A few years ago, one of my friends introduced me to indoor bouldering. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the activity, bouldering is basically rock climbing without harnesses or ropes.
Contrary to what I thought, my ability to do pullups did not mean that I was automatically going to excel at this indoor activity. I remember going every month, bumming off of my friend’s guest pass, and usually going home with patches of skin missing from my hands.
I had an interesting problem when it came to bouldering: oftentimes when a few handholds away from the end of the route, I would panic, and begin to downclimb instead of using my energy to finish the climb. As my arms would fill with blood and become pumped, as I was ascending, a fear of falling would completely override any desire that I had to complete the ascent.
My friend was always super encouraging and would do her best to coach me on how to climb these fairly basic routes. And yet, most of the time, I’m ashamed to admit, that I couldn’t even hear her, over the sound of my internal thoughts telling me that I was incapable of finishing the route.
I remember watching Youtube videos and realizing that I was really just afraid of falling off of the wall. In fact, I would rather, embarrass myself and not even try to make it the last part of the way, than to try and fail.
I remember using one entire session trying to practice letting go of the wall at different parts to get over my fear of falling. But even then, that fear remained.
As I internally processed this fear of falling and failure I began to realize that this fear went beyond indoor bouldering.
One day, while wondering why I was so afraid of falling, I remembered a long erased memory. When I was maybe 10 or 11, I was rock climbing with a harness and the person who was supposed to be belaying me dropped me halfway down the wall before the rope caught me.
Suck it up, and get over it right? That happened a long time ago right?
Upon some further processing, I realized that due to childhood experiences and trauma I experienced in my life, I actually have a crippling fear of failing.
Most of my Asian friends can relate with bringing back 90-99% test scores, and still being told that ninety anything wasn’t 100%. I remember being homeschooled and writing and re-writing my papers until my teachers were satisfied with them. Somewhere in the high-performance environment, I completely lost the ability to create anything that wasn’t “perfect.”
As life continued, I became painfully aware of the fact that I could never actually be perfect. UCI’s engineering program kicked my ass and I winded up on academic probation for two straight quarters, got kicked out of engineering, and scraped by miraculously by getting into the school of social sciences for business economics. In my relationships and friendships, I realized that I could not in fact always say the right things. In fact, I could never seem to be on everyone’s good side.
I chased approval from all the authority figures in my life and acceptance from all of those I cared about, yet I seemed to fall short every. single. time.
To a healthy person, who understood that perfection was a myth, this might have just been a minor setback, but to me who somehow believed that perfection was not only attainable but expected, this crushed me.
I sunk into despair and paralysis as I struggled to find fulfillment in a life where it was clear that I could not impress anyone nor myself.
After years of not pursuing what I was passionate about and not creating for fear of creating something subpar, I began a very long process of healing and trial and error.
A friend said that anyone could run a marathon.
I knew there was no way I could.
So I said that I was going to do it.
I trained for a year. I was inconsistent. I got injured multiple times. I struggled.
When the race day came, I walked half of the race.
But I finished.
What happened next was weird. I never believed in my wildest dreams that injury-prone, kicked from the track team twice Paul could even finish a 26.2 mile race.
So even though there was shame from having walked the second half due to knee pain, there was a weird sense of “at least I finished… I already accomplished more than I ever dreamed possible.”
This experience began to unravel my flawed perceptions of life and perfection. This began to rescue back my permission to fail and my permission to be less than perfect.
From that point on, I began to approach trials and challenges in a healthier way.
I began to realize that to fail is to be human.
We might strive for perfection, but perfect just does not exist.
I began to create again and I put out videos that were shaky, low quality, and not as good as the ones that popped up in my IG feed.
One day, when I was especially discouraged I texted this rapper I admire and asked him how he managed to motivate himself to create when he started out.
To my absolute surprise, he emailed me back this awesome email of encouragement of how we must create for ourselves and not for the approval of others. He said we can’t get better without putting out cringy content in order to learn and adapt. He went on to say that there will always be critics and that generally speaking, critics are those that are salty that they themselves can not create (or lack the bravery to create).
I was over the moon when I received the email, but after processing the whole concept a little more I realized something I had missed before:
God has blessed me from the beginning of my life with people who have believed in me and have encouraged me to create and to try. My fear of failure and consequent tendency towards paralysis was a coping mechanism that I used to try and cope with feeling like I was never good enough.
I am my own worst enemy.
This one goes out to all the self-proclaimed failures.
We didn’t meet their expectations.
Heck we didn’t meet our expectations.
Our dreams crashed and burned.
We are nowhere near where we said we would be at this point in time.
We are afraid to try because we are afraid to fail.
And so we sit and we spin and we go nowhere.
I believe in you!
One of the biggest lessons I learned from therapy, is that showing yourself grace is often one of the hardest but one of the most rewarding things you can ever do.
It turns out that you are incredible, and that when faced with failure or trials that seem insurmountable, you somehow find a way to adapt.
But you can never adapt if you never fail and you can never fail if you never try.
“I’ve tried before… you don’t even know how many times… And all I’ve done is fail. Time after time after time”
After about mile 19 during the marathon, everything in my body screamed for me to stop. Muscles I did not know that I had literally spasmed in agony as each step felt like a jackhammer was ripping through my muscle and bone. Even as I was pathetically limping and walking alongside everyone else who was also limping along, the pain was almost overwhelming.
I remember that my thoughts went from, “I can make a decent time still” to “It’s okay if I walk, I can still finish” to “Oh God everything hurts, I don’t know if I can finish” to “I just need to put this foot in front of my other one”
Life has some seasons where we feel great and then there are the other seasons where it takes all of our efforts just to put one foot in front of the other.
Just keep moving!
Don’t give up! You can do this!
In the words of one of my favorite fictitious characters, “Life ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”
Close your eyes.
Take a deep breath.