“Successes only last until someone screws them up. Failures are forever.” – House
House says this after his psychiatrist asks him why he focuses so much on his failures as opposed to his successes. When I told my old therapist about this quote, she gave me the assignment of listing my successes in life. I came back with a blank page. She asked “what about graduating from college, what about getting into medical school?” My response was that I don’t consider those to be successes, just what I am supposed to do. Whereas not graduating college would have been seen as a failure, graduating is not a success – it just is what people in my family do. In other words, I don’t feel like I have achieved any success in my life, only avoided failure. Until last year and this year when I had to take time off school for treatment. Sitting around while all my friends were working or in school definitely made me feel like a failure. However, had I been able to stay in school I still wouldn’t have felt successful, I just would have felt like I was doing what is expected.
In DBT there is this concept of building mastery, basically doing things each day to make yourself feel competent. In my IOP group the group leader had us list things that make us feel masterful. Many people put down things like doing laundry, running errands, cleaning. She asked me if I felt mastery when doing those things, and I said I did when I was working full-time, but now I don’t. Now that I am not working, those things are just what I am supposed to do. As a result, I don’t really ever feel like I have accomplished anything on a day to day basis, and that gets me feeling down on myself. Not a good recipe for building self-esteem.
Switching gears a little bit…I was reminded of this House quote last night while reading about two recent commencement speeches that talked about the importance of failure.
At Pittsburgh’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), the National Endowment for the Arts chairman gave a wonderful speech about the importance of failure. He said, “we can become too focused on success, on being perfect, on answering all the questions correctly…but the key to winning the future is innovation, and innovation cannot come without failure.”
And up at Dartmouth, Conan O’Brien reminded graduates that “Whether you fear [failure] or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”
As I move through treatment, I keep trying to remind myself of this. Everytime I start slipping, I give up and deem myself a failure, which only leads to me slipping even more. My therapist told me that rather than beating myself up, I should look at each slip as a learning experience. For example, during my second-to-last inpatient admission I fought the doctors left and right about my target weight, telling them that before I came in I was keeping up with my medical school classes so I didn’t believe their argument that my brain doesn’t function when I am eating less. I relapsed after that admission and was quite ashamed, but the relapse did allow me to realize that my brain doesn’t function well when I am starving, which made me more accepting of treatment. However, even then I attributed my lack of concentration purely to eating next to nothing, rather than having anything to do with my weight. Recently, I have decreased slightly what I am eating and lost some weight, and am more tired. Although I am feeling really ashamed for not meeting my meal plan, this slip has made me more accepting of my target weight. These “failures” have given me knowledge and hopefully will help me love forward in the long run.