:

    I am so there. I think, as I approach middle age, I am starting to panic and realize that I’ve not fulfilled any of my potential — but I don’t even understand what I want to do when I grow up yet. Such a conundrum…

    • I’ve been on my career path since I graduated college. At first it was my fall back. Then it was just what I did. Then it was well I’ll do it until I have kids. Now, I still do it and I don’t dislike my job or my company or any of that, but it doesn’t feed my soul. And while I’ll do it as long as I have to and give it my all, why do I want to do anything forever that doesn’t feed me, you know? The writing, it feeds me and heals me. And if I can make a living off of it someday, that’d be great. For now, I’ll take the little bits of sanity it gives me. I hope you can figure out what you want to do and then go and do it :)

  20. I think so many of us women suffer from the same feelings! It took me a long time to start believing in myself. I still have a hard time, but I just force myself. I still would love to just hide under a rock sometimes! You are definitely not alone!

    • I retreat into myself sometimes too. It is hard, and forcing myself out there is hard too, but it’s so worth it in the end. I don’t have a single regret since I stared putting my writing out there. And I’m amazed by that.

  21. Oh so good, Michelle. Thank you for the peek into your mind and heart. I just ask that you be kind to yourself and know that people love and support you (this community included!). Believe in you. We do.

    • You are so kind. I feel the love and support, especially in the Yeah Write community and it’s so much more than I ever expected. I thank all of you for all of the support and I am so thankful to have met all of you.

      Your comment made me cry. In the happy way. Thank you so much.

  22. Michelle, I think it is so common for people to think in their heads that they aren’t qualified – that they will be found out that they are actually frauds, not good enough. You are an amazing writer and share so much from the brave depths of your experience. I hope that this support helps foster a courage in you to reach out – the world needs your talents. Don’t keep them from us :)

    • I never thought people thought that. I just figured they knew how to do what they did and did it. I’ve known that if you act confidently, people will believe you and act accordingly, but I guess I fell for other people acting confidently too.

      Yours is another comment that made me cry. Thank you so much for your kindness.

  23. Mamarific says:

    I can very much relate to this. Thank you for writing such an honest piece.

  24. I passed up on so many amazing opportunities and now at the age of 4,1 I jump into everything because I just don’t want to lose anymore.

    Really enjoyed reading this. So relatable.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Sometimes it might be fear that holds you back. But at other times it’s just a learning experience that not every person can like every job or be good at everything. Life is a lesson that has taught me that even though I can do xyz, I may not like it or enjoy it, so it’s not for me. So I just need to accept that I’m never going to be the life of the party and that I”m content in myself to know that I’m more of an intellectual without being a complete wallflower.

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