There is an interesting quality to Indian culture in what I have dubbed as the “failure-success spectrum”. I was told all my life don’t do this, don’t do that, make sure you do this, make sure you do that, otherwise you will fail. I was also told don’t do this, don’t do that, make sure you do this, make sure you do that, so that you may succeed.
India has this weird thing where one person’s success is owned by everyone in the damn country. An Indian woman wins Miss Universe, and somehow all Indians win. Indians won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. Now we’re all Oscar winners. You get it. This extends to the family unit. Children are not their own person, they are these extensions of their parents where children’s failures make parents look bad. Children’s successes make parents look good. Comparisons are made between parents based on the successes of their children, a really strange competition of self-worth which is ironic to say.
The entirety of my adolescence, my young adult, and adult years have been devoted to running away from being a failure. First of all, I was set up to fail. I was emotionally, spiritually, and physically abused as a kid. This multi-type maltreatment doubled down on the feelings of shame that I experienced. When self-blame follows abuse, this creates the idea that the voice of shame cannot possibly be wrong. In addition, situations of abuse where self-blame is involved resulted in self-deprivation as a coping mechanism, strengthening the effects of shame. Then I didn’t receive help for my issues with attention deficit. Running away from the shame of being a failure or an embarrassment, in an effort to be the perfect daughter, so that my parents were not failures because of me, holy shit. The futility of it all.
What determined my being a failure or a success? Well, Indian kids are told to make good grades, go to a good school, graduate, get a full time job with benefits, don’t be fat or hideous so they can get married and have children. With the exception of having a doctorate, I was pretty defective. Well, outside of my being okay with singledom, and my never wanting kids that aren’t dogs, I thought I was a failure.
The problem with the failure-success spectrum is that it is limited in its usefulness. Hand me an explanation of a math formula and 25 questions related to that math formula, and all I would have to do is make sure I study to understand the formula, answer the questions, double check my work, ask for help where there is any confusion and BAM, success. I could see the spectrum working for academic subjects like math or science where there are definite answers based on evidence. When it comes to the arts, sports, or human relationships, the parent/society designed failure-success spectrum (especially in shame prone cultures) is utter garbage and it held me down all my life.
In my early 20s I was asked to direct a choir for a National Indian Catholic convention. I rehearsed them three times a week for a month, I spent hours transcribing/arranging all of the parts, and I collaborated with a rhythm section of sorts to produce a program of music. I had a bachelors degree in music and I had a few years experience as a choral director under my belt. Even with half of the group needing to leave halfway through the program due to other programs that conflicted, the choir did very well. So many people were impressed.
I will never forget it, this was the first time I saw Indian people crowding around my parents, telling them how amazed they were by me and the work I did. My parents beamed with pride and this was my one truly f***ed up thought:
“Finally. Their letting me go into music was for something. Now everyone can leave my parents alone.”
Seriously, that was my thought. My older brother and I were made fun of by people in our community for our going into music. My parents were gossiped about, in a ‘what are they thinking?’ kind of way. I have an aunt who told her daughters to not go into music otherwise they would end up like me and my brother. Awesome right? Well, I wasn’t going to fail. I was going to show all of these a-holes what’s up. That moment where everyone was praising my parents? I thought that moment was a stepping stone in the right direction.
Still a Failure
Two more degrees, countless freelance experiences with great musicians, three choral conducting jobs, five years into a college teaching position, and over 16 years of teaching experience later, according to my parents’ definition of success, I am still a failure. What did I need? Well, I needed a deep sense of worthiness, so I could nail a series of performances and submit recordings of said performances to job applications for open full time teaching positions so I may destroy every other candidate. Full time job with benefits would be achieved, and the “no longer a failure” level would unlock…
I just said I needed a deep sense of worthiness so that I could run away from the shame of being a failure. This is comedy, in retrospect. Running away from failure was running away from being a failure, trying to achieve success was also running away from being a failure. Running away from the shame of being a failure was the birthplace of my perfectionism. I have known that I’m enough, though imperfect, but I have never had a deep sense of it because of the shame of being a failure. Fear has accompanied everything I have ever tried to achieve, that I truly cared about achieving. No wonder getting better at the trumpet has been such a back-and-forth effort. All of my successes were to be exploited, like an abusive parent who exploits a talented child.
Thank goodness I dabbled in arts where I didn’t have to be good, like singing, choral conducting, and jazz.
Excavating the origin of my failure shame tape has made me aware that I have zero sense of self. My self-image had been clouded for so long by what I thought was success. The failure-success spectrum had no place in my participation in the arts, outside of showing up to a gig on time or numbering my measures. I have a never failed to develop a discipline for practicing, I have never failed to educate myself about what I was passionate about. I was never a failure.
Could it be that I was actually okay? That I have been enough all this time? It’s true. I knew my imperfection is precious and vital to my growth but I never understood my deep-seated aversion to it until recently.
I’m exhausted, emotionally bruised, but finally on a real mend. I could really feel the effect of this when I was playing a musical last night. I was having fun, not just enjoying the company, but truly enjoying playing my instrument with actual trust, free of a need to succeed. Muscles were relaxed that I had never felt relaxed before. This is what I had been waiting for.
Finally, I may have truly have faith in myself. That is all I needed in the first place.
(originally published on October 21, 2016)