“Permission to Fail”

I’m making good progress reading the book Permission to Come Home by Jenny T. Wang. Right now, I’m on the section called “Permission to Fail,” which is exactly what it sounds like it’s about. In life, through big and small events, we’re constantly learning, and in learning, it’s inevitable that we will make mistakes, but that’s part of the process of living. When babies are learning to walk, they will stumble and fall — it’s not a mistake! It’s all work in progress! They learn from their fall, and then they persevere and try again and again until they can pull themselves up, stand up and stay there, then take one step, two steps, multiple steps. The tiny steps that are built into that process are around using arm, core, and leg strength. They are learning little by little how much of each to use to do what movements at which time.

I thought about the process of babies learning to walk when I was thinking about this section of the book. And I thought about the very damaging advice that my mom used to constantly give Ed and me: “One step wrong, and everything in your life goes wrong!” It was such a fixed (anti growth) mindset, a narrow way of looking at the world, putting ourselves in a situation where we’d basically have zero hope… unless we followed everything exactly as our parents wanted, and then, our lives would be perfect! And then, I comically thought of Kaia learning how to walk, stumbling and falling, and my mom yelling at her, “One step wrong, and everything in your life goes wrong!”

Everything, regardless of whether it was rooted in reality or not, was either a major success or failure growing up. If it was a failure, it resulted in my and my family having “no face.” When I got laid off at my first job out of college just nine months after I started (and during the worst financial crisis to date of my lifetime), my mom got angry at me. She said, “You have no face! No one respects you! No one will want to look at you to your face!” She advised me to immediately move home and start looking for jobs there. In the next month, my cousin was getting married in Las Vegas, and she tried to prevent me from going to the wedding. “The wedding isn’t important!” she yelled. “Why are you going to spend money to go to a wedding where no one will care about you because you lost your job? You have no income, so why are you spending money on travel? You have no face at this wedding! Don’t bother coming!”

It was such an awful, demoralizing, terrorizing thing to say to a 23-year-old who hadn’t even been in full-time employment for a year: because I got laid off and had no job, I was not worth seeing. I had no self worth. I was not worth socializing with. It’s never anyone’s “fault” when they get laid off, especially during a financial crisis where everyone, left and right, is losing their job, the economy is unstable, and companies are cutting costs left and right. But she tried to make it seem like it was my fault, as though I did something wrong. That’s why she kept on saying I had “no face.” To my parents, if you were working, you were a “worthy” person. If you didn’t work, if you had a low-paying job, or if you were unemployed/stay-at-home parent/partner, you were “nothing.” That’s how my parents measure value in an adult.

I’ve lost my job a couple times since that first layoff. It was never easy, but I’ve grown a lot along the way. It was never my “fault.” I never saw them as “mistakes,” but as situations to learn from — because that’s what all of life is ideally: continual learning, growth, and personal evolution. But one thing I did learn from that period? I would never, ever tell my parents if I ever got laid off or fired — ever again. They would never provide a safe space for me. They would never be supportive of me in my down moments and instead, would just push me further down. I didn’t need the constant criticism or judgment. I was already such a harsh critic of myself already, so why did I need two other people judging me?

It’s sad to remember these times, especially since these types of interactions were not isolated. But I think the biggest thing here, as the title of the chapter indicates, is giving yourself permission to fail, even if those who are supposed to be closest to you won’t. Who cares what other people think? You have to give yourself permission to fail, to grow, to move forward. C’est la vie — or at least, that’s the life worth living.

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