Confusion Corner: Neurosis stems from fear of failure

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September 12, 2008

1:42 PM

“You’re never going to get a job if you get so nervous all the time,” my father told me on the car ride home from elementary school.

I was in fifth grade, and I had just told my dad that I was nervous about an upcoming test in cursive class. Worried about the tails on my lower-case, cursive As and the curious curve of my upper-case Cs, I was certain that my teacher would fail me, and that this fact would plague me for the remainder of my life.

As a child, my mental preoccupations kept me awake late into the night, hours past my bedtime. My plump prepubescent body shifted in bed as I worried about whether it would rain the next day or how long it would take a thief to break into my house and murder me. If my movements awoke my younger brother, who slept on the bunk bed atop me, then I would move out into the hall, where I paced frantically until morning.

“If you keep this up then all of your hair will turn gray by the time you hit middle school,” my father said when he found me walking in a circle around our partly-finished basement. He constantly chided me for my nervous habits. If during dinner my leg ever twitched uncontrollably, my father might yell at me or take away my food until I stopped. Although he sometimes treated me with the same brusqueness one might treat a dog, my father acted out of a genuine interest in my well-being. He understood the futility of my nervous habits long before I did.

My stomach felt like it was doing backflips for the entire week before middle school started. The idea of having to fit into a new school and make new friends terrified me, and I chose to concentrate this stress on my bowels. As soon as I ate or drank something, my body felt compelled to expel it, which forced me to spend hours in the yellow-tiled bathroom adjacent to my bedroom. When he learned of my latest foible, my father was livid, and, in an effort to break my habit, insisted that I could only poop twice in one day.
Yet this rule only made me more nervous. On top of worrying about class and friends, I now had the added stress of having to regulate my digestive system.

The expectations were too much for my young stomach to bear, and I quickly found methods to circumvent my father’s rule. Sometimes, I would sneak out in the middle of the night to use the bathroom at my neighbor’s house. Our toilet had been stolen, I would explain, and we were still waiting for insurance money to help us pay for a new one. After giving me a strange sidelong glance, my neighbors usually opened their door just wide enough for my young, chubby self to squeeze through.

My nervousness stems from an exaggerated fear of failure. Whenever I become aware of an expectation, I am suddenly drawn away from the present moment and into my head. Everything I do, I think to myself, is doomed to disappoint. For this reason, I never write papers until the night before they are due, even though
I usually start thinking about the assignment weeks prior to the deadline. For a long time, my heart beat violently whenever I raised my hand in class, “Was my question worth muttering?” I would wonder. I wish I could say that this nervousness left me as I matured. I wish I could say that my nervous twitches and tendencies were eventually replaced by more charismatic traits. This is impossible. My nervousness stemmed from a sheer lack of self-confidence — a problem that time does not necessarily alleviate, and can even make worse. In addition, there was comfort in feeling physically ill whenever nervousness struck. It allowed me to control the multitude of uncertainties I saw before me.

My stomach jumped wildly as I submitted my column last week. In case you missed it, I wrote about a lack of self-confidence during my freshman year. That article was the most honest thing I have ever devoted myself to. Writing that article was also immensely relieving. I had finally put words to insecurities that continue to plague me, and that — as I later learned from friends who had read the article — I was not alone in that feeling. I suddenly realized the value of this column to me. It’s not just a platform on which to describe how wacky college is. It is also a therapeutic endeavor. A chance to share my personal struggles, and, in doing so, to master them.

James Damon is a Confusion Corner columnist. In reaction to his father’s former control, he now poops at least six times a day.

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