When I was in 5th grade, I received an award for making all A’s in all my classes for the entire year. I remember wondering why everyone was making such a big deal out of it at the time. People (e.g. my friends’ parents) said things like “Maybe Kaitlyn will be Valedictorian” which started me on a path to a deviously veiled self-destruction. You see I took those comments about being Valedictorian to heart. People actually paid attention to me. They knew my name. They thought I was smart enough to accomplish something seven years in the future. That’s a dangerous thing to tell a 10 year-old with an empty void of self-confidence.
So I spent the next seven years trying to live up to that expectation. I worked myself academically to the bone. I agonized over every point on every test. I studied on weekends and holidays and rarely went out with friends because I had a single goal: BE VALEDICTORIAN. But why did I have this goal? Why did a few, encouraging comments when I was in 5th grade cause nearly a decade of misery for me?
What I learned after escaping my cycle of academic torture (as Salutatorian, unfortunately) was that it wasn’t really about the glory of being Valedictorian. It was about what everyone would think if I wasn’t Valedictorian. All I cared was that people still believed in me. That people saw me as the intelligent, hardworking, and creative girl I was. And those comments when I was 10 gave me a path to ensure people saw that girl. Because that’s where I drew my self-confidence. If people believed in me, I believed in myself. If people liked me, I liked myself. If people thought I could accomplish something, I thought I could accomplish it too. But without someone outside myself telling me that I could do it, I floundered in confusion and darkness.
But why would such a strong, independent, intelligent girl like myself think so destructively? Why would I have such low self-esteem when my parents loved me and should have instilled in me the greatest level of self-confidence? Why did I still hold on to a seven-year-old comment like it was God’s word? Why did I even care what other people thought in the first place?
These are all questions I asked myself as I came into my own in college. Where I excelled academically for the joy of it, not to impress anyone. I felt my self-confidence grow, and I vowed never to go back to that scared, dependent girl again. I am more than my grades.
But then there’s the now. The nearly 3 years post-college when I’m still living at home. Still working the same job. Still going to the same church and living the life that 2 years ago I went into therapy saying “I don’t want to keep doing this. I’m bigger than this town or the opportunities here. I need to move on for my happiness and sanity.” And recently my therapist pointed out a hard truth to me: that I’m letting my lack of self-confidence and my desire for the world’s approval get in my way of moving on again.
I want to make the RIGHT next decision. I want people—my parents, grandparents, local community acquaintances, Facebook friends, church congregation—to think my next step is worthy of this Kaitlyn that I’ve constructed for them to be proud of over the years. But I put up barriers for myself. Something is always more pressing than job searching. I can’t leave now because too many people depend on me. I don’t want to dip into my savings account because that’s for emergencies and this isn’t an emergency.
I want to be the good girl. I am the good girl. I have been. I did all the things right growing up. And I went to college. And I came back home after college to help my family and show how grateful I am for their support. But now I’m stuck and jaded and miserable.
My therapist wonders why I don’t just move. Why I don’t go take a risk, make a jump and hope for the net. I want a better job in my field, and I’m not going to be able to find it here. I want to live near my boyfriend and stop this ridiculous long-distance thing that’s been going on for too long. So why don’t I just go? Surely I could find a job once I’m there because I’m a talented individual and I wouldn’t have the toxic environment of my home life (where I’m 25 but treated like I’m 16) weighing me down anymore.
Well, because that isn’t a good enough reason. I can’t just leave my nice, paying job when I don’t have another lined up. I can’t just move to another city to be near my boyfriend. I have to move to a place because of a new job, a better job so no one can say I just moved for a boy or I took an irresponsible risk and I was raised better than that. I can hear my church congregation talking about me—about what a disappointment I am, that I’m no better than the average small town girl, chasing after a guy. I can hear my parents whining about how I’m just running away from them, from my problems, that I moved out too soon, that they taught me better than this. And I can’t stand the thought of disappointing them all. I can’t handle all the horrible things they might say about me behind my back. I just want them to approve of what I’m doing with my life!
So because I don’t know how to make them approve of what I want out of life, I just remain frozen. But I also don’t want to be 35 and still living at home which my therapist used to joke about when I first came in, but now seems like a very real possibility considering how three years have gone by in a blink with zero change.
I’m stuck in the middle because I need that approval from the world. How I wish I could just say “F*** it!” and do whatever I want and believe that it will all work out. But I’ve never been like that. I have to analyze every tiny little decision because if I make the wrong move—even the most miniscule one—I know someone will be disappointed in me. Someone will stop believing in me. Someone will think less of me.
I wish I had an answer for you readers, both for myself and for anyone else who can relate, but I don’t. My therapist suggested setting a deadline of Labor Day for myself. I’m an incredible student. Tell me a deadline for a paper or project and I’ll have the whole thing mapped out so I can be done early. She knows that, so she wants me to try this strategy. But it’s still a matter of making myself BELIEVE that this deadline is real. That it’s like a term paper is due then. That if I don’t make my deadline THERE WILL BE consequences—like perpetual misery and personal disappointment. So all I have right now is hope. Flickering, fleeting shreds of hope.