It was the day of a particularly important track meet during my junior year. I was a competitive and accomplished athlete in high school, and had just come off a cross country season where I’d won every single race and the championship, followed by a trip to the state championships as the captain of the basketball team.
All eyes were on me.
That day, I was squaring off in the 2-mile race against a girl from our rival Holy Angels Academy. She was only a freshman, but she was already getting noticed all over the city because she was that fucking fast.
And I was fucking scared.
The race began. Very quickly, it became only a race between me and her, as we left the 20 or so other girls far behind. About a mile in, I held a fairly substantial lead, even amidst my still-clinging fears (demonstrated by my occasional glance over my shoulder at the competition).
Because the girl from Holy Angels wasn’t that far behind.
My mom was in the stands and I ran by and brazenly gave her a thumbs-up, “this one’s for you” kind of gesture, and broad, confident smile—a sign of the bravado I didn’t remotely feel. Mom waved back proudly.
Right at that moment, the girl from Holy Angels started picking up her pace. The last 800 meters loomed, then 600, and she was gaining fast. She looked like a gazelle, too, and suddenly I felt more like the basketball player I was during the winter sports season.
I started panicking. I could taste my fear of failing rising up like bile. Every muscle burned in anticipation, not of an exciting race, of pushing my limits and really competing, but of losing.
In an instant, I gauged everything around me and made the decision to make myself fall right then and there.
It was almost cinematic: as if in slow motion, I stepped just a touch too far onto the inside of the track, and my foot hit the dip leading to the turf at just the right spot.
I tumbled onto the ground, scraping my knee and twisting my ankle, while—startled—the girl from Holy Angels ran around me, peering over her shoulder worriedly...and went on to win the race.
I leapt up and half-ran, half-limped to the finish line, blood streaming down my left leg, stoic pride fixed on my face, as if I was a brave soldier stepping off the battlefield instead of a terrified and damaged girl crossing the finish line of a high school track meet, winning second place.
It didn’t start in high school. My fear of failure plagued me at least all the way back to first grade, where we can find my first vivid memory of its onslaught.
Mrs. Carlino, my otherwise very pleasant first-grade teacher, had marked my math test with what seemed like a practically uncountable number of red check (i.e., wrong answer) marks.
I accepted the paper with horror, head down, tears blurring the the words and numbers on the page, seared with humiliation.
(Remember, I was just six years old).
I ran into Nana’s house after school and while she was making my snack of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and small cutouts of American cheese on white Wonder bread, I plopped down in her living room and pulled out the test, scrutinizing each problem and answer until I could finally divine how to make a couple of the wrongs right.
I had to hurry: Mom would be home from work soon.
I pulled out my giant red pencil with the rubber thumb-and-pointer positioning device. I used the big pink trapezoidal erasure first and carefully did away with the first of two wrong answers. Then I wrote in the correct answers.
When Mom came in and sat chatting with Nana in the kitchen before taking me home, I ran in triumphantly, waving the test around, hoping that maybe she wouldn’t look too closely at it.
She took it from my hand.
“Look!” I cried, pointing to my handiwork. “Mrs. Carlino made mistakes when she was grading my test!”
Mom just smiled and said, “I see that.”
I cringe now reflecting about how obvious in both cases my cover-ups must’ve been.
What made me so worried about “failing”? Was perfectionism or that fear inherent in me from birth? Or was it some weird alchemy wrought by childhood trauma with our father? Or something else entirely?
I could psychoanalyze these things to death and still not get clarity on these questions.
Similarly, it has taken me more than 20 years to ever admit the story about the track meet to anyone else.
But as I started developing my point of view on female empowerment, in particular, my Nine Pillars of Female Empowerment, so many of these past experiences, however painful or embarrassing to recall, became helpful mini-laboratories for my own evolution.
For example, my first Pillar of Female Empowerment is Insight and Awareness (into myself and others). This Pillar hinges on the idea of the growth mindset: i.e., being willing to step out of your comfort zone, try things even if you might “fail” at them, and reap the rewards of personal growth.
I look back and understand clearly that at the time of the track meet, I had what was the exact opposite of a growth mindset.
I was so terrified of “failing”--i.e., possibly losing the race outright, fair and square, possibly looking like a failure to the outside world (but actually ultimately learning about myself and growing as a person from the experience)--that I couldn’t handle testing my mettle.
Since it wasn’t guaranteed that I would succeed, I orchestrated an easy way out.
Have I mentioned how embarrassing this is to recall?
But the best news, especially about Pillar #1, is that once I started to gain insight and awareness into my fears and insecurities, it became harder to embrace my tendencies toward giving them, or the behaviors and actions they brought on, so much airtime.
My friend Julie has a great analogy for this: you can walk into a dark room and turn on the light. If you don’t like what you see in the room, you can turn the light right off...but you still know what you say is there.
At minimum, being aware of myself and how I operate in my darkest moments was a powerful first step in moving in another, better, direction. Now, the easy way out just doesn’t feel so comforting anymore.
Arguably more importantly, in looking back at those and the countless other cringe-worthy moments in my life, I have slowly learned to forgive myself for them.
Self-forgiveness, in turn, is a key component of Resilience (Female Empowerment Pillar #5), which means embracing the conscious choice to move ahead and make progress even when I am scared shitless or things aren’t going my way.
Today I walk into all sorts of challenges and hard things readily because I know they’re going to make me smarter, stronger, or a better person in some way. I readily forgive myself (in advance!) for all of the inevitable fumbles I will face in doing so.
I’ve stopped choosing to make myself fall, because I know my legs are strong and steady.
Now I know that winning second place, or even just jumping into the race, even if I end up losing, still comes from putting one foot in front of the other.