I have always been a strong-willed, hard-headed person with the desire to be completely “put together” and self-sustaining. My mantra has always been “I can do it on my own, and let me also show you how little help I need from anyone else.” I get frustrated when people tell me what to do, or how to do it because it makes me feel inadequate. This strong will has carried me through my academic career with great success, and has helped me achieve great things. It has also created this pattern in me where I set a path for myself, and stick to it like my life depended on it.
In my last year of college I started applying for graduate school. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on school applications, so I decided to set my expectations on one particular PhD program that had less than a five percent acceptance rate. Setting unrealistic expectations is somehow ingrained in me, so I pressed forward.
Going through the application, writing essays, and retrieving recommendation letters almost set me over the edge. I remember calling my parents on a few occasions crying over the stress I was putting myself through—looking back, I would probably describe these episodes as panic attacks. I had convinced myself that through this “valley of death” I was going to come out the other side because it was the Lord’s will.
I was wrong. On February 14, 2013, I had received my rejection letter from that program. Sometimes God’s grace is Valentine’s Day candy company to drown your sorrows in sugar.
I still told myself, “Everything’s fine. This is how it’s supposed to all happen. I was rejected this year, but next year they will accept me.” But my best efforts at résumé building went bust. By mid summer, I went a different route and applied to seminary, and within a couple of months completely uprooted from Florida to Dallas to start a grad program for biblical counseling.
Seminary kept me insanely busy and helped distract me from my anxiety. I couldn’t sit with my fears and insecurities, so I threw myself into a last ditch effort to get through grad school. Without skipping a beat, I continued this high intensity path through grad school. I graduated without going insane, but just barely.
I didn’t have enough sanity left to make it through the summer after graduation. Degree in hand meant proving I could be a self-sustaining, successful adult that didn’t need help from anyone. I worked bankers hours, overspent my housing budget. Then I bought a dog. Panic attacks were familiar visitors, and all the sudden moving to Peru with my best friend felt like the best course of action.
I didn’t hit the mark that I set for myself. I didn’t meet my expectations. Once this thought moved to the front of my head, I crumbled.
Too often I’ve smacked my head up against concrete expectations, come away with a concussion, and have done nothing to take care of myself afterwards. Dazed and confused, I walk around with the shock of this blunt-force trauma, and wonder, “Where did it all go wrong? Wasn’t this expectation supposed to become reality?”
If a friend were to come up to me to vent about their financial, academic, and career stressor, I would meet them with: “It’s going to be okay. You are a qualified person that has incredible value. You have something to give to the world. Hold on, this time will pass.” And yet it’s a battle of the will to speak these words to myself.
Two years post-graduate school I’m starting to learn to be gentle with myself.
I was disappointed that I didn’t immediately flourish as a young professional, but I know that I’m a gifted counselor. I’m disappointed that my finances are a mess, but my value isn’t tied to money or possessions and they don’t have to stay this way. I don’t have it all “together,” and that’s okay with me.
Cover image by salvatore ventura.