What Scares Me the Most… Is Me
I started reading at three years old. My parents loved to tell me this story when I was growing up. I was reading at three, and I started preschool right around then, too. By the time I was six I was reading far above my grade-level, and they were so proud. My love for reading only grew the older I got. I read voraciously throughout elementary and middle school. My teachers would often have to tell me to stop reading when I was supposed to be focusing on other schoolwork. It’s always been my favorite pastime.
Learning how to read was when I became a student. I’ve carried that label — student — with me for the past two decades. I was Jennelle, a student. Learning was what I was best at. I loved writing, too, but writing started out as a collateral part of the learning process for me.
I graduated this past May. The part of my life where learning was the primary goal for my days is behind me, and the rest of my life is in front of me. And to be honest, I’m floundering a bit.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a student. I like to joke that I have a pretty spotty memory, but I genuinely don’t remember not going to school. Some of my best childhood memories involve me being at school in some way. I never felt annoyed having to learn a variety of topics, and I always wanted to learn more — I didn’t have enough time in the day to learn all that I wanted to. I was a student, in every sense of the word.
I was a student, and now I am not. Something I considered one of my primary identifiers is just… gone.
In examining why I’m feeling so lost about this, I’ve realized something about myself. My self-esteem was tied to my school work. I’ve been a high achiever since pretty much as soon as I became a student, if my early reading prowess is anything to go off. Those kids that are called gifted at age seven? That was me. What came along with that identifier is a whole other host of problems that I’m unlearning now that I can recognize them, and it’s another topic for another day.
My self-esteem was tied to how well I performed in school. My grades in high school were a huge point of pride, and affected my mental health in ways I’m still discovering. When I had health issues that negatively affected my performance in a chemistry class my sophomore year of high school, the ripples of that incident stretched to me blaming myself for not doing better (even though I was sick!) because it was that specific grade that prevented me from getting into my first-choice college.
The self-esteem tie continued into college, too. I liked to justify my desire to do so well and the way I connected my worth to the level of work I was producing by saying that I was only competing with myself. It was a nice lie that I told to myself as I constantly measured myself up against my friends and my peers. How was I measuring up? Was I even on the measuring stick?
Nothing I did academically ever felt like enough, especially because I felt like I was surrounded by people who were so much better than me. This, I should mention, is a credit to all my friends and peers — I think they are all brilliant, innovative, creative people who are dedicated and driven and on their own paths. I just happened to feel like I was never dedicated or driven enough, compared to them.
The adage goes that comparison is the thief of joy, and holy shit, that can’t be more right. But now, without school to use as my source for my self-esteem, what am I going to do? I’ve used this method of understanding my life for its entirety, or at least the entirety that I can remember. If I’m not a student, who even am I?
I’m terrified of figuring out who I am. Sitting in this discovery period has revealed that. Being a student gave me structure, it gave me a schedule, it gave me goals and aspirations. And I’m sure a job will provide those for me as well, but I want to break this cycle of using an arbitrary, external measuring system to determine whether or not I’m worthy of love, consideration, and good things.
We have so many identities that we live with every day. They grow and change with us, and that is always a good thing, even if it can feel negative in the moment. Change is not the enemy. Change is healthy, and so is uncertainty. But as I progress in my post-grad, post-student life, I am tasking myself with finding the worth that has always existed in myself, regardless of what I am producing, or creating, or achieving. Living every single day is an accomplishment in and of itself. I can take pride in that. I can find the worth in myself for continuing to press forward.
Over the past month, I’ve been working on affirmations. I used to think they were a bit woo-woo, but for a month now, every morning as I write in my journal, I start by writing my affirmations. The first one is the one that is the hardest for me to accept as truth.
The first thing I write every morning is: I am worthy of love, and I love myself where I am.
There are some days when I write it and then continue on, not really feeling it. There are some days when I sit with that feeling, and can feel the gratitude and love for myself flowing and easy. There are some days when I write it and it isn’t true, not in the slightest. But I write it every day.
Losing what felt like my primary identity forced me to take a look at my life and reconfigure how I think about myself. It’s been a process. It is still a process. I’ve realized that ‘student’ can be a time-based identity if I let it, but I don’t have to. I will always be learning, but now I’m a student of life’s teachings as opposed to a full-time student in higher education. I’m still learning how to detach my self-esteem from my identity as a student, and I’m sure it will take me a while longer.
But I’m willing to put in the work. Because I am worthy of love, of time, of respect, and I am willing to meet myself where I am and grow from there.
Originally published on sinclairceasar.com