A friend of mine is going through what she’s calling a breakdown. After having pushed herself to the limit for the past 5+ years with the supposed goal of becoming a physician’s assistant, she got into a prestigious program and promptly felt like she was going to die as soon as she went to class. Complete and utter anxiety, shaking, fear- you name it, she was there. A nearly allergic reaction. Although she is still struggling with what it all means to her and her family, one thing is abundantly clear: she does not actually want to be a PA. She’s coping with the idea that the past few years have been building to a dream that was not her own, and this “breakdown” was what I think of as an authenticity attack.

I was flattered that she called me for some support and advice, but had to stop her when she mentioned my swashbuckling success as a point of comparison. Had it not been a tender moment with a vulnerable friend, I would have cackled with laughter. I would say I’m successful without hesitation, but the fabric of that success is woven via a series of spectacular failures, many of them chronicled here on SRCB.

Wait! I bet you’re already onto my spiel! Now Emily’s going to talk about how the failures don’t get her down and how it’s all a learning experience and part of the human condition.

You’re partly right, but know this: it gets me down. Way down. Someone once went for the jugular and said, “You know, Emily, you act like you’re so strong, but really you are paper-thin.” I ran upstairs and took a Valium after this woman (who was the mother of my then-boyfriend) destroyed me with such accurate dispatch. I am rarely able to cooly see difficult situations and obvious demonstrations of my frailty as the calisthenics of character they are until much later. I have improved considerably in the past few years, having enrolled in the dojo of Never Settling for Less, which involves constant attention to authenticity, because I know that most everything I try is going to fail a few times before I get it right.

Being paper-thin has its advantages, though. Things permeate. You feel deeply. You get good at letting things pass through you instead of having them bounce around inside your skull until they define you. As a connoisseur of contradictions, I would posit that it’s not about being thin or thick skinned that breeds strength, but knowing who you are that does the trick.

I say hats off to my friend for discovering this before it was too late. Even the happiest life is full of hard work and heart rending lessons. Better to be doing what feels right down in your bones than endure under less authentic circumstances. Failing is a symptom of trying. Fail for what you believe in, and eventually you’ll get there. It is the not-so secret of my success.




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4 Responses

  1. “Calisthenics of character” is awesome. This whole post, actually.

    I empathize with your friend. I got into a good medical school, after years of working hard to do so, only to discover that I was not meant to be a doctor. It’s a terrifying realization–not only to disappoint your own expectations, but others’, too. And it doesn’t feel right for a very long time.

    I didn’t discover what I was meant to do until a few years later. Hopefully, it won’t take your friend that long. But if it does, it will make her relief and happiness that much more profound.

  2. Not being “meant to be” something is not the only way to get an authenticity crisis. Sometimes one goes into a discipline one loves only to discover that the other people in it are really, really horrific and the last people you’d want to spend the next 40 years of your life surrounded by. I’d say, “go ahead and ask,” but I don’t want to delve back down into that pit. Being “meant to be” something can sometimes being “meant to be” the sort of person that does it, and the two aren’t always the same.

  3. Eeeee! I love all of these comments. Sarah, for a writer of your caliber to slum over here at SRCB is meaningful to me. Janis: Ooh wee, don’t I know that from experience… Terry, thanks for alerting me. I knew Hans was going to mention something I’d written, but he went overboard! (the only way he knows how to go, I think.)

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