For years, I’ve mostly defined myself in terms of my almost single-minded focus on my ambitions and goals. However, I wasn’t always like that. I don’t know when (probably sometime in middle school or early high school) but, at some point, I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to achieve all of the goals that plenty of people seemed to enjoy telling me were unachievable, I would have to be completely devoted to making those dreams a reality, especially as a woman. Admittedly, I never felt discriminated against at school based on my gender or felt denied anything because I’m a girl. Yet it always seemed to me that boys were taken more seriously than girls. Toughness came easily to them; it was expected of them. As a girl, I had to choose between being seen as sweet and funny or smart and driven. I felt like an either/or situation, despite my identification with aspects of both. I knowingly chose to try to achieve my goals, academic and otherwise, which, in my opinion, left me appearing “serious” and unfeminine.
I spent the first semester of college carrying on this persona. In a sense it paid off: I got great grades. And yet, in order to achieve those grades, I felt I had completely blocked myself off from other important college experiences. I realized that I should be happier about my academic accomplishment. Instead, I just felt hollow, like I was missing out on something more.
I finally couldn’t take it any more. I was sick of trying to be perfect, yet never feeling satisfied with my accomplishments. I let my defenses down and told all this to one of my best friends, only to find that she felt the exact same way. All this time, I felt like I had to block out everyone else, afraid of anybody else sensing my weakness. It turns out that I had never felt better than I did after realizing I wasn’t alone.
We decided together to make second semester better. We drew strength from each other and made major changes in our lives. And my midterm grades reflected that. But in staring at those less-than-perfect letters on paper, those letters I had feared for so long, I somehow felt free. I no longer felt like I had to define myself by my grades, but could instead define myself by so many other things – my new relationships, my new roles on campus and beyond.
I’m still a driven person with lots of goals I want to achieve; I will always be a hard worker and will always strive to be the best version of myself that I can be. But I had to come to terms with the fact that the best version of myself includes more than just academic intelligence — something I didn’t really understand in high school.
It took me far too long to realize that failure — however you define it — is just part of being human. Nobody can or should be “perfect.” In fact our culture’s ideals of perfection lend themselves more to unhappiness and dissatisfaction than anything else. By trying to be academically “perfect,” which meant defining myself as “serious,” an entire, very real side of my personality was abandoned. I had chosen to play into a dichotomy that tries to divide women into those who try to achieve some masculine (strong) standard of power/drive/achievement and those who are meant to embody a feminine (weak) standard of emotional contentedness, without realizing that there was another option. I could just be myself, beyond either of those stereotypes that are in no way based on fact.
I suppose I acted this way because our society seems to strongly value quantifiable achievements over all else. Certainly, that’s what landed me and my classmates at Barnard College in the first place. But I’m finally figuring out that feeling successful — or, more importantly, just feeling happy — will never be connected to any grade or number. Being genuinely happy means accepting that not being “perfect” is inevitable and imperfections are just new opportunities to learn. It means connecting to others, instead of blocking them out in some inane, pointless competition. It means finally figuring out who I am beyond any of the markers I’ve measured myself against for so long. And I think it’s a challenge I’m finally ready to take on.
Want to contact the writer of this post? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Julie Zeilinger also edits and blogs for The F Bomb.