This post is part of the Love Yourself Linkup, an ongoing series focusing on self-image to foster an engaged community of writers and readers to connect, share, and love. Anne The Adventurer bravely revealed her struggle to recovery and began this linkup to encourage other writers to share their unique experiences and journeys. You’ve read a little bit about it already, but here is the longer version of how I became who I am today.
For the greater part of my life, success for me was determined by the grades I received. The number one goal was to be at the top of the class in all subjects and to use any energy I had to get there. Yes, I was the Asian cliché: a timid and quiet overachiever raised in a strict environment who just wanted to make her parents proud. This deep sense of obligation was engrained in me early on and the only way I knew how to exist was to strive for perfection and do what was asked of me. Straight A’s were a standard of normalcy and the only acceptable report to bring home. Anything less resulted in a loss of privileges and along with it, strong words of disappointment, grief, and anger.
It was tough adolescence, but please don’t get me wrong. I was given as much love as I was given discipline, but my parents just had a different way of showing it. They were wonderfully generous to me, just not in an emotionally expressive way. You could say my mom was a little bit of a Tiger, but this was her own flavor of motherly love. If she didn’t push me to be better, who would? I’m sure this was the thinking behind it, but unfortunately it took me a lot of time to accept it as a positive force in the grand scheme of things.
This was the only existence I understood and I was actually fine with these expectations…. up until high school. By then I had internalized the imposed set of standards and no longer needed my parents to punish me (although they still did) as thoroughly as I was sure to punish myself. The guilt of failure came from within. As a result, I constantly felt at war with myself and trapped in an emotional hell of my own making. I couldn’t make sense of how to be happy or what it would take to get there because even reaching perfection held no happiness – only fear for when it would crack and crumble. As I was learning more about the world and more about how other families functioned, I began questioning why I worked so hard for such little praise. My friends did their best to assure me that in their family, I would be the golden child and given all the gifts, hugs, and encouragement in the world. But it didn’t help too much because I wasn’t in their family and I definitely didn’t feel like a golden child.
I’m not sure where or when it started, but aside from being the “girl who got the best grades” I was also “the really good artist”. It began before I can even remember; I always excelled at coloring, crafting, painting, diorama-making… you name it. My projects were always on display somewhere in my school or classroom. It was never something I had to force myself to do. It seems I just naturally loved making pretty things. I remember asking my parents to go to an arts school both in fifth grade and in eighth grade. Thinking back now, it was pretty self-aware of me to take that initiative. But both times resulted in a strong no in order to keep me on track towards my academic destiny.
Fast forward to my senior year of high school. With the decision of where to go for college before me, the only thing I knew I wanted to do was to leave Florida. Yet another cliché, I yearned to go to New York to find my bliss (whatever form that was going to come in). I don’t know what I thought I was going to be, but I knew I needed to be far far away from home to figure it out. My parents, in a final attempt to guide my future, decided I would definitely not be allowed to do this and instead I would go to UF. Close and cheap, safe and secure.
I was at a loss and pretty devastated. It was the culmination of my childhood and teenage upbringing, unable to have a say in my future and knowing that my hard work still couldn’t get me closer to happiness. This hopelessness was a tipping point in my life. I had to do SOMETHING. And so during college registration, with my parents out of sight, I declared my major without any hesitation: art.
It was my parents’ turn to be devastated and boy, were they (in their own way of course). I’ve blocked out memories of numerous discussions and arguments over that single decision. It was my final stand to them and though they were never quite happy with it, my parents eventually accepted that they couldn’t control what I do.
And so I forged on, seeing art school the way I’ve always seen school – a place for me to strive for excellence. But this time it didn’t mean perfection, it meant self-awareness and discovery. I learned how to find my own voice and more importantly, how to listen to it. My perfectionist ways didn’t dissipate overnight by any means. B’s in art school hit me even more emotionally than B’s in regular school because I wanted nothing more than to prove to my parents that this is where I would shine and how I would make my mark on the world.
Four years flew by fast and I found myself thrown into real life, with just a college art degree behind my name. I don’t need to tell you that this was not the most ideal situation to be in. I finally settled in Atlanta, taking a job in an art gallery. I figured that if nothing else, I should still aim to be surrounded by art and hopefully by proxy it would lead to my vision of success. Just like at home and in school, I aimed to please in the workplace by simply doing what I was told. This is a default nature of mine and before I knew it, I was miserable yet again.
Three years and a couple odd jobs later, I was faced with another tipping point in my life. I felt like I was in the proverbial hamster wheel going from job to job and finding myself in the same emotional rut. There were numerous paths before me that I could choose. I could be an interior designer. I could be an art consultant. I could be an event designer… or I could try being a photographer. Or I could go back to the gallery world. Or I could go back to school. For months and months, I would ramble on to my friends and my boyfriend about how trapped I felt. I couldn’t make any decisions or commitments because I didn’t know what I wanted. I wasn’t confident that I could travel any of these paths for very long and so I didn’t think any of them would become a viable and life-sustaining career.
My negative and disparaging self-image was rearing its quiet and ugly head again. I had convinced myself just like before that the only way to find happiness was to achieve the success defined for me by outside forces – money, family, society. Every option I could think of to get there felt like a great surrender. All I could think to myself was, how did I end up here?
After gathering up the nerve to quit yet another full-time job, it was one particularly long early morning drive that held the answer to my existential crisis. As the sun was rising, I felt like I was somehow coming in to focus. Perhaps it was the light, perhaps it was the melody of the song (“Generator 1st Floor”). It was a divine moment, perfect in its solitude and potential for forward motion. It was time I finally accepted myself for who I’ve been from the very beginning: an artist. I decided – me and only me – decided that this would be the quiet conclusion of my internal war.
From that moment on I have been doing my best to continue declaring myself an artist. I began this blog to serve as a daily reminder of this journey and to continue seeing myself clearly as I go forward in building my own path. There are still days when I am afraid to say it out loud. But there are no longer any days where I feel like this is not where I’m supposed to be. There is also a distinct reduction of self-guilt and loathing roaming around. The 25-year-long battle between who I want to be and who I am is finally over because they are now one and the same. I want to be an artist. I am an artist.
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