More Than A Title

My Journey to Self Appreciation By Sarah Strickler

Story Contains

I’ve been rethinking my definition of self-love lately. Maybe it’s partly due to insights my therapist brought to my mind, or maybe it’s because I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to accept myself to fully break down my barriers, love others with true compassion and embrace the joy in life. I’ve always been a true believer of working hard — really, really hard — and never relenting towards my goals. It’s worked for the most part. I’ve landed prestigious roles, been featured in museums, and pushed myself to grow as a professional. But, it has also come at a high price — my own confidence and belief in myself has been tightly wound up in the accolades and respect of other people.

Growing up, I had to learn to be responsible really quick. With a brother who needed a lot of attention for mental illness, and a single mother battling her own demons with depression, I needed to be strong. In 5th grade I learned that by working extremely hard, I could get noticed. It's a super vivid memory for me. In my class we had this little thing called weekly assignments. Every day, I’d come right home and work extensively on my assignments, making sure to finish them ahead of time and do a great job. I was the only 5th grader in my class to never have a piece of missing work. My teacher applauded me, saying that I had done an excellent job. I felt special, valued, and for the first time truly recognized. I now believe that this was a formative moment where I started to seek validation from my work.

"My own confidence and belief in myself has been tightly wound up in the accolades and respect of other people".

Now, to fully understand the other side of my influence you’ll have to look at my relationship with my dad. He was mainly absent, always comparing me to others, and valued his girlfriends and work over his kids. He was a devout scientologist, always saying he could “disown” us at any moment. He admired his girlfriends kids who were amazing at math and wanted to be doctors. So, I thought maybe if I could do the same…he would love me. This relationship ingrained in me a fear of abandonment and lack of confidence in myself.

In 7th grade I dreamed of being an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. I pushed myself into advanced science and math courses and spent every summer taking extra online math courses to “fix” my problems (because I was never “good” at math…to be honest it caused me intense anxiety). I hated the pressure of taking tests, and that all my knowledge was being hinged on this one account. Nonetheless, I kept pushing. I started taking as much math as possible, volunteered at local youth centers tutoring kids to get free tutoring for myself. In 10th grade I enrolled at calculus at Harvard in an online course, and was at the top of my entire school in terms of mathematics. Well…I “looked” like I was at the top of my class. It’s funny though, because everyone always put me on a pedestal for being so successful…but they never saw the pain and struggle behind this…the true reason I worked so hard.

The Harvard calculus class went miserably — I was driving myself into a grave. This is because alongside this extra course I was also doing advanced everything else, leading 4–5 clubs as president or Vice President, leading a coalition on community access to mental health resources (a coalition of all adults, doctors, and community members), serving on a congress advisory board, and volunteering at food banks, youth centers, autism centers, and many more. Every night (including weekends) I would leave school and go to volunteer and study. I never did those “typical” kid things. With all this stuff on my plate, I of course couldn’t manage the Harvard course and didn’t do too well…I actually almost failed the damn thing.

The rest of my high school career lasted in a similar way — pushing, working, and not relenting. I wanted to be the “best” and needed to be in order to succeed — being anything less was simply not enough. It felt good to be recognized, and work was my method of doing this.

Fast forward to college, I’m now in a competitive design program. I recently interned at a big space company...and had an interesting time. I thought that from all those struggles in high school that I had learned to put less on my plate, let go, and relax — boy was I wrong. I was put in charge of helping lead three different projects at NASA and quite honestly broke myself down — into little shreds and pieces, past the point of my own recognition.

In a matter of a couple months I managed to dive into a deep pit of depression, had constant panic attacks, stopped eating and taking care of myself, and even started to fantasize about ways that everything might just “end”. I had never experienced such a horrid, dark, dismal and painful set of thoughts in my life. I started isolating myself, stressed to the max. My body broke into a rash from all the pressure, and I would frequently break out crying at all times. I kept everything pretty hidden though. My mentors knew that I was working hard, but they couldn’t see all the pain I was holding onto.

I ended up having to leave the program a few weeks early because I became physically and mentally sick. Leaving this prestigious program was one of the hardest decisions to make — for weeks after I regretted it. I had done SO MUCH work, come so far and just couldn’t take it any longer. For the very first time in my life, I chose MYSELF over a title.

Flash forward a few months, and it’s easier to look back at those things and realize the pain embedded in my experiences. I tell people it went “great”, because it’s too hard to look back and realize how on the edge I was…about to lose it all — so buried in a pit of darkness. You often hear people compare depression and anxiety to feelings of drowning in the ocean — I could not relate more. The main image I conjure in my mind is treading rough waters, aware of what horrors exist below the surface — but not able to comprehend or fully see them. And, when looking for some sort of help or way “out”— only seeing blackness — an abyss of nothingness.

"For the very first time in my life, I chose myself over a title".

Talking to people now and reflecting, I realize a few things. I have way too high of exceptions for myself. These expectations can be a great thing, they can push me to grow and succeed — but they can make me unable to see when I have gotten in way the hell over my head. That position wasn’t right for me at this time in my life, and I stayed in it to prove something and try to keep preserving…even at the expense of my own health.

I still break into tears at random times, and feel a pit in my stomach thinking about the pain I was in…a pain so numbing the only escape was sleep and the thought of a permanent darkness. I am a firm believer of growing from suffering and acknowledging dark thoughts — thoughts of suicide, loss, regret, and denial — as important indicators that we need to change in some way. We need to think about why we are experiencing those things, rather than running away from them.

"I am a firm believer of growing from suffering and acknowledging dark thoughts — thoughts of suicide, loss, regret, and denial — as important indicators that we need to change in some way".

While I am feeling considerably better at this moment, the depression still persists. I have come to realize that I will continually have these low periods in my life, and it is about finding ways to express myself. I have started going to therapy on a weekly basis, practicing inner child work, and doing morning journals. The journals often look like scribbles, where I don’t even really use words to express myself — I use abstract lines and shapes to represent my thoughts. This practice has been extremely healing, and has given me a dedicated period of time to work through any  fears I am experiencing. When I know I have a set period in the day to examine my challenges, I spend less time worrying and doubting myself.

Abstract morning journals | Credit: Sarah Strickler

I’ve been rethinking my definition of self-love lately. Maybe it’s partly due to insights my therapist brought to my mind, or maybe it’s because I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to accept myself to fully break down my barriers, love others with true compassion and embrace the joy in life. I’ve always been a true believer of working hard — really, really hard — and never relenting towards my goals. It’s worked for the most part. I’ve landed prestigious roles, been featured in museums, and pushed myself to grow as a professional. But, it has also come at a high price — my own confidence and belief in myself has been tightly wound up in the accolades and respect of other people.

Growing up, I had to learn to be responsible really quick. With a brother who needed a lot of attention for mental illness, and a single mother battling her own demons with depression, I needed to be strong. In 5th grade I learned that by working extremely hard, I could get noticed. It's a super vivid memory for me. In my class we had this little thing called weekly assignments. Every day, I’d come right home and work extensively on my assignments, making sure to finish them ahead of time and do a great job. I was the only 5th grader in my class to never have a piece of missing work. My teacher applauded me, saying that I had done an excellent job. I felt special, valued, and for the first time truly recognized. I now believe that this was a formative moment where I started to seek validation from my work.

"My own confidence and belief in myself has been tightly wound up in the accolades and respect of other people".

Now, to fully understand the other side of my influence you’ll have to look at my relationship with my dad. He was mainly absent, always comparing me to others, and valued his girlfriends and work over his kids. He was a devout scientologist, always saying he could “disown” us at any moment. He admired his girlfriends kids who were amazing at math and wanted to be doctors. So, I thought maybe if I could do the same…he would love me. This relationship ingrained in me a fear of abandonment and lack of confidence in myself.

In 7th grade I dreamed of being an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. I pushed myself into advanced science and math courses and spent every summer taking extra online math courses to “fix” my problems (because I was never “good” at math…to be honest it caused me intense anxiety). I hated the pressure of taking tests, and that all my knowledge was being hinged on this one account. Nonetheless, I kept pushing. I started taking as much math as possible, volunteered at local youth centers tutoring kids to get free tutoring for myself. In 10th grade I enrolled at calculus at Harvard in an online course, and was at the top of my entire school in terms of mathematics. Well…I “looked” like I was at the top of my class. It’s funny though, because everyone always put me on a pedestal for being so successful…but they never saw the pain and struggle behind this…the true reason I worked so hard.

The Harvard calculus class went miserably — I was driving myself into a grave. This is because alongside this extra course I was also doing advanced everything else, leading 4–5 clubs as president or Vice President, leading a coalition on community access to mental health resources (a coalition of all adults, doctors, and community members), serving on a congress advisory board, and volunteering at food banks, youth centers, autism centers, and many more. Every night (including weekends) I would leave school and go to volunteer and study. I never did those “typical” kid things. With all this stuff on my plate, I of course couldn’t manage the Harvard course and didn’t do too well…I actually almost failed the damn thing.

The rest of my high school career lasted in a similar way — pushing, working, and not relenting. I wanted to be the “best” and needed to be in order to succeed — being anything less was simply not enough. It felt good to be recognized, and work was my method of doing this.

Fast forward to college, I’m now in a competitive design program. I recently interned at a big space company...and had an interesting time. I thought that from all those struggles in high school that I had learned to put less on my plate, let go, and relax — boy was I wrong. I was put in charge of helping lead three different projects at NASA and quite honestly broke myself down — into little shreds and pieces, past the point of my own recognition.

In a matter of a couple months I managed to dive into a deep pit of depression, had constant panic attacks, stopped eating and taking care of myself, and even started to fantasize about ways that everything might just “end”. I had never experienced such a horrid, dark, dismal and painful set of thoughts in my life. I started isolating myself, stressed to the max. My body broke into a rash from all the pressure, and I would frequently break out crying at all times. I kept everything pretty hidden though. My mentors knew that I was working hard, but they couldn’t see all the pain I was holding onto.

I ended up having to leave the program a few weeks early because I became physically and mentally sick. Leaving this prestigious program was one of the hardest decisions to make — for weeks after I regretted it. I had done SO MUCH work, come so far and just couldn’t take it any longer. For the very first time in my life, I chose MYSELF over a title.

Flash forward a few months, and it’s easier to look back at those things and realize the pain embedded in my experiences. I tell people it went “great”, because it’s too hard to look back and realize how on the edge I was…about to lose it all — so buried in a pit of darkness. You often hear people compare depression and anxiety to feelings of drowning in the ocean — I could not relate more. The main image I conjure in my mind is treading rough waters, aware of what horrors exist below the surface — but not able to comprehend or fully see them. And, when looking for some sort of help or way “out”— only seeing blackness — an abyss of nothingness.

"For the very first time in my life, I chose myself over a title".

Talking to people now and reflecting, I realize a few things. I have way too high of exceptions for myself. These expectations can be a great thing, they can push me to grow and succeed — but they can make me unable to see when I have gotten in way the hell over my head. That position wasn’t right for me at this time in my life, and I stayed in it to prove something and try to keep preserving…even at the expense of my own health.

I still break into tears at random times, and feel a pit in my stomach thinking about the pain I was in…a pain so numbing the only escape was sleep and the thought of a permanent darkness. I am a firm believer of growing from suffering and acknowledging dark thoughts — thoughts of suicide, loss, regret, and denial — as important indicators that we need to change in some way. We need to think about why we are experiencing those things, rather than running away from them.

"I am a firm believer of growing from suffering and acknowledging dark thoughts — thoughts of suicide, loss, regret, and denial — as important indicators that we need to change in some way".

While I am feeling considerably better at this moment, the depression still persists. I have come to realize that I will continually have these low periods in my life, and it is about finding ways to express myself. I have started going to therapy on a weekly basis, practicing inner child work, and doing morning journals. The journals often look like scribbles, where I don’t even really use words to express myself — I use abstract lines and shapes to represent my thoughts. This practice has been extremely healing, and has given me a dedicated period of time to work through any  fears I am experiencing. When I know I have a set period in the day to examine my challenges, I spend less time worrying and doubting myself.

Abstract morning journals | Credit: Sarah Strickler

Sarah Strickler

Interaction designer, mental health advocate, tea + coffee enthusiast.

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