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Unafraid: senior Emily Cao learns to conquer her fears

Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Liu

Written by Emily Cao

“I am intimidated by the fear of being average.”

For as long as I could remember, I have always been scared of a lot of different things. As an elementary school student, I had an entire menagerie of fears. They were my little collection of cynicisms about the world around me including but not limited to: germs, Bloody Mary (let’s be real, we were all terrified of Bloody Mary at one point in our childhoods), heights, zombie viruses, what my teachers thought about me, what I thought about me… and wasps.

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It was like there was an enormous hole in my chest that I was trying to fill with achievements. Photo courtesy of Emily Cao.

The list simply went on and on and on. But nothing really grinded my gears more than the concept of failure. Because Emily never failed. I mean, Emily was a straight A-student. She color-coordinated her clothes, for crying out loud. Failure was simply not in the cards for her.

When middle school happened, I had very little to no exposure to this foreign idea known as failure. It was like Santa Claus. I knew it existed, and people talked about it, but I never really experienced it for myself. So you can imagine how utterly terrified I was when I encountered my first anxiety attack. It was probably the scariest feeling I have ever encountered. Head pounding. Heart thundering. Hands sweating. Feeling dizzy. And scared. So so scared.

Should I be feeling this way? No.

Why was I feeling this way? Because there was something wrong with me.

For the first half of high school, I remember distinctly that I worked very hard to calm this fear that ate away at me. It was like there was an enormous hole in my chest that I was trying to fill with achievements. If I just took more Advanced Placement classes, if I just joined more clubs, if I just took on more sports, if I just learned an extra language, if I just worked harder… I wouldn’t have to be so afraid of failure anymore, right?

I built a wall around me that blocked out and hurt everyone around me. I was so afraid of interacting and establishing close relationships with other people. I viewed life as a competition—a ruthless contest where everyone was pining for success and using everyone else as stepping stones out of failure. I would have panic attacks on an almost daily basis about everything under the sun—anything from a mediocre test score to being a finalist and not a winner and thus witnessed failure absolutely all around me in every possible sense.

Photo courtesy of Emily Cao.

I built a wall around me that blocked out and hurt everyone around me. I was so afraid of interacting and establishing close relationships with other people. Photo courtesy of Emily Cao.

There was always a fear of not getting out of bed that day and not being able to accomplish, not being able to achieve, not being able to succeed.  Yet simultaneously there was a questioning of why I even tried so hard in the first place.

I stopped seeing the point in living and simply went through the motion of life in order to avert failure at all costs. Just get the A. Just ace the test. Just attend the club meeting. Just succeed. I was so exhausted… from mindlessly pretending, living, working, doing, trying.

I made the decision to meet with a therapist in order to cope with my struggles with anxiety and depression because I was finished with the disintegration of self-doubt and deprecation. It was a choice that I had to think about for a long time. I wanted to get better for myself. I was very sick, very tired, very lost.

I practiced breathing techniques, guided imagery and defense mechanisms whenever I encountered the next panic attack or depression wave. Although the healing process was at times very discouraging and difficult, it was a path that led me to make better decisions and surround myself with positive spheres of influence. I indulged in the activities I loved rather than the ones I felt mandated to do. I ate an apple and had eight glasses of water every single day. I set the song “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift as my alarm clock song rather than “Beat It” by Michael Jackson. I watched my favorite anime show before bed. I concentrated on my passions and interests more so than my responsibilities and obligations. Heck, I even tried out yoga and mindfulness workshops.

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Although the healing process was at times very discouraging and difficult, it was a path that led me to make better decisions and surround myself with positive spheres of influence. I indulged in the activities I loved rather than the ones I felt mandated to do. Photo courtesy of Emily Cao.

If I did not do as well as I would have liked to on a test, I brushed it off and moved on. I developed a growth mindset about how I could study harder and improve my score on the next test rather than wallowing in the rubble of the last. The weight of everyday life felt lighter, softer, gentler. Getting out of bed, going to school, doing my homework—all of this daily drudgery was made so much easier when I let go of my endless pursuit of perfection and success. I vouched to live in the present rather than look back in the past or worry about the future. Enjoying the journey rather than obsessively fixating on the result not only lifted my spirits, but those of the people around me.

I have a group of friends who love and support me in all of my endeavors. My lowered stress levels are slowly improving my relationships with my family and mentors. Allowing myself the time and space to breathe, relax and balance my work with my personal pursuits opened so many doors for me in terms of my emotional well-being. Thus, small adjustments in my life and mindset ended up making huge differences.

After almost two years, I am still learning and growing. Some days I wow myself with my ability to calm myself down and see past minuscule failures and errors. Others feel like I am back at square one.

However, making the effort to improve and progress is what moves me forward… what makes me unafraid.

Photo courtesy of Emily Cao.

Photo courtesy of Emily Cao

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