For the past few months or so I’ve been experiencing a strange falling sensation; like watching myself plunge through an endless sky in ultra-slow motion, there’s a deep, sinking feeling in my stomach which continues to get lower and lower, although never enough to hit the ground. It took me a while (along with one particularly lengthy, introspective, water-wasting shower) to realise that this powerless feeling stems from a fear of not measuring up. Specifically, not measuring up to who I used to be.
It seems that I’ve been pushed off the pedestal by my past self, because apparently there’s only .enough room for the best possible version of me and, unfortunately, I’m not it. In primary school, I was infinitely inspired and churned out works of art and literature like some sort of creative machine. In intermediate I found myself truly enthralled and engulfed by my learning, always aiming to gather more knowledge. And yeah, this persisted for the first leg of our high school race. I rode the high of simpler times, the label of ‘talented’ from cooing elementary teachers still stuck to the front of my shirt like a shield of immunity. But after reaching the top of the ferris wheel as a junior, I can feel the unnerving gravity of deteriorating grades and personal dissatisfaction dragging me back towards the ground.
Was it always this exhausting? Were our favourite classes always so challenging, and did our best co-curriculars always inject us with this much anxiety? If that’s the case, it sure doesn’t feel like it. It’s easy to imagine happier times when achievements and applause were more accessible in the form of a glitzy ‘good job!’ sticker. As kids they’ll readily encourage us, call us little prodigies, yet as we gravitate towards the pitfalls of adulthood the needle seems to veer from ‘genius’ to ‘ordinary’ (or, if your parents are anything like mine, you’ll now be bestowed the honourable titles of ‘lazy’ and ‘disappointing’.) Would we be more contented if we hadn’t become so acquainted with cheap success and praise as children? On that note, maybe the relative amount of pressure we feel hasn’t changed much at all, and these envisaged picturesque childhoods are owed to using dreamy ideas like youth and nostalgia to plug the holes in our memories. Don’t tell me we’ve become condescending, jaded teens set on dismissing the pains of those younger than us already? In spite of all that, it still seems these spiking levels of frustration and self-criticism are unprecedented.
I must sound incredibly melodramatic; we’ve got entire lives ahead of us, of course, the highlight of mine won’t be a spelling bee I participated in at age fourteen. Even so, this heavy notion I’m suffering under is also the force which pushes me back and discourages me from feeling proud of otherwise perfectly commendable achievements. It reminds me I may never be able to reach my record monthly word count from a November four years ago, or holds an older, better drawing up to the one I’ve just finished, silently shaking its head at my efforts. For you it might take different forms; the majority of your medals in the cabinet engraved with dates from over five years ago, or the desperate straining of your muscles and joints as a past standard of athleticism slips out of reach. Yeah, we’re still doing great things, but not as much as before. And more often than not, I find that second clause dampening enough to snuff out the sense of achievement entirely, leaving me drained of the will to persevere.
Perhaps the unspoken policy of the universe is always ‘three steps forward, two steps back’ and in stumbling back I’ve somehow managed to trip and severely injure myself, but once I recover I’ll be able to take those great strides forward again. Or maybe my mind is biding its time, and in my impatience I’ve mistaken moments of taking a fall to learn and gain wisdom for minutes wasted, unable to taste an immediate win. It’s possible that I look back and see my younger self-basking in imaginary glory unfamiliar to the current me, but now armed with more maturity and experience, I’m prepared to wrestle my way right back up. For those of you who haven’t experienced a ‘peak’, have pushed through life’s challenges, and are steadily ascending towards greater heights, I’m in awe (and also, can I get some pointers please?) But to those of you plummeting with me from a self-imposed summit, suspended in a frustrating freefall, I suppose we just have to hang in there.
Although honestly, motivational speech aside, I’m not too certain—I haven’t found a solid solution to my dilemma yet. Maybe the highest point of my life really is destined to be defined by a primary school easter egg colouring competition. Still, if I don’t try to get back on my feet, I’ll never know for sure. After all, a lifetime ticket pays for more than a single ride on the ferris wheel, and once we pass the lowest point again, the only way we can go is up.
Written by Isabel Li
Edited by Tara Jackson