In my mind, if I do not incessantly succeed, people have no reason to rely on me. Believe in me. Love me.
A childhood nickname made me who I am today.
Well, at the very least, it started me on a path that, nearly 25 years later, I am still on. In fifth grade, when I was the only student placed in both accelerated math and language arts classes, my peers began endearingly calling me Einstein. This was the first scholastic success that anyone besides my family and teachers acknowledged — and the first time I felt seen.
As a child, I was what my mother calls “painfully shy”; no one knew that, more than being bashful, I felt profoundly inferior and insecure. It was, and still is, uncommon for me to feel good about myself without external validation. So for my peers to praise me with this nickname, I felt, finally, worthy.
Though I did not seek out this attention, I was instantly unwilling to relinquish it. Because I earned this recognition by way of academic achievement, I committed myself, at 10 years old, to earning the highest grades I could in the hardest classes I could.
For the remainder of my education — middle and high school, college, and two graduate programs — I worked almost maniacally for all A’s. No one called me Einstein again after fifth grade, but my standard had already been set. Whenever the stray B appeared on a report card, I cursed the incompetence and laziness that had spoiled my scholastic record. Rather than honor my hard work, I focused on what I could have done better, and immediately devised a plan to ensure legitimate success next time.
Recently, while working toward my second masters degree, this self-imposed pressure scaled unchartered heights. Haunted by the smattering of imperfect grades that knocked me from the tiptop of my class in high school, college, and my first graduate school, this time, I allowed myself no room for error. Because I earned this degree while teaching high school English full-time, for four semesters, I devoted nearly every waking hour to either my job or my coursework.
Finally, after two grueling years, this past May I graduated with a 4.0. As I waited to cross the stage, though, I thought less about the A’s adorning my transcript than I did all that I had sacrificed to earn them.
I practically never ran or read for pleasure anymore. I declined most social offers, and profoundly stressed during the ones I did attend. If I wrote, it was only a few times a month, and at the cost of something else I should have been doing instead: grading, cleaning, sleeping. While this program would have been time-consuming regardless of the grades I earned, my insistence on straight A’s claimed more than my days — it depleted my quality of life. But still my commitment never wavered; I did not once consider dropping out of the program, or even revising my goal.
Aspire, attain, aspire, attain: I cannot fathom operating any other way. More than simply maintaining high expectations, I force myself to overachieve. In my mind, if I do not incessantly succeed, people have no reason to rely on me. Believe in me. Love me.
If I fall short of a goal, then, I damage more than my GPA, or chances of receiving an award. Instead, I jeopardize the affection friends and family have for me. I cause them to question their commitment to me.
I risk losing everyone.
From a distance, I can acknowledge the fallacies of my conclusions; I know that my loved ones will not actually abandon me, no matter what I do not achieve. But in the process of pursuing goals, and especially in the instance of failing to obtain them, that clarity is obscured. All I can see is how much I have to lose.
Because so much is at stake, I can’t afford to merely give myself tough love, or a stern talking-to. Instead, out of frustration and fear, I verbally and emotionally attack myself. Whenever I fall short of reaching a goal, I brutally remind myself that I am inherently not good enough; I certainly cannot afford this type of failure on top of my insurmountable flaws. Shame — about being unworthy of love unless I have earned it — reinforces my first, and frequent, thought that I am worthless. Striving and sacrificing for success is how I trick people into caring about me.
Lest anyone catches on that I am actually undeserving of their affection, I ensure that my success has a brief shelf life; after meeting one goal, I swiftly move on to the next. So, this summer, just weeks after my graduation, I piled expectation after expectation onto my agenda. Before the school year had even ended, I knew how many books I would read, miles I would run, and house projects I would complete during my time off.
Hearing about these plans, people scolded me for not making leisure a priority. I told them (and myself) that I wanted to make up for all the time I had lost in graduate school, but really, I needed to evade my looming feelings of worthlessness. To spend my summer relaxing would solidify me as a failure.
I think the only reason I began to question this practice — of incessantly having a plan for virtually every component of my life — is because, over time, I could not deny how burnt out I felt. My mind and spirit knew that the marathon of graduate school was over, and simply wanted a chance to recover. A new school year (during which I hoped to improve my teaching practice), would soon begin, and, if I didn’t give myself a chance to recuperate, I would not have the stamina to even start, let alone maintain.
I realized that something had to give. One day in late August, after a summer of inching toward this realization, I asked a friend, “How do people balance having high expectations for themselves, but also giving themselves a break?”
Despite sincerely investigating the answer to this question — asking a few confidants, examining it in therapy, reading about how to be self-compassionate in the pursuit of goals — I do not yet know how to be a high-achiever without also putting my mental health at risk. I do not want to equate my worth with how much I accomplish, but I also do not want to abandon the pursuit of excellence; I enjoy achieving.
The closest I have come to managing this tension is repeating a mantra I learned only a few weeks ago. At a recent training on positive youth development, the psychology professor facilitating our session informed us, “You are more important than anything you do.”
Right now, for me, the first step is actually believing that this is true, which may be my most important goal yet.
Kerry Graham lives, teaches, writes, runs, and photographs in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in The Three Quarter Review, Spry, elephant journal, A Quiet Courage and Vine Leaves Literary Journal, among others. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter: @mskerrygraham.