Full disclosure: Not knowing what I was doing used to absolutely terrify me. I avoided this feeling at all costs. And the more I avoided this feeling, the more terrified of it I became over time. (Funny how that works, isn’t it?) I have spent a lot of my life deeply afraid of what it would mean to not “have it all figured out,” which unfortunately means I have spent a lot of time trying to gain approval from others and do things “the right way”.
I realize now that somewhere along the line in my childhood, I developed the belief that I was “supposed” to know how to do all of the things. (This might sound ridiculous to some, but I am fully aware that many of us go through life with this lens and mindset.) In my young impressionable brain, I had decided that not knowing what I was doing somehow translated into the F-word. No, not that one. Failure. And to me, failure meant that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, likable enough, pretty enough, nice enough, confident enough, talented enough, fun enough, interesting enough—you get the idea.
This fear of failure eventually seeped into all the corners of my life. I carefully avoided activities that put me outside of my comfort zone. I didn’t engage in things that I thought I wasn’t good at or didn’t know how to do. Growing up, this meant I floated from hobby to hobby without really committing to one. It meant that I dropped out of AP classes because I was afraid I wouldn’t get all A’s. I stopped pursuing choir because I couldn’t handle the evaluation of myself. Game nights with friends were the opposite of fun for me—there was too much risk for looking silly and not knowing the answers.
This faulty thinking meant that anything I didn’t automatically excel in was not an option, and as you can imagine, that meant that a lot of enjoyable activities were off-limits to me. Enter my young adult years. Dance classes? Nope, I could end up looking ridiculous and I wouldn’t allow it. Trying out new recipes? Nope, too much room for error—better stick with what I know. Leave my house on a whim without looking put together? Ha, you must be joking.
Those things might be for other people, but not for me.
Without fully realizing it, my fixation with perception and with perfection had me missing out on a lot of the good stuff. The irony here is that I actually didn’t know how much my need to know was impacting me and the quality of my life experience. For starters, many of my relationships didn’t seem to be as satisfying as I hoped they would be. Meeting new people was the worst. The inevitable mental gymnastics going on in my head were not only distracting but completely mentally and emotionally exhausting.
“How did that sound?”
“I hope they have a good impression of me”
“I want to make sure I come off as (blank)”
“Did that seem rude? Was I talking too much? Was I talking enough?”
Here’s the thing: it’s really difficult to be vulnerable or authentic when you are constantly trying to manage others’ perceptions of you. And turns out it’s hard to feel really connected to others without practicing vulnerability or authenticity. It’s difficult to feel understood for who you are when so much of your energy is spent looking like you have all the answers or like you don’t need any help from anyone.
It took me a while to gradually unpack and understand where all these inaccurate beliefs came from and to unlearn some of my unhelpful thinking patterns. Through personal therapeutic work, I learned how to lean into a lot of my discomfort and safely examine my anxiety. It was a slow and gradual process. Sometimes the work was hard and I didn’t want to do it. Sometimes I cared too much about whether or not I was doing therapy the “right way.” (PSA: the “right way” to do therapy is to go to therapy.)
Thankfully, all of the hard emotional work paid off. I learned how to explore problematic messages I had received from well-meaning adults, and I thankfully learned how to shift my mindset into healthier and more helpful thinking patterns. I now understand that I don’t have to know what I’m doing all of the time. None of us do. It’s a completely unrealistic standard that I could never meet, not due to a fault of my own, but because it’s impossible due to the very nature of being human.
I also learned that not knowing what I’m doing does not necessarily mean I am failing. And even if it did, the F-word doesn’t have the same power over me that it once did. Failure is a necessary part of life and a necessary part of growth. I didn’t know that I had the ability to redefine it for myself.
I also now understand how necessary it is to be vulnerable and authentic and silly and real if I want to experience the fullness of joy and intimacy in relationships. I understand that I don’t exist solely to please other people and to gain their approval—my existence and purpose is so much more than that.
If I’m being honest, there are still many moments when I catch myself falling back into unhelpful thinking patterns. I can easily find myself mentally reviewing conversations and situations in my head over and over.
“Did he understand what I meant to say?”
“Did I sound offensive?”
“Is she upset with me—should I text her just to make sure?”
In the past, writing this blog would have terrified me and I would have agonized over every word and paragraph. And if I’m being really honest, there were still some instances while writing it when I noticed myself falling into patterns of overthinking and self-criticism.
And that’s okay. I can observe my thoughts with less judgment now, especially since I have a deeper self-awareness and insight as to how these developed. I can take notice of them without becoming consumed by them. In these moments, I give myself permission to practice self-compassion.
The moral of the story is this: You’re only human—you don’t have to have everything figured out all the time. No one does. It’s not possible. How freeing is that?
It’s okay to not know what you’re doing at any given moment.
I surely don’t.