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When My Therapist Called Me a Failure

My therapist called me a failure last week, and it was one of the best things he’s ever said to me.

Last week, during my weekly session with my therapist who I have been seeing consistently for nearly two years now, we got into a discussion about my accomplishments. This conversation segued into a dialogue in which I expressed frustration at the fact that I am not moving forward in a way that is in line with my own expectations for myself, both professionally and personally. I shared that I felt as though I have worked too hard for many years to not be succeeding in a way with which I was satisfied.

In fewer words — I was terrified of failing.

Despite all my accomplishments, all my accolades and everything I have overcome, I could not shake the feeling that failure and disappointment were on the horizon. I’ll spare you the details, because they are not really relevant, but know this — this feeling of impending failure and inadequacy was foreign, unexpected and unprecedented for me. In my eyes, at the time, I had never failed before at anything in my entire life.

And then my therapist said, as he frequently does, something that stops my catastrophizing and ruminating in its tracks.

Casually and without missing a beat, he said:

“You’ve been a failure for 24 years.”

What? Did my own therapist just call me a failure?

Now, he and I have established a pretty strong relationship and good rapport over the past two years. So I knew he was not calling me a failure just to be a bully. I knew there was a deeper meaning behind that statement.

“You’ve been a failure for 24 years,” he said. “You’ve just been selective about what you do and don’t do in your life so that you don’t have to feel what it’s like to fail. But you’ve been failing at things your whole life.”

I’ve been failing at things my whole life.

He wasn’t wrong. I was terrible at most sports I played growing up, so even though I enjoyed them, I quit because I was not the “best.” I’m not good at math, so I chose a college major and courses that revolved around me taking as little math as possible. I’ve even been resistant to my own mental health treatment at times because I was so afraid of failing at recovery.

There were countless other examples of times when I could have done something or tried something but didn’t, simply because I was not absolutely positive I would succeed at it. That uncertainty around my own success and my deep fear of not succeeding (or worse, succeeding by other people’s standards but not by my own) kept me trapped in a small box. I was successful, but I also wasn’t giving myself a chance not to be.

This fear of failure and my convoluted definition of what it means to fail had become so pervasive that I wasn’t even seeing it clearly anymore. I thought I had never failed at anything in my life before.

But in reality, I have been failing my whole life.

I have been failing my whole life.

What a relief.

I’ve been thinking about this conversation with my therapist for nearly a week now. It opened my eyes to a part of my personality that I haven’t been ready to fully explore. I can be both a winner and a failure, and I can even be both at the exact same time. In fact, I’ve been both for many years now.

My therapist called me a failure, and it was one of the best things anyone has ever said to me.

Getty image by nadia_bormotova