Have you felt like a failure since your traumatic brain injury (TBI)? I certainly have, so if you have, too, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re far from alone. One of my friends and fellow TBI peeps, Jennifer Malocha, recently posted this on her social media (used with permission):
“I’ve been told it’s time to make peace with my reality of having a daily new ‘normal’ which is a fraction of what I was capable of before my accident. I feel like just admitting this that I’m a complete failure. I know that I’m not, it just feels like it in this moment.”
It was as if Jennifer read my mind and emotions (perhaps Jennifers share a special connection). I, too, have felt like a failure in the past three years, especially. Three years ago I had to admit to myself and my husband that my TBI-induced myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and dysautonomia had worsened to the point of debilitating, and that I needed to stop working and close my beloved, specialized bodywork practice of 12 years. I just physically and mentally couldn’t do it. It was neither fair to me nor my clients, and it was causing me harm. I had already reduced my hours to seeing just three clients per day, three days per week, and couldn’t reduce any further and still have a viable business. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life, but it has certainly been the right one.
Not only did my business remain open and running post TBI (how, I honestly don’t know), I grew my practice and saw my professional dreams come to fruition in the last two years of my career. I created the practice I had always envisioned, and even won Best Alternative Medicine Practitioner two years in a row for the city in which I practiced, which happens to have literally hundreds to thousands of licensed holistic health professionals. I say this not to brag or feed my ego, but to emphasize how I felt like I had succeeded in so many ways. It was so much effort, time, energy, and financial investment, as well as my own blood, sweat, and (many) tears that went into my practice and clients: all of that work on top of living with the countless ramifications of my TBI. To then be literally floored by fatigue and dysautonomia and no longer have that part of my identity and life, it felt like I had failed miserably. Here I had published a book, but felt like an imposter. Yes, many things had gotten better with all my efforts and fantastic healthcare team, but I still had and have countless daily challenges because of these conditions, and the fatigue had continually gotten worse no matter what I did or didn’t do. I felt like I had failed because things got worse overall, and I ended up applying for disability (which, years later, is still in process).
I felt like I failed because I didn’t “overcome” my challenges and because my overall health did not get better. I felt like I had failed my cherished clients because I could no longer be there for them. I felt like I had failed my industry because there would be even fewer practitioners in my area doing the specialized work I did. I felt like I failed my husband because I wouldn’t be able to contribute financially anymore. I felt like I failed society because I couldn’t work anymore (other than teach one virtual Yoga class per week). I felt like I had failed my body because it wasn’t functioning the way it used to and I could, as Jennifer said, “do a fraction of what I was capable of before my accident.” I felt like I failed my family and friends because I couldn’t attend gatherings or have the energy to stay in touch as well as I’d like. I felt like I’d failed everyone, including myself.
Like Jennifer said, “I know that I’m not [a failure], it just feels like it in this moment.” When I reflected further on her post, I realized that I’ve of course had countless minor failures in life, but the only things at which I have majorly failed is my ability to accept myself fully as I am, and to give myself the grace I need and deserve.
As a recovering perfectionist and over achiever, failing is not something with which I’m very comfortable. This TBI journey, among other things, has taught me to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Did I “fail” because I wasn’t able to fold the laundry today (or for several days)? No. I did what I could today, which didn’t include folding the laundry. Was folding the laundry that important? No. Did I fail because I could only leg press a fraction of my pre-TBI capability at the gym? No. I showed up and did what I could, even if it’s only one time a week now. That is not failing. Doing what you can with what you’ve got is not failing. Even if you can’t do something, respecting your limitations and practicing self-sustainability/self-care is the opposite of failing. Stepping out of the societal definitions and ideas of success and failure is essential, as is redefining what success and failure look like for you and your life.
As I mentioned, one of the things at which I’ve failed numerous times is my ability to accept myself and my current circumstances and give myself the grace I deserve. Accepting yourself and your current “normal” or reality is tough, especially when your reality isn’t what you thought it would, could, or should be. I know I can get hung up in depression and grief when I think about all that I can no longer do and all that I’ve lost. Feeling the feelings is crucial, and yet it’s easy to get stuck in and defined by them. Accepting yourself in the moment is not resignation. It doesn’t mean you’re “giving up,” but it does mean that you’re willing to face reality as it is, and not be attached what you think it should be. Acceptance requires you to remain proactive. It’s staying in the present while holding space for possibility. You and I can still make the most out of each day, despite and with respect for our very real challenges. What making the most of each day looks like will vary depending on each person and day, let alone any given minute of the day. Acceptance is recognizing and acknowledging the facts of the situation or circumstances and simply working with them, rather than vehemently fighting against them all the time. That fight is exhausting, and one we’re both bound to lose in the long run. Put your metaphorical sword down. It’s heavy, and you don’t need it for this. Save it for other fights. Allow yourself, instead, to make peace.
Give yourself grace. I’ve found it quite easy to extend grace to others, but difficult to grant myself. I am not perfect, nor are you, and neither of us ever will be. That’s the human condition. We won’t always be accepting of ourselves or our circumstances. When we have the awareness to recognize our lack of acceptance, we have the opportunity to take a breath, see scene for what it is, and decide what’s the best use of energy: either put the sword down again and accept, or fight a very futile, energy-draining battle. Give yourself compassion as you would to a beloved friend, family member, or pet. Do your best to silence the mental flow of self-judgement and -criticism and replace it with encouragement and tenderness. I write this for myself as much as you, as I need the reminder often.
Even when we do fail at anything, it teaches us something and helps us do better next time (or at least try). We learn from failure even more, in my opinion, than success. It took us how many falls to finally learn to walk? We learned more from falling than we initially did from those first steps. I remember in elementary school misspelling just one word on the very last spelling test of the year. Until then I had gotten them all right every single time. The word was “valley,” and I forgot the “e.” Because of that mistake (failure), do you think I remember how to correctly spell “valley” now? Absolutely! Failure is one of the greatest teachers. Don’t be afraid to fail and give yourself grace. Even when you do fail, you are not a failure. No matter how your brain injury limits you, those limitations are neither failures nor a choice. They are not character flaws. They do not make you a failure and never will. Read those last three sentences again and take them to heart. Do the best you can with what you’ve got, and that’s all anyone can ever ask of you, including yourself. You are enough.
PS: And big thanks to Jennifer Malocha for inspiring me with this topic, and for sharing your journey with me.