My Immigrant Family Wanted Me To Be Perfect, But "Failing" Set Me Free
My family fled the genocide in Sri Lanka in 1990, while my mother was pregnant with me. I was born in a refugee camp. We had been minorities on our island, and when we left for Canada, we became stateless refugees with nothing to our name, not even a place to refer to as “back home.”
So I understand why, from my earliest life, my father projected a sense of urgency onto me: we needed to pick up our pieces, and we needed to do it fast. To him, my education seemed to be the key, the way to access the kinds of opportunities I needed to establish a good life. Which is why, every time I brought home a stellar grade, I’d be asked why I hadn’t done even better. If I brought home a 98%, I’d be asked, “Where’s the rest? The other 2%?”
This question, and variations of it — the idea that even when I was doing my best, it wasn’t enough — have haunted me for most of my life.
There’s a saying in Tamil that roughly translates to “if you must do it, do it right.” I heard this from my father every day, whether I was making my bed, eating food, doing schoolwork, or even just talking. Maybe it was his military background. Maybe it was because his father was a cop. Maybe he just didn’t really realize what this was doing to me. But over time, I became hardwired to believe that if what I produced was not perfect, then it was it was not worth producing.
When I was in kindergarten, my dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him I wanted to be an artist. He told me that he didn’t ask me for my hobby, but my career. Somewhere around that time, I stopped doing things for the simple joy of just doing them. There were many things that I wanted to try desperately, with every cell in my being, like painting, writing, and photography. But I never pursued them, because I already knew that my work wouldn’t be perfect on my first try.
Over time, I went from being a child that would race the rain, to being a child who judged my peers’ parents for not sending them to school with an umbrella on a rainy day. I subconsciously detached from my sense of wonder and innocence. I couldn’t appreciate effort because I was more focused on clean, consistent, and successful output. My heart hardened.
I thought every day of where I would be if I hadn’t wasted my time trying to shrink myself for the comfort of those around me, doing what everyone else thought I “should” be doing.
This mentality followed me through university. Pursuing a degree in the sciences, I would spiral if I got any score lower than 90%. And even when I hit that mark, I would beat myself up for not doing better.
Then I graduated, got a job doing research in a lab, and hated every day of my life.
I spent a lot of time wondering what the fuck had happened to me. My sense of unfulfillment kept me from being able to find joy in anything as an adult. I thought every day of where I would be if I hadn’t wasted my time trying to shrink myself for the comfort of those around me, doing what everyone else thought I “should” be doing.
I decided to take on some mundane projects to get my mind off things, and began redecorating my room. I broke apart my bed frame more aggressively than I ever needed to, and donated just about every other piece of furniture in my room. After a month or two, my room was complete. I had new walls, new furniture, new bedding, new curtains, hell, even a new wardrobe. But I was still the same old me. I went to bed crying that night.
I woke up the next day and quit my job. It was quite impulsive of me to do this, and I wouldn’t really recommend it. But every day as I got up to go to work, I felt like I kept running to the same closed door. I was desperate. I was also hungry to dive into the unknown and explore all the possibilities of my life under my own terms.
Six months later, I was back in undergraduate classes, even though I already had an undergraduate degree. This time around, I was there to really learn about what I wanted to study the whole time — people, communications, and media.
I didn’t go in with the intent of being top of my class, or even passing (wouldn’t recommend this, either). I went in because I wanted this and I was going to enjoy the ride. I wasn’t under pressure and I looked forward to acquiring the knowledge I needed to contribute to my personal and professional growth.
I have come to the profound understanding that just because I fail, it does not make me a failure.
And let me tell you, loving something makes it a hell of a lot easier to put your all into it. My best turned out to be more than enough. I graduated top of my class, and ended up finding a job doing communications work with a globally recognized brand.
This isn’t to say that I’m always able to shut out that little voice in my head that speaks so matter-of-factly: I’m a failure because I’m not as healthy as I would like to be. I’m a failure because I’m not where I want to be in my career. I’m a failure because I did not pursue the path I knew I wanted to pursue sooner, and now I’m a failure because I’m “behind.” I’m a failure for having not been able to carry a pregnancy past the second trimester on more than one occasion — now my uterus is a failure too?! I have failed my ancestors because I don't have a strong grasp on our language or a deep understanding of our culture. I fail every time I let life break me. I have failed because in my crippling fear of failing, I do not even give myself a chance and simply try.
But I’m learning, again and again, that many of my failures aren’t really failures, but simply the circumstances of my situation. I have come to the profound understanding that just because I fail, it does not make me a failure.
Failure is not only an inevitable part of life; it was my road to success. I was my most vulnerable self when things didn’t work out, and through those experiences, I really learned. I failed and found myself. Failure went from being a roadblock, to a building block.
For a long time, I held a lot of resentment towards my family for teaching me to look for the other 2%. But while I don’t particularly think it was the right thing to say to a child, I can’t entirely blame them, either. People go through things and grow through things, but sometimes, they also sink and spend their lives projecting their insecurities onto the people around them. I now feel the deepest empathy for my father. I now understand that if you’re going to do something, you don’t need to do it right — you should try your best, and ultimately, do it as deliberately as possible.