My acting teacher loved to tell me to get out of my head. It was her favorite critique of my work. “Get out of your head,” she’d yell on the sidelines as I workshopped my monologue. But I refused to get out of my head. It was safe inside my head, everything else terrified me. She encouraged me to make choices, take risks, to explore failure. This totally freaked me out because failure was an absurd suggestion. I feared failure. So, naturally, I smiled and “made a choice” without really doing anything at all. I knew it wasn’t what she asked me to do, and it didn’t feel right to me either. Neither of us was satisfied. I was still in my head.
Full disclosure: I’m in my head because of anxiety. I avoid talking about my anxiety. I tend to not mention it until it’s unavoidable (like a huge anxiety attack in the middle of a Taco Bell). I was always quiet about it, thinking “What if I’m doing anxiety wrong?”—which, of course, is just another twisted part of my anxiety. I’ve struggled with my anxiety since I was a teenager. At 16, I would stay up late rehashing every decision I ever made, every conversation I had, everything that could go wrong because of me. Sometimes I didn’t sleep. Sometimes I didn’t eat. Sometimes I chose reckless outlets to feel in control. It made living life terrifying.
As a result, I turned into a perfectionist. I was afraid to try new things because what if I failed? Failure meant criticism, disappointment, and judgment. To avoid failure I had to make my goals achievable and risk-free. Because “success” was safe. My goals were safe. And If I could keep checking off boxes in a to-do list of self-imposed expectations, I was safe.
I was being held hostage by my anxiety. Perfectionism became my own perfect prison. I forgot that no matter how close to perfect you get, you will always fail to be perfect enough. And I failed. I failed hard.
What surprised me most about failing was learning that I could somehow survive it. For years I had built up failure into this unmanageable monster. I was terrified of trying things, of making choices, terrified of not being safe. I was afraid I wouldn’t survive failure, but I did. I failed, but life went on.
It continues to go on. I didn’t choose to fail, but I’m glad things didn’t go the way I planned. Letting go of that debilitating stress saved my life. Failure forces you to reassess—and that’s what I’m doing. I’m questioning myself. I’m figuring out what success really means to me. Failure is making me hungrier for what I truly want out of life. Failure is making me brave. I still struggle with my anxiety, but I’m no longer paralyzed by my fear of failure. I’m embracing imperfection, and failure, and all the other things I was afraid of. And yeah, I’m still scared, but not that scared.
I’m learning to get out of my head.
// photo by Kristen Hartsfield //